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Kentucky Knocked Off The No. 1 Team in the Country – And Didn’t Play Close to Their Best Game

© Brad Penner | USATSI

Forgive me for the very cliché opening sentence, but what a difference a year can make.

A season ago Kentucky opened up in the Champions Classic, and well, you know how things went. The loss to Duke on opening night wasn’t just a loss, but so much more. It made Kentucky fans (understandably) question everything. The present. The future. Recruiting. Whether a season was lost before it even began.


Fast-forward to Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden and things were so, so different for any Kentucky fan waking up today. A year after the debacle against Duke, Kentucky toppled the No. 1 team in the country. And they did it on a night where Tyrese Maxey – not Cassius Winston or anyone from Duke or Kansas – emerged as the best player in the arena.

Even more important is this: They sealed a win without anyone other than Maxey (and maybe one or two other guys) playing anywhere close to their potential.

As a matter of fact, as I think back on it, this was almost the perfect kind of win for Kentucky. It was a victory that will resonate all season long, one that will sit atop the Wildcats’ NCAA Tournament resume all the way through Selection Sunday. It’s also one where stuff did in fact go wrong. A game where John Calipari can go back to the drawing board and back to the practice court and tell his guys that they’ve got a long way to go.

And that’s the scary part for the rest of college basketball. Kentucky just knocked off the No. 1 team in the country. And they aren’t even close to reaching their potential ceiling as a team.

Before we get into the Wildcats themselves, let’s instead start with the opponent, Michigan State.

Look, I know on a morning like today it’s easy to say that Michigan State was overrated and we should have never believed in the hype.

Put simply, I just don’t buy it.

Michigan State is a good team, and in the coming weeks (where they play Seton Hall, Duke and in the Maui Invitational) I think we’re going to see that they are much better than they showed last night. They are also a group that had a couple of their best players banged up and playing at less than 100 percent (including big man Thomas Kithier and wing Kyle Ahrens). Aaron Henry, who might be the team’s second-best player, was in foul trouble from virtually the opening tip-off. The Spartans also didn’t have Joshua Langford, which as we all know, is a massive blow.

So let’s not demean Michigan State here. They are going to win a lot of games this season. And if we’re being perfectly honest, Kentucky fans should want them to win a lot of games. Because put simply this is the kind of victory that is going to carry weight all season long.

Now look, I know it sounds stupid to start talking about NCAA Tournament resumes on November 6th, but this stuff does matter. It’s why you schedule this game in the first place. And this will be a victory that Kentucky can splash across the top of its resume from now straight until Selection Sunday, as they battle for a No. 1 seed and hopefully a path to the Final Four, with a path through Indianapolis for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. If Kentucky does get favorable seeding or geographical advantage in their NCAA Tournament draw, you’ll be able to point back to Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.

But more than talking about NCAA Tournament resumes in November, here’s why else it matters: Because if we’re being honest, outside of Tyrese Maxey, most of the rest of the Wildcats didn’t play all that well. Which also means that Kentucky notched a signature victory, over a team that will probably be ranked in the Top 10 all year long. And they did it while also knowing that their ceiling is so much higher than what they showed on Tuesday night.

Seriously, think about it for a second. Outside of Tyrese Maxey who would you say had a great night for Kentucky? Heck, take it one step further. Who would you say even played close to their overall potential? I’d argue Nate Sestina did, and credit to him. A year ago he was playing in 1,500 seat gyms in the Patriot League. Last night he played in the “World’s Most Famous Arena” and absolutely looked like he belonged. Sestina will never be a star. But he filled the role as the energy, banger, three-point shooting stretch four Kentucky needs him to be. I’d also argue Nick Richards played pretty well, especially factoring in that he was injured coming into this one.

But outside those three? There is still a lot of work to be done.

Ashton Hagans ran the team effectively and played solid pressure defense – but he also missed far too many baskets around the rim. Immanuel Quickley will be fine – but for at least one night didn’t look like the player who emerged as the breakout player of the exhibition season. Keion Brooks had zero points. Johnny Juzang had zero points. Kahlil Whitney had one big three-pointer but not much else. And EJ Montgomery? Who the heck knows what’s going on with him?

But again, all that happened… and Kentucky still got the win. Meaning that again John Calipari can turn on the tape Wednesday morning and tell his guys “We still have a lot of work to do.”

