LEXINGTON, Ky.— Ashton Hagans knows what to expect when Kentucky takes the court at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night.
“It’s going to be a packed house, so we’ve just got to go out there, stay with each other and just fight,” Hagans said.
The second-ranked Wildcats will take on top-ranked Michigan State in the second game of a doubleheader in the State Farm Champions Classic. No. 3 Kansas and fourth-ranked Duke will play in the opener at 7 p.m.
Hagans and the Wildcats played at Madison Square Garden nearly a year ago, dropping an 84-83 setback to Seton Hall in overtime. Like Hagans, guard Immanuel Quickley played in Kentucky’s 118-84 loss to Duke in Indianapolis and knows what it will take to produce a better showing this season against the Spartans.
“It’s going to be a lot of nerves (and) it’s going to be high energy,” he said. “A high-energy game to start the game and to finish. Guys are just going to have a lot of nerves in general just because it’s a sold-out arena at Madison Square Garden. You just try to tell them to control their nerves and to have fun. Not everybody else gets to play in a game like that.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari “knew we’d have a tough time with Duke last year.”
I didn’t know it’d be (by) 50, but I thought it would be tough,” he said. “So, you just don’t know. I didn’t know when we beat Duke (in 2015) that we were nearly good enough to beat Duke. Which we did. Or Kansas (in 2014) when we beat them like we did. You don’t know walking into these games because they’re so early.”
The Wildcats defeated Georgetown College and Kentucky State in their two exhibition games and Quickley said both games were a learning experience, although each game was a learning experience.
“We learned that we have to play,” Quickley said. “We played well in stretches, but in order to beat a good team like Michigan State we’re going to have to put those stretches a little bit longer. You know, play great for a little bit longer stretches in order to beat a team like Michigan State.”
Hagans said the Wildcats will need solid production from past players EJ Montgomery and Kahlil Whitney to be successful against the Spartans.
“We’re going to need those two guys for this team to be at our best,” Hagans said.
Calipari said Montgomery is still searching for a identity and finding his place along the front court.
“He’s just gotta get better,” he said. “I mean, I’ve had so many players go through, ‘I’m going to be able to do this this way,’ and then you figure out (you can’t). Great. Learn them in those kinds of settings. Gotta get in better shape. Until you do that and until you conquer yourself in some different areas, it’s hard to change anything else. Think about rebounding and blocking shots and nothing else. Just do those two things. And then all of a sudden you start changing.”
Although the front court is a concern, Quickley said the Wildcats will be ready.
“As a team, well as veterans, we understand what this game is like going into it,” Quickley said. “The nerves and the jitters that we had last year that we probably won’t have this year just knowing what the game is going to be like. The energy, everybody screaming and hollering and things like that. I think we’ll be ready for this game.”
Gametracker: Kentucky vs. Michigan State, Tuesday, 9:30 p.m. TV/Radio: ESPN, UK Radio Network.