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No. 4 Kentucky, Michigan State cross paths in Champions Classic

Sportsnaut
Nov 5, 2019; New York, NY, USA; Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari coaches against the Michigan State Spartans during the second half at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Barely one week into the college basketball season, Michigan State prepares for a second game with an opponent ranked in the top five.

First, the Spartans took on No. 2 Gonzaga on an aircraft carrier in San Diego last Friday. On Tuesday, Michigan State takes on No. 4 Kentucky in the first game of the annual Champions Classic in Indianapolis.

The Spartans nearly pulled off the upset against Gonzaga, falling 64-63.

Michigan State led by seven at halftime and by 12 points in the second half before Gonzaga rallied, but the Spartans hope the near-win over Gonzaga will give them confidence against the Wildcats.

“Well, it’ll instill a lot of confidence, but it’s no moral victory because you still gotta win games in this,” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said. “But we did do a lot of things right. And most of them you wouldn’t see because they were scouting report things. That’s what you look for.”

The biggest question for Kentucky is the status of returning National Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe, who hasn’t played in the first two games of the season after undergoing a knee procedure in October.

Kentucky head coach John Calipari wasn’t sure of Tshiebwe’s status after Friday’s 77-52 win over Duquesne.

“He’s ahead of schedule, but you’ve got to be able to stop and turn,” he said. “It’s not a ligament or anything like that. But there was an operation where they went inside that area to where it will still be sore for a minute. We’ll have to see.”

Even if Tshiebwe doesn’t play, as per tradition under Calipari, Kentucky has other weapons.

Senior point guard Sahvir Wheeler led the SEC in assists the last two seasons, senior guards Antonio Reeves and CJ Fredrick provide shooting and scoring, while Cason Wallace and Chris Livingston are highly touted freshmen.

“This game will be a rough time,” Calipari said of playing Michigan State. “Offensive rebounds, you are going to have to work like crazy because they are going to hold blockouts. You are going to have to fight. They are going to fight through screens, they are going to be up in you and they are going to collapse defensively.”

The Spartans are the only unranked team in the Champions Classic with No. 7 Duke and No. 6 Kansas part of the nationally televised doubleheader.

Maybe the biggest revelation for Michigan State against Gonzaga was the play of junior center Mady Sissoko.

Little used during his first two years in the program, Sissoko had 14 points, seven rebounds and more than held his own against Gonzaga star Drew Timme.

Frontcourt size and depth was a concern all offseason for a Michigan State team deep with ball handling guards such as A.J. Hoggard, Tyson Walker and Jaden Akins, so more performances such as that from Sissoko could elevate the Spartans to another level.

“Yeah I told you all summer, I told everybody he’s worked his tall off,” Izzo said of Sissoko.

This will be the first meeting between the teams since the 2019 Champions Classic, when Kentucky won 69-62.

–Field Level Media