CHICAGO -- This game was billed as a battle of experience versus youth, but more importantly it was No. 1 against No. 2: Kentucky against Michigan State. From the first tip of the first game of Tuesday night’s Champions Classic doubleheader, it was clear the latter would prevail. While Michigan State won 78-74, Kentucky looked very far along for a team full of freshmen.
The Spartans raced out to a 10-0 lead, stunning the Wildcats with four steals and two dunks, including a thunderous alley-oop dunk from junior Branden Dawson. The Wildcats looked disjointed on offense and unorganized on defense.
It was fair to expect the Wildcats to be flustered by the spotlight of a massive non-conference event, but who would have predicted they would not score before the first media timeout? Or that Kentucky coach John Calipari would need to call timeout less than two-and-a-half minutes into the game to settle down his team?
Meanwhile, Michigan State looked exactly as one might expect an experienced Final Four contender to look in its first game: Ready. The Spartans were tenacious on defense, not allowing the Wildcats to penetrate into the lane, and exploited Kentucky’s spotty transition defense with several easy buckets. At the 9:25 mark, after Big Ten preseason player of the year Gary Harris converted six points in a 90-second stretch on a dunk, two-point jumper and a three, Michigan State had opened up a 23-12 lead.
Michigan State rolled into the half with a 44-32 advantage, but there was at least one positive takeaway for Kentucky in the first half, as freshman James Young finished with 15 points in 16 minutes. He was the Wildcats’ only source of consistent offense.
After Adreian Payne drilled a three at the 4:39 mark, the Wildcats seemed to find a groove on offense, with Young converting seven points over the final three minutes. Kentucky went into the locker room with a sizable, but not insurmountable, hill to climb in the second half. Despite a woeful start, the Wildcats had managed to hang in.
Kentucky narrowed the deficit to six early in the second half when point guard Andrew Harrison – who drew plenty of negative Twitter attention for what many called a “bad attitude” on the court – hit a jumper just under the 18-minute mark. The Wildcats seemed to have a new energy about them after the break, particularly star freshman Julius Randle. In the second 20 minutes, Randle attacked the way he had in the first two games of the season, when he averaged 22.5 points and 14.5 rebounds. Whereas Michigan State controlled momentum over the first 20 minutes, Kentucky began the second period matching the Spartans step-for-step. It felt like a new game.
Though Michigan State continued to hold Kentucky at bay over the first 10 minutes, one could sense the Wildcats would have an opportunity to pull back within striking distance. What looked like a possible blowout in the first-half had turned into a thrilling, hotly contested, every-inch-counts kind of game.
Far be it from the Spartans, experienced and composed, to fold under pressure. Just when it looked like Kentucky was on the verge of taking the lead, Michigan State got two crucial plays from its backcourt. Senior Keith Appling drilled a three at the 4:30 mark to put the Spartans ahead by three, which was followed by a steal and a basket from Harris. The game fell out of reach for Kentucky when, after a Michigan State timeout with under 30 seconds remaining, junior Branden Dawson made a tip-in and freshman James Young missed a three. Fans of the Big Blue Nation won’t leave Chicago happy with the result, but it’s hard not to come away impressed with how well Kentucky acquitted itself in its first big game of the season. Michigan State is a good team, perhaps better than any the Wildcats will face all season. That Kentucky was able to bounce back from an early deficit and nearly knock off Izzo’s team is a testament to this team’s toughness. Kentucky has four months to grow and mature, and come tournament time, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them not just challenge, but also beat experienced and talented teams like Michigan State.