Preview: Kentucky - Michigan State

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"It's going to be a packed house," Ashton Hagans said, "so we've just got to go out there, stay with each other and just fight."

Those are nice notes for ESPN's broadcast, to be sure, but though the specifics of this matchup are unique, playing in this kind of game is anything but new to Kentucky. UK has played in eight of the 42 all-time No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchups in the history of the Associated Press Top 25. And in fact, these exact two teams played in the last one in the 2013 Champions Classic.

Playing in kind of game, however, is new to these Wildcats as presently comprised. UK has a couple exhibitions under its belt, but nothing like what the Cats will face in New York City. John Calipari is just thankful he has some individuals who have some experience on similar stages.

"It's nice that we have some veterans, that we're not walking inI've walked in with five freshmen before," Coach Cal said. "Started five freshmen. And, 'Oh, they're going to win every game.' I think we were down 20-2 (in the last Michigan State game where we were 1-2 in the Champions Classic in 2013). I believe it was. So, you know, at least we've got some vets here."

UK has a pair of sophomore guards in Hagans and Immanuel Quickley who were key contributors on last year's Elite Eight team. Big men Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery are also back, though Richards' status is up in the air due to a sprained ankle. All four remember well UK's appearance this time last year in the Champions Classic, when the Cats were dominated by Duke.

"Well as a team, well as veterans, we understand what this game is like going into it," Quickley said. "The nerves and the jitters that we had last year that we probably won't have this year just knowing what the game is going to be like. The energy, everybody screaming and hollering and things like that. I think we'll be ready for this game."

The experience of UK's returners is a plus, but they still have nothing on Tom Izzo's veteran group. Michigan State returns much of its production from last year's Final Four team, headlined by senior All-American and national player of the year candidate Cassius Winston.

Winston was a workhorse last year in cementing himself as one of the nation's top point guards. He averaged 18.8 points and 7.5 assists as the most important player on one of the best teams in the country.

"He's a good player," Calipari said. "Plays with great pace. Plays with patience. Knows what he does well. And he'll play for all 40 minutes. You're not going to take him out. The first five minutes of the game are not going to dictate how he plays."

Hagans figures to draw the assignment against Winston for much of the evening. Considering his defensive reputation, it's one he's embracing.

"Just going out there, play it as the same game," Hagans said. "But they've got him as one of the best guards in the nation. So, I'm going to go out there and have my game plan, like any other game. Just go out there and get the W."

The way this one could be a little different is Winston doesn't figure to be flustered by Hagans' presence. For that reason, Calipari says Hagans and his fellow guards can't approach Winston thinking they're going to shut him down entirely.

"If you're trying to keep this kid (Winston) from scoring, you're going to foul," Calipari said. "What you're trying to do is if the kid gets 25, just make them a hard 25. I expect our guys to be anxious. I don't know what will happen with the young kids. You just don't. You can't predict it."      

 

Unknowns are a fact of Coach Cal's life this time of year. He's learned how best to navigate them while pursuing his ultimate goal: building a team ready to contend for a national championship come March and April.

"I knew we'd have a tough time with Duke last year," Calipari said. "I didn't know it'd be (by) 50, but I thought it would be tough. So, you just don't know. I didn't know when we beat Duke (in 2015) that we were nearly good enough to beat Duke. Which we did. Or Kansas (in 2014) when we beat them like we did. You don't know walking into these games because they're so early."     

Already, Calipari has identified one area for growth that will be essential to pursuing that goal: toughness. There couldn't be a better barometer for that than the challenge awaiting the Wildcats in the Big Apple.

"Well, the only thing that we've been working on is them understanding what toughness is, and it's not pushing and shoving," Calipari said. "Are you in the kind of shape that you need to be in mentally and physically? Are you beating workouts? Are you conquering yourself? Before you can try and conquer someone else you have to conquer yourself."

As if the spotlight on the State Farm Champions Classic wasn't bright enough, the 2019-20 opener will feature the top two teams in the country for just the second time in NCAA Division I history.

With Michigan State and Kentucky entering the season ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, it will mark the 42nd time since the inception of the Associated Press Top 25 that the top two teams will meet during the season. It will mark the ninth time UK has been involved in the matchup. Kentucky is 5-3 in those games.

It will be only the second time in NCAA Division I history the AP No. 1 and No. 2 teams will play in their respective season openers. In November 1975, No. 1 Indiana defeated No. 2 UCLA 84-64.

Coincidentally, the last time Kentucky was involved in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup was also against Michigan State in the State Farm Champions Classic. The Spartans, ranked No. 2, won 78-74 in Chicago on Nov. 12, 2013.

Calipari is 12-8 as a head coach when both teams are ranked in the top five of the AP Top 25 and 6-4 at Kentucky. He's 5-4 vs. the AP top-ranked team in the land, including 2-2 at Kentucky, regardless of his team's ranking. He'll be involved in his fourth No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup on Tuesday.

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