In their second game of the season, the Michigan State Spartans jumped out to an early 10-0 lead and never trailed the top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats en route to a four-point win, 78-74. For the most part, MSU looked like a typical experienced Tom Izzo team. They were physical, they caused and capitalized on turnovers, they were as effective as ever on scoring on inbound plays, and the team’s designated leaders led. Point guard Keith Appling showed that, from a positional standpoint, this is his team. Adreian Payne showed that he can control a game from any position on the floor. Sophomore and former Big Ten Freshman of the Year Gary Harris showed that he can be an even more complete player than he was last year. (Marcus thinks he can be the National Player of the Year this season.) Branden Dawson is back as a reliable gap-filler.
In listening to and watching tonight’s game, I noticed two things that were slightly different, at least in comparison with last year’s team. One is these Spartans’ ability and willingness to push the ball. Izzo’s Michigan State teams never have been strictly half-court operations, but the frequency with which they ran tonight, and the speed at which they did so, were notable. The second thing is that, as good as Payne is, he’s not going to be able to run the gauntlet of this season alone. Basically no big man can, and the absence of Derrick Nix clearly hurts the Spartans’ depth in the paint. (Nix, for his part, made his presence known online shortly after the final buzzer with the most Michigan State tweet ever.)
On the other side, Kentucky is a good team that will get even better, perhaps much better, before too long, and games like this, whatever, the outcome only serve to benefit John Calipari’s current project. Julius Randle, in particular, seemed to be everywhere for the Wildcats, especially in the second half, when he scored twenty-three of his twenty-seven points. Randle led all players in scoring and in rebounds, with thirteen. One aspect that Kentucky must improve is its free-throw shooting. They managed to bring their average above 50% thanks in part to plenty of opportunities (thirty-six overall, versus seventeen for Michigan State) to shoot from the line in the second half.
Looking forward, the sky may be the limit for young Kentucky, while Michigan State fans have to hope their very good, veteran team hasn’t peaked.