To take it a step further, it also makes you wonder just what the ceiling of this team will be when it all starts to click for everyone in that locker room. Ashton Hagans left at least six points on the floor with easy layups. Imagine him adding six points to his stat line from last night? Imagine what will happen when the game starts to slow down for Whitney and Brooks? Or what will happen when shots start to fall for Quickley and Juzang? Heck, imagine if EJ Montgomery has a light bulb moment and he becomes half the player PJ Washington was a season ago?

That’s a lot of what if’s. But they are “what if’s” that are realistic. And oh by the way, they are “what if’s” we’re asking… after a victory over the No. 1 team in the country.

So yes, like all three other teams at Madison Square Garden on Monday night, Kentucky has a lot to work on. The vets need to play with more confidence, and the freshmen need to understand what it takes to play at the highest levels of college hoops. Team rebounding still needs work, and you want to hit more than 33 percent of your threes.

But still, it’s so much better to be talking about all this stuff after a victory, rather than a defeat.

It’s amazing what a difference a year makes.

Kentucky just knocked off the No. 1 team in the country, and still has a long way to go.

(For more on Kentucky’s opening night win, download today’s Aaron Torres Podcast)

Article written by Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres is covering football and basketball for KSR this season after four years at Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres, Facebook or e-mail at [email protected] He is also the author of the only book written on the Calipari era, “One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats.”

42 Comments for Kentucky Knocked Off The No. 1 Team in the Country – And Didn’t Play Close to Their Best Game

  1. eddiesuttonsliver
    12:23 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

    don’t hang the banner yet. after the duke beatdown last year pundits were asking if that duke team was the best ever and they didn’t even make it to the final four.

    • UKFaninNY
      12:25 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

      And not only that –

      This story is all about how UK didn’t play it’s best… as if Michigan State did – MSU didn’t play very well, missed a lot of open three’s, and even Winston didn’t play his best (you’ll say it was cause of Hagans D, but Winston is maybe the best player in college basketball… He can take Hagans)

    • peaches76
      12:32 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

      And can’t say it enough….MSU was not a full strength. Let’s slow that roll just a bit. Still a very good win for us!

    • AtlKatFan
      1:23 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

      Best part of the game for me was all the John Wall face time!! Love the family atmosphere of our team!

    • Soylentbeans
      5:08 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

      Whi said anything about hanging banners? The basketball team just cant win with you people. Just enjoy the w people its not that hard to do.

    • StillBP
      12:52 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

      We weren’t really at full strength either, considering Richards isn’t 100% and Hagans managed the “maybe best player in college basketball” while playing injured.

    • MacAssassin123
      7:01 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

      Neither was Michigan St they were without Jeremy Langford who may be back in January. If he plays last night I think we end up losing that game a couple of baskets. Plus the guys who did play were definitely not at ?. Trust me when I say this if MSU gets Langford back, this is a team We do not want to see in March believe that!!! However this a team you are hoping plays really really well,and wins a lot of games because every game they win improves our NCAA tournament resume.

    • StillBP
      12:53 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

      I’m not hanging banners in Nov, just saying this team has a ton of potential

    • 4everUKBlue
      1:24 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

      Let’s also not forget that was a veteran Michigan St team who made it to the final four.

    • catsarerunnin
      4:15 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

      Can’t you just enjoy a big win? Who is hanging banners. Geezzzz…

    • mashburnfan1
      4:46 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

      Eddie and NY don’t try to be level headed. You will be called a troll and liar etc. All 4 teams played terrible basketball last night, the one exception was Maxey. For some reason MSU shot half their shots from 3 when if you looked at the rim the refs would call a foul and give you free throws. Yes it was great to win vs losing but none of these teams will look the same in March, for better or worse. As usual we will know in late January exactly what chances we have. I do wish we had more games vs MSU type teams as the SEC is not going to prepare us very well. UF is good and has a team that will help us to play against them but there is no other team in the SEC that has a title chance, not saying UF does but as of now UK and UF will be only teams that may have a chance.

    • 4everUKBlue
      5:33 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

      mashbum we only call you a liar and a troll because that’s what you are. You prove it every time you talk about Cal cheating.

  2. BluKudzu
    12:35 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

    I am sorry, I must have missed something, I just thought UK beat the number one team with the number 1 player in all ov college basketball with the skills of a freshman off the bench.

