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Cats ready to answer questions on No. 1 vs. No. 2 stage

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UK will face Michigan State on Tuesday in Chicago in a matchup of the nation's two top-ranked teams. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK will face Michigan State on Tuesday in Chicago in a matchup of the nation's two top-ranked teams. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
In spite of its ranking, John Calipari insists his team is at a disadvantage playing a game like this so early in the season.

For the first time in five years, the nation's two top-ranked teams will meet. The lights will be bright for Tuesday's matchup between No. 1 Kentucky and No. 2 Michigan State and it's a stage for which Coach Cal is not sure his team is ready.

But as much as Coach Cal might like to have a little more time to prepare his young team for such a tough opponent, he knows there are positives that come with playing in the Champions Classic so early.

"The thing in a game like this for this team: Questions are answered," Calipari said.

The one question about UK that needs no answering is whether the Wildcats are talented. With potential lottery picks up and down the Kentucky roster, that's clear and was made even clearer in UK's two exhibition wins.

On Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. ET in Chicago's United Center, more open-ended debates will be settled.

"So then the question's about how we play together, how hard we play, how we deal with adversity, how we deal with prosperity," Calipari said. "Questions will be answered tomorrow. You're playing against a well-coached team -- Tommy (Izzo) does a great job -- and a veteran team."

Calipari counts six freshmen and two sophomores among his eight-man rotation, while five upperclassmen played 10 minutes or more in Michigan State's dominant 98-56 season-opening win over McNeese State.

Leading the way are senior guard Keith Appling and classmate Adreian Payne, a 6-foot-10, 245-pound center. Gary Harris is just a sophomore, but the preseason Big 10 Player of the Year posted 20 points and 10 rebounds in the Spartans' opener.

"They're a terrific 3-point shooting team," Calipari said. "They've got big people. Their front line is as big as ours. You got to guard them. They run their stuff. They run their little back screens and they run their curl cuts and they get the ball from one side (to the other). Their pick-and-rolls are really effective, and their guards shoot it. So you can't go under pick-and-rolls. They'll come up shooting. We got a challenge on our hands."

It's a challenge the Wildcats are eager to take on.

They've heard all about the dynamic of youth vs. experience, including from their own coach, and are ready to prove it's just talk.

"I'm not buying into it," said Julius Randle, the reigning Southeastern Conference Player of the Week. "We're playing the same game. Two great coaches. We have guys on our team with experience too and I'm not buying into the lack of experience. At the end of the day, it's going to be a war."

In preparation for that battle, Calipari isn't asking his team to memorize Michigan State's playbook and personnel. In fact, he only gave the Cats about 10 minutes of video of the Spartans to watch on their team-issued tablets.

"I'm concerned about us," Calipari said. "I've watched enough tape."

Keeping it simple, he believes, is the best way he knows to position his team to pull off a victory in the early season's marquee game.

"Whatever we have in, which isn't much, just do well with what we have," Calipari said. "And let's worry about us, knowing that you're gonna have to guard. You have to run back, first, and then you have to guard them."

Against this Michigan State team, transition play will likely be of particular importance. While the Spartans generated much of their offense in the half-court through big man Derrick Nicks last year, they now look to run at every juncture and scored 40 fast-break points in their opener.

"They fly up and down the court," Calipari said. "And the guys that are out ahead can make plays."

With such a stern test ahead, Coach Cal sees two possible outcomes for his team.

"We win or we learn," Calipari said. "That's what this game will be. We win or we learn. What I think is we don't play hard enough."

The Cats, on the other hand, don't see why they can't do both, viewing their coach's talk about the early-season matchup being "unfair" as a challenge to his young team.

"I think we can win and I think we can learn about how good we can be," Randle said.

That also happens to be Calipari's ideal outcome.

"My hope is we play great, that you watch us and say, 'Man, (after) 30 practices, for them to play that way, wow," Calipari said. " 'They played hard, they played as a unit. Eh, they break down but they scrambled; they didn't stop playing, they had a great presence, great spirit about 'em.' And then we move on."

He's also prepared for the alternative, but the Cats will go back to work just the same.

"If that's a loss -- I'd like it to be a win, but if it's a loss and I get that from this team -- it's the building point that we go from," Calipari said.

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I hope Coach Cal sees this post. I personally have a lot riding on this game. I am a Kentucky native, Eastern BSN grad, and avid CATS fan. I currently live in NC and work for a global medical device company. My co-workers like to give me a hard time during basketball season, always insisting it is only a matter of time till Coach Cal gets us "in trouble". I take it in stride and give it right back and was especially boastful and obnoxious after our national title win in New Orleans (I was there!). I have a bet on this game with one of my fellow managers who played hockey for Michigan State. If the Cats win, he must wear full UK gear including a "I Still Hate Laettner" shirt, blue wig, and cats paw tattoo on his cheek for the entire first day of our national sales meeting. If they win I must wear his Michigan State hockey uniform complete with pads and helmet. Not only would this be humiliating but the helmet would reek havoc on my hair. This CAN'T HAPPEN! Please get this message to Cal and the team. This win is imperative to my professional reputation!

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  • Jimmie Johnson: I hope Coach Cal sees this post. I personally have a lot riding on this game. I am a Kentucky read more