Big Stage, Tough Opponent to Test Young Wildcats
With a young team, but one that puts on the uniform of a Kentucky program expected annually to contend for the national title, contradiction is at the root of John Calipari’s coaching life.
|Kentucky vs. Michigan State|
|UK||2016-17 Team Stats||MSU|
|.225||Opp 3PT FG%||.357|
On one hand, he knows he needs to give his players time to develop. On the other, he knows he doesn’t really have that option.
“It’s a process,” Calipari said. “You’ve got to be patient but you can’t be patient. There’s things you’ve got to do to challenge them to…get old fast. And that’s hard. That’s hard. And you’re trying to win. You have a program that’s won and you want to win.”
Most other places, a challenge the likes of which second-ranked UK (2-0) will face in taking on No. 13 Michigan State (0-1) at 7 p.m. on Tuesday in the State Farm Champions Classic would be merely an early-season chance for growth. At Kentucky, the game is an early-season referendum that will be watched on a national level and watched closely back in the Bluegrass State.
“I’m looking forward to it,” sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe said. “Michigan State is a great team from what I hear and we’ve been playing pretty well.”
Calipari has used his customary November refrain of “I like my team” often this season, but that doesn’t me he knows how the Wildcats will respond playing in New York City’s famed Madison Square Garden against one of college basketball’s premier programs.
“I have no idea,” Calipari said. “Like I said last night, they may pee down their leg. I just have no idea because there are some tough matchups.”
Those tough matchups begin with Miles Bridges, the 6-foot-7 forward rated among the best incoming freshmen in the country. If you harbor any doubts about his talent, know that Coach Cal wanted him and wanted him badly at Kentucky.
“Miles Bridges is legitimately one of the best players in the country – physically, skill wise,” Calipari said. “He’s a big body with guard skills. Not afraid. He’s Tom’s (Izzo) kind of player, too. He’s gritty. He’s tough.”
Bridges impressed in his college debut, posting 21 points and seven rebounds as Arizona came back to beat his Spartans with a layup in the final seconds, 65-63. Having played with Bridges on the high-school all-star circuit, UK’s freshmen know him well. They also know not to worry about him or any Spartan more than themselves.
“Miles is a strong guy,” De’Aaron Fox said. “He’s been playing the four. He can play the two, three, four. He’s been putting up good numbers since getting at Michigan State. We just have to go out and play.”
“He’s an athletic wing,” Bam Adebayo said. “He can shoot it. He can dribble. But we’re working on us.”
The thing about playing Michigan State is it’s the perfect kind of test considering the issues UK has had so far this season with defensive focus and defensive rebounding.
“They fly up and down the court,” Calipari said. “They set great screens. Offensive rebound, they absolutely jam you in the back and they’re coming. There’s no, ‘Let me try to get around you.’ It’s mush mouth around that goal, and they go for balls. They play like his (Tom Izzo) teams play.”
With a short turnaround from Sunday’s game, there’s not a lot of time to prepare for Michigan State specifics. That’s fine though, because the outcome of Tuesday’s game isn’t going to come down to Xs and Os, not in Calipari’s mind.
“They run good stuff, but us running good stuff doesn’t matter,” Calipari said. “It’s about will you rebound? Will you run up and down that court and fly because they’re going to fly? And, will you get screened or will you physically screen the same way they do? And that’s going to be just talking to each other, trusting each other, and other stuff that we’re just learning how to do.”
That’s why, when it comes to the contradiction he faces every day, Calipari leans toward giving his team the time it needs to develop.
“What I am excited about is that the issues we have, if we don’t improve them in this game, you will see it glaring, and then we have the attention of this team – like, if you really want to win,” Calipari said. “We have good players, but that is not what wins. It’s the grind, the toughness, the grittiness and the offensive-rebound attempts. I’m not going to get beat to a ball. He’s not going to beat me to a ball. All of those things you will see in this game right now.”
Champions Classic Notes to Know
Kentucky will take on Michigan State in the sixth edition of the Champions Classic. This year's matchup will take place in historic
Madison Square Garden.
• Kentucky is 3-2 all-time in the Champions Classic after defeating Duke in last year's meeting in Chicago
• This will be the second meeting between the Spartans and Wildcats in the Champions Classic. Michigan State won the previous meeting, 78-74, in a meeting of the nation's No. 1 (UK) and No. 2 (MSU) teams
• Michigan State is the only team UK has not claimed a victory over in the series
• Kentucky is 1-0 in the Champions Classic when the game is played in Madison Square Garden - earning a win over Kansas during the 2011 edition of the series leading to the 2012 National Championship
De'Aaron Fox Named SEC Freshman of the Week
Kentucky freshman De'Aaron Fox was tabbed the SEC's Freshman of the Week following the league's opening weekend of play on Nov. 14. Fox averaged 16.5 points, 7.5 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game in helping lead UK to wins over Stephen F. Austin and Canisius.
Fox began his career with a 12-point, 12-assist outing vs. the Lumberjacks for his first career double-double. The 12 assists were the most for a UK player in a debut since assists began being kept in 1971-72. It's also the most assists for any UK player in a season opener. Furthermore, it tied for the fourth-most assists in a single game by any UK player in the John Calipari era.
He didn't stop there, however. In UK's second win of the season, Fox tied with sophomore Isaiah Briscoe with 21 points, the most in a game this season for a Wildcat. Fox's night was highlighted by a 9-for-9 day at the charity stripe. In his first two games, Fox is a perfect 15 of 15 from the line.
This marks the third consecutive season the Wildcats have begun the season with a Freshman of the Week honor. Skal Labissiere (2015) and Trey Lyles (2014) were the others. It also marks the sixth time in eight seasons under Calipari a freshman has been honored by the league office after the opening week of play. Fox joins Eric Bledsoe (2009), Terrence Jones (2010) and Anthony Davis (2011) as the others.