    Maybe some of the poor play was from Izzo’s MSU defense?

    We did win, right? We did beat the #1 team?

    Geez, what do these kids have to do to make y’all feel good about our season?

    • UKBaker24
      12:48 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

      I agree.. it’s funny to me how after the two exhibitions where we didn’t come out and win by 1,367,786,982 like some idiots expect that the number comments on this site were double what they were for the game last night, comments full of negativity and criticism for no reason.. people want to be miserable, negative critics it’s in their blood. If we had lost by a point last night there would be so many comments about how we’re so terrible and blah blah blah. I wish we could see data on the average number of comments on this site after a loss/bad game compared to a win. It’s so stupid, we have a good team it’s gonna be a fun year. Can’t wait for the rest of this season. CATS

    • UKFaninNY
      1:18 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

      yup – you missed something (what people wrote in comments)

      and btw, I dont see anyone being “negative” – We are just seeing both sides – I know, most UK fans only want to see one side (hence you genuflect towards this website) but if you listened to this site, you’d think UK will win every year, get every recruit etc

    • UKBaker24
      2:42 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

      I’m not saying this comment thread in particular I’m saying in general after the basketball or football team takes a tough L you can probably expect to see double sometimes triple the amount of people leaving comments on here. People want misery is my point lol some of us normal people don’t though

    • StuckinLville
      1:59 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

      Agree. I realize they weren’t a full team right now, but neither were we. They will be tough in March and I know we will be too. Yes we a lot to work on, but there was a lot to be excited about as well. It was a great win for our guys.

    • mashburnfan1
      4:58 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

      People saying number 1 team blah blah blah. Did any of those 4 teams look like the best 4 teams in the country. These are preseason rankings which, just like in football, mean nothing. They are all for TV so they can advertise # so and so vs # so and so. We will know in January who the real top 10 teams are and I fully expect all 4 to be there but as of now exactly what number is unclear. It was a good win, no doubt, wish we played more games vs tougher teams as this is how you improve. We will improve more from this game {even if we had lost} than we will winning the next 3-5 games vs Lamar, EKU etc. Facts are it was a turnover, foul, brick throwing game, both games. Except for Maxey, take his stats away and look at our shooting %, {hint} even with his shooting we shot 38%. We were smart enough to go to the hoop as they were calling fouls on every play and MSU would just chuck a three pointer, that was the difference. We took 32 free throws and they took 18….We outscored them by 12 at the line….Ball Game. Not saying refs were the difference, THEY WERE NOT, we were smart enough to keep driving and letting them call fouls and going to the FT line, MSU was not.

    • 4everUKBlue
      5:34 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

      mashbum, your comments are not even worth reading, filled with lies and half truths.

    • KYjellyRoll
      7:22 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

      Yes! I mean, MSU was borderline horrendous on offense…but, can’t you give some credit to Uk defense? I do. And to say MSU defense was rather weak? Well…we had a guy play out of his mind with very little help…can’t you give them some credit that maybe, just maybe…we’re actually better than a really talented, experienced team in MSU?

    • 4everUKBlue
      9:55 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

      mashbum is a Cal hater who will never give credit to the basketball program, he will tell lies about Cal cheating and tell half truths just to try to make himself seem like he knows something.

  3. check
    12:54 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

    We did not find a rhythm on offense. Our guys have to get comfortable on offense and they will. We disrupted MSU’s offense with our D, if you noticed the liberal amount of double-teaming on the ball. This was a defense win. And special thanks to Maxey plus all the things these guys did do right.

  4. Youngcat25
    12:54 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

    I’m tired of hearing MSU wasn’t at full strength. They were missing one player and still went to the final four last year

    • AlwaysTrueBlue
      1:02 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

      Completely with you Youngcat! In reality, MSU’s defense was on point that’s why our offense was so bad. @Torres, Maxey played out of his mind but Nate had a solid game, we need his physicality, shooting when it’s open, rebounding, and his 10PPG. I think Quick also played well. Ashton’s job was defense and he did it well, I mean on most nights MSU wins that game against most teams. The team played great defense. Your point is MSU played about as well as they could have played and we have a huge amount of upside potential. I agree, let’s move on and play the games it’s a long season but I really enjoyed game 1. Good post and good comment.

