Five Keys to Victory: Kentucky vs Michigan State
The college basketball season gets underway tonight, and the marquee event is the Champions Classic. Kentucky will cap the night off with a late match up against Michigan State. The Spartans are the pre-season #1 team in both polls, and they feature a national player of the year candidate in Cassius Winston. The season is long and in the grand scheme of things, the outcome of this game won’t mean a lot. That was proven true last year when the Cats got smashed by Duke in this game and then where a basket away from the Final Four by seasons end. I can confidently say that the game this year will not be like the demoralizing defeat that Kentucky suffered last year. It may end up being a loss for the Wildcats but it will be a much closer game than last year. If Kentucky wants to return to Lexington with a big win under their belts, these are the keys to victory.
- Contain Winston- Cassius Winston is probably the best point guard that Kentucky will face all season. He is a tremendous shooter from outside, but he can also score off the dribble and create for his teammates. The good news for Kentucky is that Ashton Hagans is perhaps the best on ball defender in the country. There is no doubt that Ashton will be fired up about this match up. The fear that Cal has is that Hagans will pick up two early fouls by defending him too aggressively. With that in mind, it will be important for Hagans to play solid defense without trying to force steals early in the game. If he can make it to the half with one foul or less, he can ramp up his defense in the second half. Winston is a smaller guard, so the Cats back court will have a size advantage against him. Defending Winston in pick and rolls will also be extremely important. If he gets too much space he can pull up for jumpers and wear Kentucky out. On the flip side if a big defender gets switched on him, he can drive by them. It truly has to be a team effort to defend him in those situations. A shot blocker at the rim would help negate his drives at the basket.
- Rebound, rebound and rebound– Michigan State is one of the best rebounding teams in the nation on a yearly basis. Tom Izzo has one of the most physical practices of any coach and it prepares his players to battle on the boards. A big question mark for Kentucky this season is how they will do on the glass. If Nick Richards can play, it will be very helpful because he is probably the best rebounder on the team. If he can not go, it will largely fall to EJ Montgomery and Nate Sestina to crash the glass. EJ did not have a great performance in either exhibition game, but he has the size to rebound with anyone. The key will be for him to not get pushed around by the physical play of the Spartans. Physical play does not seem like an issue for Nate, but a height dis advantage is what he may have to overcome. On top of those two, Kahlil Whitney and Keion Brooks need to grab as many boards as possible. This will also be a year that the guards must rebound well on a regular basis, and that will be very true tonight. If the Cats get dominated on the glass tonight, it will be very hard for them to win the game. They have got to at least hold their own on the boards.
- Play with poise- As usual Kentucky features a lot of freshmen as key contributors. The different thing about this team is that it also feature several experienced players as key contributors. The most important players in this regard are Immanuel Quickley and Ashton Hagans. The duo has been through a grueling season at Kentucky together. They have played in big time games before and have matured a lot since the first game last season. Having them on the court should help the Cats play with poise. This will especially be true in the early minutes of the game, when nerves and jitters can sometimes get the best of young players. EJ Montgomery and Nate Sestina give the Cats an experienced presence inside and that should be another positive. Nick Richards would be another veteran player if he can go. This team will probably go as Hagans and Quickley go tonight. If both play well it will likely be a Wildcat win, but if it goes the other way it will probably be a loss.
- Tyrese needs to get loose– Maxey played ok in the exhibition games, but he hasn’t come close to showing fans his true potential. Malik Monk had a breakout performance against the Spartans in the Champions Classic and I could see the same thing happening for Tyrese. Hagans and Quickley could even allow Maxey to come off the bench tonight and I think it would be a wise choice for Cal. Tyrese could enter the game fresh and go on the attack. Kentucky is deep enough that they won’t be reliant on any one player this season, but they need Maxey to play well for them to be at their best.
- Stay out of foul trouble up front-The Cats have loads of depth in the back court and at the wings, but they are very thin in the front court if Nick Richards is out. They need EJ and Nate to stay out of foul trouble in a big way tonight. Early fouls on them could force Cal into a very small lineup against a very physical team. Montgomery has struggled with foul trouble in the past, so he is the key one to keep an eye on tonight. Brooks and Whitney can both man the 4 spot if needed, but if they have to play extended minutes there tonight it probably will not be a good thing for Kentucky.
This game will give fans a small glimpse of what this team can become by March. The important thing to remember is that it is merely a peak at what can be. A loss won’t be the end of the world and a win won’t mean a championship is coming. Enjoy the game and take the outcome with a grain of salt. I think this will be a very special team when all is said and done. Tonight will simply tell us a little bit about how far they have to go to get there. I expect Hagans and Quickley to be huge factors early in the game and I think Maxey will play well. I think the front court will have their hands full on the glass. Ultimately I see the game as a coin toss that could go either way. The Spartans have an edge in experience so I will predict them to win by a score of 73-69. This is merely step one in a forty step adventure.