EAST LANSING, Mich. — Michigan State started its basketball season playing one nationally ranked group of Wildcats that featured a lot of height, a lot of length and a lot of athleticism. Its second game is against another group of Wildcats, one ranked higher than the first, and one also with plenty of height, length and a little more athleticism and deeper roster than the last group.
No wonder everyone keeps questioning Tom Izzo’s sanity.
Michigan State plays No. 2 Kentucky Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden in New York as part of the Champions Classic. The Spartans dropped one spot in the AP Top 25 poll, from No. 12 to No. 13, after losing their opener against No. 10 Arizona, 65-63, on a last-second bucket in Hawaii. Kentucky (2-0) opened its season with home wins over Stephen F. Austin (87-64) and Canisius (93-69).
This will be the 24th all-time meeting between two of college basketball’s elite programs. Kentucky leads the series 12-11, but Izzo is 5-2 against the Wildcats, including a 78-74 win when they last met in 2013.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for us to go there against a very quality team and bounce back,” Izzo said Monday. “My big worry, as always, is what we do inside. Even though our guards have not shot the ball real well, we’ll play better there. It’s the foul trouble inside that is a never-ending concern right now, and one we’ll be keeping an eye on.”
Arizona had three 7-footers plus 6-9 forward Keanu Pinder towering over Michigan State inside. Freshman Nick Ward (6-8) is the only healthy scholarship player taller than 6-7 for the Spartans.
Kentucky isn’t as tall as Arizona but has freshman Bam Adebayo (6-10) and senior Derek Willis (6-9) in the starting lineup. Sophomore Isaac Humphries (7-0) and freshman Wenyen Gabriel (6-9) come off the bench.
As ballyhooed as Michigan State’s freshmen class was coming into this season, Kentucky’s was ranked No. 2 in 247Sports.com’s composite rankings, and all five freshmen were rated as 5-star players. While Izzo is getting his first taste of having four talented freshmen on the roster, it’s old hat to Kentucky’s John Calipari.
“(Calipari)’s got this team playing as hard defensively as any team that I’ve seen,” Izzo said. “He benched a guy last night (against Canisius). He’s got enough of them that you can bench one or two or three or four or five and still field a pretty good team.”
Calipari wasn’t pleased with the defensive effort from Willis, so Willis sat.
“Derek Willis probably will start unless I’m not comfortable (Monday at practice),” Calipari said. “If he defends, he can stay in the game. If he can’t defend and he makes three shots, he probably won’t play much this game. You gotta guard, man. You gotta rebound. It’s real simple.”
One recruit Calipari didn’t land was Miles Bridges, who chose Michigan State. Bridges was named Big Ten co-Freshman of the Week after scoring 21 points and grabbing seven rebounds against Arizona.
“Michigan State has beaten us on a lot of players,” Calipari said. “We get one and — I’m not meaning this, because Tom and I are friends — it’s like, ‘What happened there?’
“Well, they beat us on a lot of kids. Miles Bridges is legitimately one of the better players in the country. Physically, skill-wise he’s a big body with guard skills. Not afraid. He’s Tom’s kind of player, too. He’s gritty. He’s tough. He’s good.”
Guarding without fouling and playing better transition defense are two more concerns for Izzo. Arizona shot 27 free throws (made 20) against the Spartans and scored 26 points off 18 Michigan State turnovers.
“We turned the ball over ourselves; it wasn’t like they were forced turnovers,” junior point guard Tum Tum Nairn Jr. said. “If we take care of the ball and understand the positions we have to be on the floor, we’ll do a better job.”
Nairn committed four of those turnovers but also had four assists and made a game-tying 3-pointer with 9 seconds left. Six players had three fouls for Michigan State. Senior Eron Harris and freshmen Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford all picked up two in the first half, limiting their minutes.
That’s something the Spartans want to correct against Kentucky. The Wildcats have shot 69 free throws in their first two games.
“I feel like the two fouls that I got were fouls that could have been prevented if I would have been in a certain spot at the right time,” said Langford, who scored five points in 12 minutes in his college debut. “Sometimes you get fouls but they really weren’t fouls, the refs just call fouls. Sometimes you get fouls because it’s really your fault because if you were in the right place at the right time doing what you’re supposed to do, then you wouldn’t have gotten that foul.
“Two of my fouls were like that. I’m just making sure I stay focused and make sure I’ll be where I’m supposed to be.”
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo