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The Champions Classic kept us all up past bedtime, but it was worth it to see the Cats steal that No. 1 ranking from Michigan State. Here are the KSR staff’s picks for the Best Of and the Worst Of that first game of the season.
Best: Kentucky’s defense is elite
Against the top-ranked team in all of college basketball, Kentucky proved its status as an elite defensive group from top to bottom.
On the perimeter, SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year Ashton Hagans led the way, though Tyrese Maxey and Immanuel Quickley both proved to be defensive pests in their own right. All three picked up a steal on the night.
Down low, all three of EJ Montgomery, Nick Richards, and Nate Sestina had slight miscues, but they recovered enough to contest shots and fight for loose balls time and time again.
National Player of the Year contender Cassius Winston managed 21 points, but he was held to just 5-12 shooting and turned the ball over a game-high four times. Without an elite 10-of-11 finish from the free throw line, we’re likely leaving the game talking about a (mostly) shutdown performance of the senior superstar.
As a team, Kentucky held Michigan State to just 40% shooting and forced 16 turnovers on the day, including four steals. If they looked this good on day one of the regular season against the top-ranked in the nation, what will we see when March Madness rolls around?
It’s a scary thought.
– Jack Pilgrim
Worst: Fouls, fouls, and more fouls
In a game between the top two teams in college basketball, the referees couldn’t help but interrupt gameplay with foul calls on what seemed to be every possession.
In a combined 42 foul calls in 40 minutes of gameplay, we saw a whopping 50 total free throws taken between both teams.
Both teams converted from the charity stripe, as Kentucky finished the evening 25-32 (78.1%), while Michigan State managed 13-18 (72.2%) overall. But at the end of the day, the head-scratching game delays due to foul calls time and time again ruined the flow of the game and took away from the highly-anticipated matchup.
Let the kids play.
– Jack Pilgrim
Best: Tyrese Maxey’s moxie
By now, you’ve ready plenty about Tyrese Maxey’s big night. The freshman came off the bench to score 26 points, the most by a Kentucky freshman in their debut, and he did it in thrilling fashion. All three of Maxey’s threes came from way behind the three-point line, the third putting Kentucky up by five with a minute left. He was absolutely clutch, bringing John Wall to his feet and earning kudos from several other NBA stars on Twitter:
Maxey is nice tho
— Miles Bridges (@MilesBridges) November 6, 2019
Maxey Cold ?
— Hamidou Diallo (@hamidoudiallo) November 6, 2019
@TyreseMaxey that’s how you feeling ??????
— Malik Monk (@AhmadMonk) November 6, 2019
Even Michigan State alum Draymond Green and former Louisville star Donovan Mitchell gave Maxey props:
I’m salty… Maxey tough though!!
— Draymond Green (@Money23Green) November 6, 2019
Aye I know this is against the rules card nation but that kid Maxey fromUK is tough! Salute youngin??
— Donovan Mitchell (@spidadmitchell) November 6, 2019
Maxey received a hero’s welcome in the locker room after all was said and done:
— Kentucky Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) November 6, 2019
– Tyler Thompson
Worst: Ashton Hagans finishing at the rim
Hagans was brilliant in slowing down Cassius Winston and even showed off his improved jump shot; however, he struggled to finish at the rim, missing way too many layups. John Calipari said Hagans is battling a leg injury and played through the pain, so I’ll give him a pass.
– Tyler Thompson
Best: Celebrities in The Garden
A lengthy list of celebrities graced the floor of Madison Square Garden, including a couple of former Wildcats. John Wall and Terrence Jones sat courtside as Wall did his best Spike Lee impression, hyping up his ‘Cats after every big shot and dressing as loudly as possible (except the team that Wall was rooting for actually knows how to win). He was hard to miss at the bottom of your television screen sporting a brightly colored hoodie.
— Tyler Thompson (@MrsTylerKSR) November 6, 2019
And of course, Cal was in the building.
— John Calipari (@UKCoachCalipari) November 6, 2019
Wall was also seen dapping up a big-time Kentucky recruiting prospect, Jonathan Kuminga (via @BigBlueDrew33). Another couple of basketball figures spotted courtside were Kevin Durant and, for some reason, former Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau. Not sure if Thibodeau was scouting the talent for his next coaching job (ha!) or just hanging around with his good buddy Kevin Durant (?). Also, here’s Durant talking to Golden State Warriors General Manager Bob Myers, probably laughing directly in the face of his former employer/current manager of a funny-looking Warriors franchise.
