Tom Izzo and the Spartans face the Kentucky Wildcats on Nov. 12. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Were it not for the Duke-Kansas game scheduled right after it, Michigan State-Kentucky would be, without question, the non-conference matchup college basketball fans are most looking forward to in the first few weeks of the 2013-14 season. The Spartans and Wildcats, two likely preseason top-five teams, won’t face off in the Champions Classic Double Header until Nov. 12, but Michigan State coach Tom Izzo already has his team focused on the matchup: “We are working to kick Kentucky’s [butt].”
Izzo yelled those words at the Spartans' Midnight Madness Event on September 27, according to a student in attendance. In today’s fast-moving information age, the comment naturally made its way to Kentucky head coach John Calipari, who has since responded with two verbal jabs. The first came last week on Kentucky sports radio, when Calipari, after referencing Izzo’s quote, said teams don’t just want to beat Kentucky for sheer competitive purposes. “It’s not just Kentucky they want to beat, it’s you, because you got the scholarship offer they wanted.”
Calipari followed up Monday at Kentucky’s tipoff luncheon. Ask Wildcats players when any one of their marquee games – including the three Calipari mentions: Florida, North Carolina and Louisville – are scheduled, and they won’t know, according to Calipari. Michigan State players, meanwhile, have their game against Kentucky circled on the calendar; Izzo’s comment makes that point clear. In fact, “everyone” on Kentucky’s schedule knows when their game against the Wildcats is. That’s part of what playing for Kentucky entails, Calipari said, and it’s a great individual challenge for the Wildcats.
And let me say this about this team: Our third game is against Michigan State. That’s going to be hard. They’re already a veteran team. They’ve already made comments that their practices are about beating Kentucky. But I say this to you: If I ask my team when we play Florida, they’re not going to know. North Caorlina, (they don’t know). I’m going to do it today, because as I thought about it, they don’t know. You think they know when we’re playing Louisville? They don’t know. They want to know if there is a meal tonight. They don’t know. Now, I ask you this: Does everyone on our schedule know when they’re playing Kentucky? Oh, they know. And it’s on their locker, it’s on their ceiling of their bedroom. You’ve got to deal with that. That’s part of being at Kentucky. You know what I tell them? Not only do they want to beat Kentucky, they want to beat you as individual player. You want to know why? They wanted that scholarship that you got and they want to prove they’re better than you, not just their team is better than Kentucky. So that’s the challenge that we have. But would you want it any other way? I don’t. Bring it. Let’s go – as long as I’ve got a good team. (Laughter). Bring it, let’s go.
Leave it to Calipari, the best recruiter in college basketball, to take Izzo’s dig and turn it into an endorsement for Kentucky basketball. I would say that I’m surprised, but this is not the first semi-veiled program sales pitch Calipari has delivered to the public. Remember the “I’m spending the majority of my time answering questions from NBA teams” tweet?
If you needed another reason to tune in on the night of Nov. 12 for (at least) the first matchup of the Champions Classic, Calipari and Izzo just provided it.