  5. mrknowitall1981
    12:59 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

    I’m feeling good about the win. I don’t give a rats a$$ if Langford played or not. Whether Michigan State didn’t play well is irrelevant. Resume win towards a 1 seed in Indy. Yes, lots to work on, but be happy with the win.

  6. Bluebloodtoo
    1:06 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

    I’m excited to see what the year brings. The team outlook is very bright based on what we saw last night. I’m even excited to see what nick looks like at the end of the year. I don’t think he looked particularly good last night, but I saw flashes of his potential. I’m excited to see how he progresses with the extra playing time this year.

    • bigblue2284
      1:22 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

      I thought the defense was great, loved seeing rare Cal double teams on the ball. Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery are what they are, neither is improved over last year – this is typical overhype of returning players . If we had one player with the rebounding prowess of Terrance Jones or Patrick Patterson I would be much more confident, I have never seen a worse bunch of rebounding bigs. Add to this that they can’t catch a lob pass and we have our work cut out for us. Our guard play is exceptional though, Maxey is elite, Hagans is a defensive beast and IQ can hit open shots and get you around 10 a game. Lots to look forward to and some holes to address.

  7. ibescootch
    2:40 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

    I hear everyone’s points about tempering expectations, because they were missing this guy and that guy, or Duke was so good at this point last year, or they had early fouls, etc. So what? That’s basketball. It’s fickle, and every game has 100 subplots and variables. I don’t think anyone is crowing us Champs now, but you can’t just throw the game out the window as worthless. I’ll bet a lot of you didn’t throw the game out last year as worthless, and acted like we were the worst team to ever touch a basketball and we’d barely make the NIT. So let us be excited. Let us be encouraged. The problem with explaining away every win or loss is then nothing actually means anything.

    Also, I loved our defense. We were swarming and talking and active, which is what we usually see by January. But I’m glad that these guys get how active and disruptive you have to be at this level. The offense will catch up.

    • grammarpoliceUK
      3:38 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

      Good post

    • ibescootch
      4:28 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

      Thank you. Other than spelling ‘crowning’ incorrectly, to which I admit my guilt. Lock me up!

    • Aar
      5:53 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

      To me, the best thing about this team being able to play “February defense” in November is that it gives the coaching staff much more time to work on offense.

      I hope last night was a true representation of their current defensive development

  8. UKLugo
    3:24 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

    You’re right. UK won without playing their best game. And MSU looked really good at times. But it was their first game, too; and they were without Langford. Still very impressive win, though.

    • 4everUKBlue
      3:37 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

      And again this was a team with a few players (including but not limited to a senior point guard) who made it to the final 4 last season, that’s experience is very valuable.

    • MacAssassin123
      7:16 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

      The badly missed Langford and it definitely showed. They just killed themselves with all of the misses behind the arc. They probably make anywhere between 3 and 6 additional 3 pointers if Langford played last night.

  9. BlueBanker18
    3:59 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

    Aaron’s ‘and oh by the way’ has slowly crept into my every day vocabulary. I’m not mad about it, just stating the facts.

  10. runningunnin.454
    4:20 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

    Yeah, UK and Mich State have some things to work on; but, did you see the first game? Kansa$$ had 28 turnovers, and only lost to Dook by two points. Dook had 16 TO’S; we only had 10 TO’s, and only 2 in the 2nd half.

  11. Looother
    5:01 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

    Good post, Aaron…

  12. Soylentbeans
    6:06 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

    I could argue against nick richards looking good just by posting his stat line. 25 minutes 7 points, 4 rebounds, 5 fouls. Also He doesnt do well with contact and seems to never be ready for a pass. Really thats the only thing I have against the article.

    I see some small ball in our future.

  13. TonyMontana
    6:21 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink


    • MacAssassin123
      7:01 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

      Son Just Don’t!!!!

  14. MacAssassin123
    7:25 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

    Chris Jericho: “I know last night the Kentucky Wildcats got a little bit of the bubbly”!!!

  15. jaws2
    7:36 pm November 6, 2019 Permalink

    Defensively this team made huge strides from the exhibition games. My greatest fear was MI ST freely driving down the lane to the basket just like the earlier games. If they continue to improve at this rate, they’ll be really tough down the stretch. This is going to be another fun season.