We’re ninety minutes from tip-off, so it’s time to see what the national media is saying about tonight’s game:
ESPN BPI: Kentucky
Miles Bridges put on quite the show with 21 points in the Spartans’ 65-63 loss to Arizona. The problem for Tom Izzo might be finding a second scorer to go along with Bridges, as he was the lone player in double figures. Kentucky won’t have that problem, although their freshmen trio of Bam Adebayo, Malik Monk and DeAaron Fox got off to a shaky start against Canisius. Kentucky 71, Michigan State 62
The first game of the Champions Classic features two Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame coaches (John Calipari and Tom Izzo) and four projected first-round picks of the 2017 NBA Draft (Kentucky’s Bam Adebayo, De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, and Michigan State’s Miles Bridges), according to DraftExpress. So this is good. But Michigan State lost two rotation players in the preseason. And UK lost zero. So Calipari’s young team should be able to handle Izzo’s young team that’s at risk of falling to 0-2 after a season-opening loss to Arizona.
Prediction: Kentucky 75, Michigan State 67
The opening act — Kentucky vs. Michigan State, 7:00 p.m. ET — will feature two of the best athletes in college hoops in Michigan State’s Miles Bridges and Kentucky’s Malik Monk. Between Michigan State’s exhibitions and his opening night performance in a loss to Arizona, Bridges has looked like a lock to be a top ten pick come June’s NBA draft. The issue for the Spartans is figuring out where else they are going to get production. Nick Ward has shown flashes on the block, but Tum Tum Nairn and Cassius Winston were not great at the point guard spot and Eron Harris did not provide the kind of offensive boost that was expected.
That could be a problem on Tuesday, as the Spartans will square off against a Kentucky team that is very good defensively, particularly on the perimeter. The issue with the Wildcats is their perimeter shooting. De’Aaron Fox has been phenomenal in transition and has looked great as a passer, Isaiah Briscoe was able to get to the rim at will against Stephen F. Austin and Canisius and Monk has showed off his next-level athleticism a couple of times, but UK’s issues shooting the ball are still there. They were 9-for-34 from three in the two games they played this weekend, and three of those threes were from the seldom-used Mychal Mulder.
Prediction: Kentucky (-8.0). Michigan State doesn’t have size inside and Kentucky’s guards should eat up MSU’s point guards.
So from a timing and intangible perspective, I like Michigan State. But there is also a glaring basketball reason to go with the Spartans: At the moment, Kentucky is the gang that can’t shoot straight. During their first two games, the Wildcats shot 9 for 34 from three-point range. Take out Mychal Mulder’s 3-for-5 shooting, and the rest of the team is a woeful 20.7%. The perimeter trio of freshmen De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk plus sophomore Isaiah Briscoe were a combined 4 for 20. If the ‘Cats shoot like that against weak competition at home, why should we expect them to do better in Madison Square Garden against a ranked team smarting from a loss?
To be sure, the Spartans also have some deficiencies that were exposed against Arizona. First and foremost was their carelessness with the ball. Michigan State turned it over 18 times, with junior point guard Tum Tum Nairn, senior guard Eron Harris and freshman forward Miles Bridges coughing it up four times apiece. Not only did that lead to transition baskets for Arizona, but it also turned Michigan State’s halfcourt offense into an ugly clunker. If there’s one thing Kentucky can do, even as a young team, it’s lock down and defend. So Michigan State’s execution is going to have to be a lot crisper in this one.
Michigan State is also soft in the middle thanks to injuries to the two upperclassmen who were supposed to provide that size, Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling. Can Kentucky freshman Bam Adebayo take advantage of that? Are Kentucky’s guards good enough to make sure he does? It’s not quite clear, but I do believe that on Tuesday night at least, Bridges will be the best player on the floor. That’s a pretty good place to start. I’ll take it on faith that Michigan State learned some important lessons from Friday’s defeat, and that its veterans will come to play–and win.
Michigan State 80, Kentucky 76
And now my prediction. While I don’t think Kentucky has a real solution for Miles Bridges, I don’t think Michigan State has an answer for De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, or Bam Adebayo either, not to mention the Cats’ size inside. The way teams are going to beat Kentucky this year is to clog up the lane and force Kentucky to rely on its outside shot — which has proven to be unreliable so far — and with the tallest player in the Spartans’ starting lineup standing at only 6’7″, Michigan State just doesn’t have the height to do that, nor are they fast enough to keep up with Fox, Monk, and Briscoe. Cats by 8.