Michigan State-Kentucky opener more of a barometer than a season-changer

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — This is starting to become old hat for Cassius Winston.

As No. 1 Michigan State gets set to take on No. 2 Kentucky in the Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night, the college basketball world is buzzing. The 1 vs. 2 matchup is the capper to an impressive first night that includes No. 3 Kansas taking on No. 4 Duke in the first game in the Big Apple.

In a marquee event that’s been the highlight of the early part of the season since it began in 2011, this one stands out as the first time all four teams have occupied the top four spots in the Associated Press rankings.

Cassius Winston has been down this road enough to know what happens on the court in the first game of the season will have little to do with defining the season for any of the four teams.

As Tom Izzo said on Monday, “What a great way to start the season.”

By the time the fans file out of the Garden late Tuesday night two fan bases will be walking proud while two more will wonder if the lofty rankings were too much. Winston, though, has been down this road enough to know what happens on the court in the first game of the season will have little to do with defining the season for any of the four teams.

“You have to embrace the moment,” the preseason All-American said. “This is a huge opportunity to play against the best teams in the country, to play on the biggest stage. These are moments that you dream of when you think about playing college basketball. … At the same time, you’ve got to remember that you want to play your best basketball at the end of the year. That's what you're working towards. That's the whole goal.

“So, no matter what happens you want to play great, you want to do those things and if not, then you’ve got to figure out what you can learn from it and how you can carry that over to the next game.”

It’s essentially the double-edged sword of playing in early games against the other best teams in the country. It can provide plenty of pride for the fan base and perhaps add a bit of swagger to the guys on the court, but ultimately, it’s like any other early season game.

“It’s going to help give us an idea of where we are, who's gotten a little better, who needs a lot more work, all those kind of things,” Izzo said. “I've always said it's great because if you think you're better than you are usually you get it knocked out of ya. It's a great because if you're questioning your team and you play good, you feel a little better. If you play bad and you already know what some of your problems are, now you get a chance to maybe not only tell the players but they get a chance to find out for themselves.

“To me, it's all good. The whole thing's good.”

While it’s good, this is the first time Michigan State enters the Champions Classic as the top-ranked team in the country. The Spartans have twice played in 1 vs. 2 matchups as the second-ranked team, and now they’ll get a chance to do it on top.

That can be a daunting task for some of Michigan State’s younger players, something Winston and his more experienced teammates will impress upon the freshmen, namely starting shooting guard Rocket Watts.

“There’s gonna be a lot more fans, a lot more expectations, it’s a lot louder and it's gonna be a bigger stage,” said Aaron Henry, who made his debut in last year’s Champions Classic just 10 minutes from his home in Indianapolis, when asked what he’d tell the freshmen. “But we’re still playing basketball. You can't make it bigger than what it is. You gotta be locked and focused. You’ve been through harder things with Coach Izzo in practice than what you're going to go through in the game. He’s been preparing for this moment. Just keep it basketball and you'll be fine. Don’t make it something bigger than what it is.”

Winston admits it might have been bigger to him and his teammates in 2016.

It was then that Michigan State headed to the Champions Classic in New York against Kentucky, just like this season. The difference was the Spartans were ranked No. 13 in the nation while the Wildcats were No. 2.

The Spartans and the heralded freshman class of Winston, Miles Bridges, Nick Ward and Joshua Langford struggled and Kentucky beat Michigan State, 69-48. At the time, Winston thought that meant the season was over after an opening loss to Arizona and Hawaii.

But just like losses in the Champions Classic in Winston’s sophomore season and as a junior didn’t keep Michigan State from winning a pair of Big Ten titles and reaching last season’s Final Four, this game won’t determine the future.

“It's one of those things that you kind of learn as you grow,” Winston said. “I remember my first year, that Kentucky loss you think, ‘This is the end of the season, the end of the world.’  And now, even the couple times that we have lost, you’ve got to learn from it and you’ve got to get better. I’m tired of losing this game and I hope to learn my lesson a little bit later this time but still, whatever happens you kind of just learn from it and get better.”

Win or lose, facing Kentucky will be a good way for Michigan State to know where it needs to improve. The Wildcats won’t be as freshman-heavy as they have been in the past but they’re not lacking in talent.

Sophomore guard Ashton Hagans will be in Winston’s face all game while sophomore forward EJ Montgomery is just scratching the surface of his potential. They’re joined in the starting lineup by two standout freshmen — guard Tyrese Maxey and forward Kahlil Whitney — as well as graduate transfer forward Nate Sestina, who came from Bucknell and played against Michigan State in the 2018 NCAA Tournament.

“Very athletic, very aggressive,” Winston said when describing the Wildcats’ defense. “They take a lot of chances and you’ve just got to be patient. You can't force anything, can't let them rush you. If you play at your pace and control the tempo it takes away that kind of aggressiveness they play on defense.”

And it gives the Spartans, who have the benefit of a senior point guard and a junior big man, the advantage. It’s an advantage they’ll take, but it won’t be the most important thing of the night.

“I'm not looking at it like a win makes you a Final Four team or loss makes you a sixth-place in the league team,” Izzo said. “It just gives you a good barometer of where you are. It gives you something to play for.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau

Michigan State vs. Kentucky

Tip-off: 9:30 Tuesday, Madison Square Garden

TV/radio: ESPN/760 AM