By Dr. John Huang
It’s been nearly a full year since Kentucky suffered that humiliating 118-84 beat down at the hands of Duke. Like many of you, it still lingers in the deep dark recesses of my mind. I try to forget, but the memory persists. Perhaps that’s why I’m headed up to New York next week with fairly low expectations. In a way, it’s a pretty good defense mechanism of sorts. I know that whatever happens this year, I won’t be permanently scarred.
Enough of these opening act exhibition games—it’s time for the MAIN EVENT!
The official start to the college basketball season is always cause for excitement. This year’s tip-off—at the State Farm Champions Classic—will be even more special for UK fans. Not only will the Wildcats start their journey towards Championship #9 in the Big Apple, but they’ll do it against the top-ranked team in the nation.
Number one versus number two
Number one-ranked Michigan St. versus number two-ranked Kentucky at Madison Square Garden—it doesn’t get any better than that. But it’ll be more than just an early-season clash between two behemoths of the hardwood, more than just a chance for two massive coaching egos to strut their stuff on national TV, more than just bragging rights for both Sparty and BBN.
No, the winner of this tilt will have a definite heads up on the competition when it comes to postseason seeding in March. After factoring in all the metrics regarding RPIs, and strength of schedules, and KenPom, and Sagarin, and the like—there’s a darned good chance the winner of this head-to-head competition will end up with the easiest road to the Final Four.
Winner gets easiest Road to the Final Four
Just take a quick look at this year’s NCAA tournament regional sites. The East regional will be held March 27, 29 in New York; the South regional will be March 27, 29 in Houston; the West regional will be March 26, 28 in Los Angeles; and the Midwest regional will be—drumroll please—March 26, 28 in Indianapolis.
Guess where both Kentucky and Michigan State would love to end up. If both are top-seeded teams prior to the start of the tournament—as many experts agree they will be—then only one of them will have a chance to play a scant 200 or so miles from home in Indy.
Spartans are loaded
It won’t be easy for Kentucky to pull off the upset next Tuesday night. Michigan State was the overwhelming number one choice in the AP preseason poll for the first time in program history. The Spartans won 32 games last year and reached Coach Tom Izzo’s eighth Final Four before falling to Texas Tech. They return star Cassius Winston together with fellow starters Xavier Tillman and Aaron Henry from that fabulous run. In addition, they’ll get senior Joshua Langford back from a foot injury, but—fortunately for Kentucky—not until sometime in January.
The Wildcats are young again this year, but not quite as inexperienced as in previous campaigns. Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley, EJ Montgomery, and Nick Richards all return, all four of them having played significant minutes through their Elite Eight run last year.
Are Wildcats tough enough
The bigger question is whether Kentucky will be able to handle Michigan St.’s brute strength. Coach John Calipari said at UK Media Day that his biggest question mark this year is his team’s toughness. Izzo’s teams traditionally like to push you around, to bully you, to muck things up. I don’t see things being any different this time around. How will Kentucky respond, especially if big man Richards remains sidelined with an ankle sprain?
Kentucky’s 83-51 victory over Kentucky State in their final exhibition game of the season sent some mixed signals. The 32-point victory was easy enough, but consider the competition. The Thorobreds elected to play a passive 2-3 zone all evening allowing the Wildcats to both drive and bomb at will. The new and improved Immanuel Quickley led all scorers with 17 points. Freshman Khalil Whitney had a nice bounce back game chipping in 15 as Kentucky shot nearly 50% from the field.
Coach John Calipari has said on many occasions that he’s playing all these games during the regular season solely to get his team ready for the march to Atlanta. I know it’s early on, but this upcoming Spartan showdown should serve as a good early-season barometer for the team’s toughness quotient. A strong showing out of the gate in November—either with or without Nick Richards—bodes well for a fantastic finish come March.
I’m not ready to stumble this year, are you? See you in New York!
Dr. John Huang is a regular columnist for Nolan Group Media. Portions of this posting appeared in the October 30 print editions of Nolan Group Media Publications.