Rushed Reactions: A #1 vs. #2 Matchup That Lived Up to the Hype

Posted by nvr1983 on November 12th, 2013

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Early-season match-ups with the hype that tonight’s Kentucky-Michigan State had rarely live up to expectations. Tonight’s game was the exception as it had a little bit of everything and showed us the good and bad of both teams:

For Michigan State, the Spartans got the win that should confirm their status on the short list of favorites to win the NCAA title:

  • They demonstrated an enormous amount of composure in losing a big early lead that evaporated late in the second half as Kentucky began to exhibit what some might consider its superior talent. Like the veteran team that they are, the Spartans were able to make the plays that they needed to in order to walk out of the United Center with a hard-fought win. This shouldn’t be a surprise for a Tom Izzo-led team, but it should be reassuring for Spartan fans that this team won’t fold under serious pressure.
Gary Harris Had a Great First Half in Tonight's Game Credit: (Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports)

Gary Harris Had a Great First Half in Tonight’s Game Credit: (Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports)

  • Coming into the season the one knock on the Spartans was that they lacked the star power of the other favorites. There may be some validity to that (more on this later), but as Gary Harris (20 points), Adreian Payne (15 points), and Keith Appling (22 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists) showed they still have some of the best players in the country. Harris and Payne seem like almost certain first round picks with Harris in particular probably a lottery pick. Appling won’t be a first round pick and might not even end up in the NBA, but he has become a solid collegiate point guard and one capable of leading a team to a National Championship, which is not something we would have said last season. In fact, Appling was probably the best player on the court for the Spartans tonight given his consistent all-around play, whereas the other two disappeared for spots.
  • When Branden Dawson tore his left ACL in March 2012 and came back looking like a shell of his former self we wondered if we would ever see the player who previously had appeared to be on the verge of being a superstar. We may never see what Dawson could have become in a Spartan uniform, but he showed some flashes of his former explosiveness tonight. First there was an easy dunk on transition that should have erased any questions about how he was doing physically, but even more telling was his offensive rebound and putback with 10 seconds left to essentially seal the victory for the Spartans.
  • Having said that, the big question of who the Spartans will use to take over will remain. Despite having three stars in the lineup, they lack a true superstar who they know they can go to when they need somebody to produce. Now this is not a necessity for a team to win a championship, but in a year filled with freshmen phenoms who are capable of doing so, it remains a concern. The most likely player to develop into this type of alpha dog is Harris, but Tom Izzo will need a more consistent effort from him before we can consider him that kind of player.

For Kentucky, the Wildcats performed admirably given the fact that the game wasn’t “fair”:

  • Tonight we found out there was some (keyword being “some”) maturity to go along with all of that young talent. When the Wildcats went down 10-0 and didn’t score for the first 4:40 of the game, we wondered if they might just get blown out of the building. They are obviously too talented for that to happen, but most of these freshmen have never faced anybody in real-game competition as talented as the Spartans and they certainly have never faced a group as experienced and mature as Michigan State. So while the loss will hurt some Kentucky fans, there is a silver lining in that you have some evidence that your team won’t back down when they get hit. Oh, and you can donate those ridiculous “40-0″ t-shirts to a humanitarian group to send somewhere to never be seen again.
  • Julius Randle is a beast. Yeah, we know that term is overused, but that is probably the best and most accurate way to describe him. Playing against a solid Michigan State front line, Randle looked like a man among boys despite being several years younger and less experienced than the Spartan big men. When Randle gets the ball in the low post there is nobody in the college game who can stop him. Or as he showed in some cases against Michigan State sometimes a double- and even triple-team was not enough. Now, Randle still has some areas that he needs to work on such as his seven turnovers or his lack of a post move other than a spin, but he will be a first team All-American in March.
  • The biggest bright spot for the Wildcats this season has to be Alex Poythress. After an up-and-down freshman year, Poythress decided to come back to school and in just three games this year he has shown signs of considerable growth. Coming off the bench he scored seven points, grabbed 12 rebounds, and blocked three shots. Because of the low number of points his stat line and game might not jump off the page to the casual fan, but you can be sure that Calipari, opposing teams, and NBA scouts have noticed the difference.
  • Free throws. 20 of 36, and they lost by four. We are not sure what else we have to say. In the postgame press conference Calipari said that his hope is that his players will practice free throws on their own. Given the track record of his teams historically at the free throw line, maybe Calipari should take a more proactive approach to improve this skill set.
  • The big question for this team will be the Harrison twins. Unlike last year where we had questions about whether Kentucky’s backcourt (and Ryan Harrow in particular) was good enough to compete for a National Championship, we have no questions about the Harrisons’ talent. Both Aaron and Andrew have NBA lottery level abilities. Both made some plays that had everyone shaking their heads in amazement, but they also both made plays that made everybody shaking their heads in bewilderment. The bigger issue might be with their general attitudes while on the floor. This is not exactly a revelation as everybody who followed them in high school and on the AAU circuit was well aware of this issue, but when they are playing at this level they cannot constantly complain and make faces and still expect to lead their team to victory.
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