– Zack Geoghegan
Worst: Staying up until 12:15 a.m.
Everyone wish Drew luck, as he’s still probably at MSG the moment you read this. The projected 9:30 p.m. start time was laughable from the beginning. We’ve been through this before. We know a 30-minute delay is customary for these double-headers. I guess it’s just a part of being the best college basketball program of all time *shrugs shoulders*.
But how is anyone supposed to fall asleep at such a late hour when I still haven’t stopped watching the replay of that Maxey three? A win sure does make it worth it, though.
– Zack Geoghegan
Best: Nate Sestina
For the second year in a row, Kentucky’s grad transfer came to the Champions Classic ready to compete. If Nate Sestina was nervous, he didn’t show it; if Calipari was worried about Sestina’s ability to compete with the big dogs, he didn’t let that stop him. Sestina played 31 of the game’s 40 minutes, and he collected seven points (3-for-4 from the field), six rebounds, two assists and a block. He was 1-for-2 from the three-point line. The one he hit couldn’t have come at a better time, nor could he have gotten more excited after it fell through the net.
His shots were smooth, his inbound passes were strong and his leadership was clear. The team had a different intensity while he was on the court, and his celebrations after a big shot re-invigorated his fellow Wildcats (including one former Cat).
Kentucky is rolling and John Wall is loving it ? pic.twitter.com/J7ZrbSzyfc
— ESPN (@espn) November 6, 2019
Sestina was also the Cat to put the exclamation mark on an exciting, primetime game with his final bucket of the game: a dunk. With just 10.5 seconds remaining in the game, Sestina didn’t let up, and he ensured the Cats came away with the win.
– Maggie Davis
It got better as the game progressed, but there were periods of time where Kentucky really struggled to pull in rebounds on either side of the ball. The bright side? UK and Michigan State’s rebounding numbers were identical at halftime (19 each) and at the end of the game (30). The Wildcats had five offensive rebounds and 25 defensive boards, while the Spartans had seven offensive and 23 defensive.
EJ Montgomery grabbed just two boards, while Nick Richards had four and Nate Sestina had two. Immanuel Quickley and Tyrese Maxey had five apiece, while Khalil Whitney added four of his own.
– Maggie Davis
I appreciate the concerns about sleeping patterns, Zack; matter of fact, the clock says 4:33 a.m. as I begin to write this. But who needs sleep when JUNIOR NICK RICHARDS shows up and plays well on one leg??? Maxey deserves every bit of the celebration, John Wall and all the celebrities made the game feel like an elite event, but the best thing I saw in Madison Square Garden was one-legged Nick Richards giving 25 minutes of solid basketball in a game that I believed would be won or lost inside. We’re not even two weeks removed from Richards writhing in pain from that awful basketball injury, the ankle roll by way of landing on someone else’s foot, and he gave 25 minutes against the preseason No. 1 team. To quote Coach Cal, “There’s no way he should’ve played 25 minutes,” yet he did and he did it well.
Much of the fan base has been hard on Richards for being a McDonald’s All-American that hasn’t exactly panned out to McDonald’s All-American expectations in his first two years, but he laced them up with a bad ankle and did his job against Michigan State’s big man, who many, myself included, thought would sway the outcome the other direction. Great game by Nick.
– Drew Franklin, former President of the Sophomore Nick Richards fan club, now President of the Junior Nick Richards Fan Club
Worst: The Duke fan next to me
If you have a weak stomach, scroll on down. If you want to know about the disgusting woman next to me, let me tell you about the sloppy drunk woman I had the pleasure of sitting by. When she wasn’t spilling her beer on my fiancee, she was blowing her nose directly into her bare hands and then wiping it onto her thigh. On occasion we would get a nice string of mucus from kneecap to raised hand, only for her to grab the chain of mucus with her other hand, while also holding what little beer she hadn’t spilled out. I know this is extremely disgusting and you’re probably wondering why I would include it in the game recap, but this post is called Best and Worst and Snot Pants is the worst thing I saw in Madison Square Garden.
Another Best: Big Blue Nation
I’m not surprised, not even a little bit, but Big Blue Nation showed out again, as it always does. From the weekend encounters in Times Square to the pregame party at Jack Demsey’s through the final whistle when the victory was in hand, Kentucky fans brought the energy, the passion and that BBN camaraderie that makes the fan base so special. The other three schools had plenty of their own audience, but Kentucky fans continue to rule whatever city hosts the Cats.
Happy Wednesday. Cats are 1-0.