Polish and pose meet potential on Tuesday night in the nightcap of the Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden. On one side is the Michigan State Spartans, who are led by upperclassmen Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman, with a little bit of sophomore flavor from Aaron Henry, who really came on nicely late last season.
On the other side are the Kentucky Wildcats, who will be one of the youngest teams in the country. That is nothing new for Kentucky, but holdovers Nate Sestina, Ashton Hagans, and Nick Richards are going to have to bridge the gap as much as possible until Kentucky’s 2020 class gets acclimated to the college basketball life.
It should come as no surprise that Michigan State is favored by as much as 3 in the betting market for this game. The total is sitting at 138.5, as fewer fireworks are expected in the second game at Madison Square Garden.
Michigan State started the season with some more bad news about senior guard Josh Langford, but having Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman makes it a little bit easier. The Spartans certainly have more answers than questions coming into the season. That is rarely the case with blue blood teams, but it does seem to be more of the norm in East Lansing than it is in Lexington, Durham, and Lawrence.
Michigan State has several returning players and a lot of returning production. Matt McQuaid and Nick Ward are notable losses, but Aaron Henry and Kyle Ahrens will play a bigger role for Tom Izzo this season. If that fails, freshmen Julius Marble from Dallas and Malik Hall from Aurora, Illinois will be looking to make some noise. Rocket Watts Jr. is a contender for the best name in college basketball as well. The Spartans are deep, talented, and are the #1 team in the country for most people.
Kentucky has so much to replace from last season. To some degree, it was an underachieving Wildcats bunch last year. PJ Washington never seemed to be fully healthy. Reid Travis and Tyler Herro had solid seasons, but it isn’t a stretch to say that a little more was expected out of them.
Hagans is Kentucky’s top returning scorer with just 7.7 points per game. He did have over four assists per game and he’ll have to be the facilitator for a lot of freshmen that are going to play big minutes for Kentucky as the season goes along. Out of a group that features Dontaie Allen, Keion Brooks, Brennan Canada, Johnny Juzang, Tyrese Maxey, Zan Payne, and Kahlil Whitney, somebody will emerge. Somebody has to.
Maxey, the freshman from Garland, Texas, could very well be the one with the biggest potential. It wouldn’t hurt if EJ Montgomery, who was one of the highest-ranked recruits in program history, could take a big step forward in his sophomore season. He played in 37 games last year, but only averaged 3.8 points per game. It looks like Maxey will have to shoulder a big bit of the load before the rest of his class catches up with him.
We know that John Calipari can coach. We also know that Kentucky lost to Duke and Seton Hall last year in the non-conference. Of course, the Wildcats also beat North Carolina on a neutral floor. Kentucky lost to Kansas and UCLA early in 2017.
Izzo’s teams are at their best in March. In fact, last season, the Spartans had four Big Ten losses and also dropped non-conference games to Kansas and Louisville. When all was said and done, it was a loss to Texas Tech in the Final Four that did Izzo’s team in after seven straight wins in March, including one over Duke.
In this particular game, Michigan State’s certainty outweighs Kentucky’s uncertainty. We know what we’re going to get from guys like Winston, Tillman, and the other players with college experience. For Kentucky, Hagans has a lot of work to do and Maxey and his fellow freshmen are in for a real eye-opening experience against a team as well-coached as Michigan State.
The Spartans -3 are the play here. As far as the total of 138.5, a slight lean to the over. The new three-point rule will open up the lane a little bit and fast, athletic, strong players are going to be able to take advantage of that. Both teams are full of those types of guys.
Pick: Michigan State -2.5
Lean: Over 138.5