The last time the Kentucky Wildcats took on Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans was in the 2013 StateFarm Champions Classic. The Spartans were led by Keith Appling’s 22 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists, along with 20 points from Gary Harris and 15 from Adreian Payne. MSU got the 78-74 W despite Julius Randle going for 27 points and 13 rebounds, and James Young scored 19. Turnovers killed the Cats as the starters combined for 16 turnovers, including a staggering 8 from Randle. The older and more experienced Spartans held off the freshmen laden Wildcats.
While UK may be freshmen laden again this season, they do return four guys who played some major minutes last season, in Isaiah Briscoe, Derek Willis, Dominique Hawkins, and Isaac Humphries. Having these guys who have played against top competition, including the Champions Classic, in the past is a huge advantage that a John Calipari coached squad doesn’t typically have. The starters for the Wildcats will be the same from the first regular season game: De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Isaiah Briscoe, Derek Willis, and Bam Adebayo. Let’s take a look at the Michigan State projected starting five to take on the Cats.
#22 Miles Bridges, Freshman Forward, 6’7″
Miles Bridges in unquestionably the best player on this very talented Michigan State team. Tom Izzo isn’t known for recruiting one-and-done type guys, but Bridges won’t be in East Lansing for longer than a year.
The freshman from Flint, Michigan is extremely athletic, can get to and above the rim with ease and can shoot the deep ball very well. Bridges shot 46.5% from 3-point land in high school, where he averaged 25 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists in his senior year at Huntington Prep. He started his college career with a bang in Michigan State’s season opener. Bridges finished with 21 points and 7 rebounds in a losing effort to Arizona.
At 6’7″, Bridges is the tallest player in the starting lineup for the Spartans. He’ll most likely be tasked with guarding Bam Adebayo or maybe even Derek Willis, as his speed will help run Willis off of the three-point line. I’d be more interested to see how Coach Cal plans to guard Bridges with his strong perimeter abilities.
#20 Matt McQuaid, Sophomore Guard, 6’4″
Matt McQuaid started just one game as a freshman, but has started both exhibitions and the regular season opener for the Spartans so far this year. McQuaid came out of high school as one of the better shooters in the country, shooting over 45% from 3 in the Nike EYBL circuit. Jeff Goodman actually called McQuaid “arguably the best pure shooter in the country” during his recruitment.
The Duncanville, Texas native only averaged 3.5 points and 1.6 assists last season, but that production should increase drastically with a starting role this season. He scored 9 points on three made 3’s in the loss to Arizona. McQuaid will most likely have to match up with Malik Monk. While McQuaid may be a high-quality defender, Monk’s athleticism should cause problems for MSU. I think McQuaid could even move over to guard Isaiah Briscoe if Izzo doesn’t think he can keep up with the speed of Monk or De’Aaron Fox.
#14 Eron Harris, Senior Guard, 6’3″
Eron Harris is in his second year getting to suit up for Tom Izzo. He played two seasons under Bob Huggins at West Virginia, where he was one of the better players on the team. Harris started 32 of the 33 games his sophomore season, and averaged 17.2 points per game. He also shot 42.2% from deep, which was good enough for third-best in the conference. However, Bob Huggins has a very particular coaching style, and it was not a good fit for Harris, so he sought out another school.
After redshirting for a year due to transfer rules, Harris played in every game last season. He scored 9.3 points per game, while starting 22 of the last 23 games of the season. He earned time by shooting nearly 44% from deep and being a very solid defender for Tom Izzo. The senior will be guarding one of the three UK guards. His defensive abilities could match him up with whichever of the three have the hot hand. I think he may start on Briscoe, but will probably have possessions guarding both Fox and Monk at times throughout the game.
#11 Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr., Junior Guard, 5’10”
In a competition of best nickname, Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr. gives Edrice “Bam” Adebayo a run for his money. And while I wish that we could hear “Bam” and “Tum Tum” go up against each other all night, Nairn couldn’t be more different in stature that Adebayo.
At 5’11” and 175 pounds, he is 11 inches and 85 pounds smaller than Bam. Nairn started the first 18 games of the season last year before a plantar fasciitis sidelined him for the next seven games. He never fully recovered, playing only 8.9 minutes per game in the final ten games for the Spartans.
Born in Nassau, Bahamas, Nairn is one of the fastest guards that UK will face this season, making him an interesting matchup for De’Aaron Fox. Fox has heralded speed, but he probably hasn’t been defended by someone as fast as Nairn. The big thing for Kentucky is forcing turnovers to start the transition offense, but Nairn led the Big 10 in assist to turnover ratio at 3.54, which was good for 7th best in the country. For reference, Tyler Ulis had a 3.56 assist to turnover ratio last season.
#25 Kenny Goins, Sophomore Forward, 6’6″
The final starter for the Spartans so far this season is another Michigan man. Kenny Goins is from Troy, Michigan and went to Warren Mott High School. He walked-on for Tom Izzo his freshman year, even though he did have multiple division one offers coming out of high school. Izzo rewarded Goins’ hard work with a scholarship before this season and now with a starting spot.
Goins is a physical presence for the Spartans and can guard multiple positions on the floor. His style of play may be best suited for guarding Adebayo rather than Derek Willis to start the game, but Izzo could have a trick up his sleeve with how to handle the defensive side of the ball. Against Arizona, scored 4 points and pulled down a team high 8 boards.
6th Man/Possible Starter: #44 Nick Ward, Freshman Forward, 6’8″
There is one other player on this Michigan State squad who could crack the starting lineup due to the pure size advantage that Kentucky will hold in this game. Nick Ward is a true freshman out of Gahanna, Ohio who stands as the biggest player on the Michigan State roster at 6’8″ and 25o pounds. Tom Izzo has two other players who measure in at 6’9″, but neither have the physical build of Ward, and neither registered any playing time against Arizona.
Ward had 9 points and 4 rebounds in just 14 minutes of action in the Arizona game, a very solid start on the big stage for the freshman. Regardless of whether or not he starts, Ward will have to be a key defender against the deep Kentucky front court tonight.
Go Cats. Beat Spartans.