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.
Great night to be a Kentucky fan: Just knocked off No. 1, a win that will sit atop your resume all season long. And you did it with a grand total of one player (Tyrese Maxey) playing anywhere close to his full potential. Wildcats ceiling is WAY higher than they showed tonight
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) November 6, 2019
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)