Maxey flourishes under the spotlight
BY Bill Crockett
(NEW YORK, Ny.) — When the bright lights come on for real, college basketball’s elite players either embrace the challenge and bask in the glare, or wilt under the scrutiny and pressure—cue the Tyrese Maxey highlight reel. Billed as a heavyweight slugfest, No. 2. Kentucky toppled No. 1 Michigan State 69-62 during Tuesday’s nightcap of the State Farm Champions Classic in New York. UK’s suffocating defense handcuffed the Spartans, and with a performance for the ages, freshman Tyrese Maxey forever etched his name in Madison Square Garden lore.
Maxey savored the big city spotlight and delivered the knockout punch—a deep three-point dagger—without hesitation. “I shoot that shot a thousand times,” Maxey said afterwards. “I shot it a thousand times in high school, I shot it a thousand times this summer.” Maxey attacked the rim with reckless abandon and seemingly had ice water in his veins. UK’s star freshman drilled multiple clutchshots and finished with a team-high 26-points and 5 rebounds.
Although the Wildcats scored 69-points against top-ranked Michigan State, Calipari expressed concern, and as odd as it may sound, dissatisfaction. “We gotta figure out how we play offensively because I didn’t like what we did offensively,” Calipari asserted. “I’d like to do some dribble-drive stuff, where you have these perimeter guys who can also shoot.” It’s no secret that Kentucky isn’t a post-dominant team, but the ‘Cats do excel in transition and off the bounce.
Both Nick Richards and point guard Ashton Hagans played through nagging injuries. Richards did his best Willis Reed impersonation and played 25 minutes on a gimpy ankle. Hagans suffered a muscle strain during the last exhibition game, but Calipari confirmed that an MRI revealed no significant damage. Questioned about his ankle, Richards acknowledged, “I might have felt a little shaky at the beginning, but after going up and down and getting into the rhythm of the game, it started to feel a little better.”
Richards held his ground and jockeyed for position against Michigan State’s rugged frontcourt. UK’s big man put to rest—for the time being—questions about his physicality and mental toughness. Richards’ renewed dedication on defense paid huge dividends as he provided valuable rim protection and altered shots. With EJ Montgomery still struggling, Richards established a crucial low-post presence and patrolled the paint in a physical game—welcome back Nick.
Uncharacteristically, Tom Izzo’s squad showed very little patience on offense and All-American guard Cassius Winston appeared frustrated at times. Credit the ‘Cats constant on-ball pressure and Richards’ tough-minded play down low. Teamed with Immanuel Quickley, Hagans and Maxey disrupted the Spartans’ offense and forced 16 turnovers. “We stayed on Winston on pick and rolls and put the pit bull (Hagans) on him,” Maxey explained. “Hagans did what he does.”
Although Tyrese Maxey didn’t start the game, he definitely finished it. Could the ‘Cats have picked a better venue than the “Mecca” of basketball to stake their claim as the No. 1 team in the country? All things considered, Maxey might be the only player who even played near his potential. What happens when EJ Montgomery regains his confidence and Johnny Juzang improves on the defensive end of the floor? Did I mention Nick Richards and Ashton Hagans at full strength?
Fast forward to March and picture this team firing on all cylinders. They’ve proven without a doubt that the bright lights of the big city doesn’t intimidate them. That’s a pretty scary scenario for the rest of college basketball. Perhaps John Calipari said it best when he concluded his “State of the Union” address at Big Blue Madness in October. “It’s on!” Enjoy the ride as the ‘Cats seek an elusive ninth banner this season.