1. Unless you’ve been living under a rock all off-season, you know the biggest story for the Michigan State Spartans is the return of senior point guard Cassius Winston. Standing at 6’1″ and 185 pounds, Winston is the most proven returning player in the country. Fresh off a junior season in which he averaged 18.8 points, 7.5 assists, and one steal per game, the Detroit native has already been named a unanimous selection for Preseason All-American. Last season, he shot 84% from the free throw line, as well as nearly 40% from the three point line. While Kentucky returns their own experienced point guard in reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year, Ashton Hagans, going up against a player like Winston is a whole different animal. Hagans will have his hands full from the jump and Kentucky can’t afford for him to pick up early cheap fouls on hand checks. In the Elite 8 of last year’s NCAA Tournament, Winston went head to head with Duke’s Tre Jones, who was known as one of the better perimeter defenders in the country. Not only did Michigan State knock off Duke, but Winston finished with 20 points, 10 assists, and 4 steals. The senior has started a total of 78 games through his first three seasons at Michigan State, so the bright lights and big game atmosphere tonight won’t be a new experience as it often is with a lot of Kentucky players this early in the year.
2. While Kentucky fans have been waiting to hear more news on Nick Richards’ ankle injury for the past week, Michigan State has been dealing with quite the injury bug of their own. The most notable of injuries is senior shooting guard Joshua Langford had a prior foot injury become re-aggravated, knocking him out until at least January, when he’ll be further evaluated. Langford missed time last season with this injury, but he was set to be a huge piece of the returning backcourt for Tom Izzo. The Huntsville, Alabama native averaged 15 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 2.3 assists, while shooting 40.3% from deep and 83.9% from the charity stripe. With Langford out for sure for tonight’s game, freshman guard Rocket Watts will start in his place. Watts was a four-star and top-40 recruit coming out of high school. On top of Langford’s injury, sophomore forward Thomas Kithier suffered a broken nose in practice last week, so he’ll be wearing a mask, but is still expected to start at the four for the Spartans. Additionally, senior wing Kyle Ahrens is apparently nursing a high-ankle sprain that occurred during one of Michigan State’s exhibition games. Ahrens is expected to be available, although how much he’ll be able to play will probably be a game-time decision.
3. With or without Nick Richards, we all know that Kentucky’s front court is extremely thin and unproven. The most experienced individual is Nate Sestina, who hasn’t even played a regular season game in a Kentucky uniform yet. What would seem like a huge disadvantage for the Cats against the top team in the nation, may be alleviated a bit by the lack of proven big men for Michigan State as well. Tom Izzo has plenty of options, but quality vs quantity could be an issue early in the year. With Marquette transfer Joey Hauser still waiting to be granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA, the Spartans will be left starting 6’8″ Thomas Kithier and 6’8″- 245 pound Xavier Tillman as their two big men. Tillman is their best returning front court player, playing more than 24 minutes per game last year as a sophomore, while averaging 10 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks per contest. Kithier played just 5.8 minutes per game last year, so his stats are sparse. Other potential contributing big men are 6’11” sophomore Marcus Bingham Jr., who played 3.5 minutes a game last season, freshman Julius Marble who was a three-star recruit at 6’8″, and 6’7″ freshman four-star recruit Malik Hall. It will be a bit of a logjam to see who garners the most minutes out of all these bigs, but luckily for Kentucky, none of them have proven to be game changers yet. If Kentucky can score in the paint effectively, it could be an equalizer in this game.
4. Kentucky played their two exhibition games against smaller in-state schools, beating Georgetown and Kentucky State in preparation for the season opener. Meanwhile, up in East Lansing, Michigan State played a “secret scrimmage”, meaning no fans, no tv broadcast, and mostly no media inside the arena, against Gonzaga, as well as an exhibition against in-state foe Albion College. The Spartans apparently didn’t look great against Gonzaga, losing the game 103-87. Take that result with a grain of salt, as it can’t be easy to get a competitive edge on for a game that is a glorified practice with no atmosphere in the arena. Cassius Winston had 20 points and 7 assists against Gonzaga, as well as 16 points, 9 assists, and 4 steals in MSU’s 85-50 win over Albion College. Tillman had 6 points and 10 boards against the Zags, but followed it up with a dominant performance against Albion, finishing with 19 points on 8 of 12 shooting, including 2 of 4 from three, 8 rebounds, and 3 steals. Sophomore wing chipped in 13 points against Gonzaga, while Rocket Watts had 12 of his own.
5. Michigan State opened up as a 2-point favorite over Kentucky for tonight’s game, but as of early this morning it had been bet up to a 3 point spread. In all honesty, Kentucky wasn’t overwhelmingly impressive in their exhibition games and a starter is nursing an ankle injury, so the spread probably should’ve been set a little higher than it opened. The University of Kentucky sits at 13-11 all time vs Michigan State, but the Cats are just 2-4 against the Spartans since 2000. John Calipari has split his meetings with Tom Izzo since arriving at UK at 1-1, with both match ups being in the Champions Classic. By the way, Kansas is a two-point favorite over Duke in the early game of tonight’s doubleheader. While rankings mean next to nothing at this point in the season, it really is awesome to see 1 vs 2 and 3 vs 4 on opening night all on the same court.
Go Cats. Beat Spartans.