By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
For the first time in college basketball history a No. 2 ranked team has beaten a No. 1 ranked team in the opening game of the season. As most of you know No. 2 ranked Kentucky defeated No. 1 ranked Michigan State 69-62 in the Champion’s Classic on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden in New York City. A lot has been said and written about the game; most of it about Tyrese Maxey and his 26-point performance in leading the Wildcats to the victory. Some has been written about Michigan State and the toughness that Tom Izzo-led teams always bring to the table.
Before the game even started both Izzo and Calipari were together at the scorer’s table talking, laughing and then embracing before walking over to their respective benches. Calipari has previously said how much he respects Tom Izzo as a coach and Michigan State as a program. And the reason he does is that Michigan State always brings toughness and defense to every game they play. In fact, Calipari said after the game, “My hope will be that we’re playing them again late (in the NCAA Tournament). Like, late, late, late. Like two of us left. It would be great because I’m a big fan of the program and their kids.”
I’ve haven’t seen many references to Kentucky’s mind blowing 118-84 loss last year to the Duke Blue Devils in this same Champions Classic to start the 2018 season and I haven’t seen much written about how this team’s performance compares to that opening game against the Duke Blue Devils last year.
And that’s the point. There is no comparison. Last year’s team came out from the opening tip and were blown away. If it had been an arm wrestling match Kentucky would have walked away with a broken wrist. They could do nothing right, looked scared and ill-prepared and seemed to completely give up after Duke built a significant lead.
The exact opposite was true of this 2019 version of the Cats. They came out playing with purpose. They moved their feet on defense, rotated to the ball when a UK player did get beat off the dribble and seemed to communicate much better as a team. They built their own lead early on and never relinquished it. Every time Michigan State — with National Player of the Year candidate Cassius Winston providing most of the fire power — made a run at the Wildcats the Kentucky players battled back.
The final minutes of the game resembled the Kentucky Derby stretch run between Secretariat and Sham. Both great horses but Secretariat always just a little bit better. It was the same with the Wildcats and the Spartans. Down the stretch Michigan State’s Winston made some great plays but Tyrese Maxey and his supporting cast were just a little bit better. Calipari said about UK’s late stretch run, “We just made a couple of plays late and they didn’t.”
And that was the case, just like Secretariat in the 1973 Kentucky Derby battling Sham down the stretch, a will to win was what separated a very good Kentucky team from a very good Michigan State team. Maxey said, “We want to be great. We want to be one of the best teams in the country. We just want to keep putting in the work.”
And that is the toughness that both John Calipari and Tom Izzo value in a player and a team. Toughness to come down the stretch, make the tough shot, grab the tough rebound and hit free throws when the game is on the line. The mental toughness to fight through injuries like both Nick Richards and Ashton Hagans did on Tuesday night. The willingness to set screens, hold your position in the post and not back down from the physical play around the basket like Nate Sestina did. And just as important, the willingness of a player like Johnny Juzang, Khalil Whitney or Keion Brooks to come off the bench, provide a few minutes of relief in a backup role knowing that those two or three rebounds they grab or couple of baskets they score could be the difference in the game.
That’s what toughness is all about. That’s the type of mental attitude that a player and a team have to have to win championships. In fact when Maxey was asked recently why he come to Kentucky to play basketball with that characteristic Michael Jacksonesque smile he said, “To win championships. Yeah, to win championships.” And that should be music to any UK fans ears. The kind that sounds like “One Shining Moment”.