MSU expects ‘track meet’ in spotlight game vs. Kentucky

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Tum Tum Nairn

East Lansing – Michigan State opened the season on a fairly big stage, taking on No. 10 Arizona in Hawaii as part of the Armed Forces Classic.

And as big as that was, it can’t really compare to what No. 13 Michigan State and its young lineup will be facing Tuesday when it takes on No. 2 Kentucky in the Champions Classic at 7 p.m. That’s because this one is coming at Madison Square Garden, and for most basketball players, there’s no better arena in which to play.

“Oh, no,” Tum Tum Nairn said when asked if tonight’s game was just like any other. “It’s special. Ever since I started playing basketball – Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, some of the greats to play the game all talk about playing in that arena. For me it is very humbling being a kid from the Bahamas and having the chance to play at the Garden is a blessing and a dream come true.”

The arena is just the icing on the cake for Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. For him, playing in the Champions Classic is what really stands out. It’s the sixth year of the event and Kansas-Duke follows the Spartans and Wildcats.

“It is a great showcase for college basketball,” Izzo said. “It will be one of the greatest nights of the season as far as media. That is what I am selling it to my kids.

“There have been some great games in the classic. In the five games that we have played we are 3-2 and Kentucky and Duke are both 3-2. We have held our own as far as that goes.”

The Spartans (0-1) will be looking to do just that against another young but talented Kentucky team that has cruised in its first two games.

The Wildcats are freshmen-heavy once again as guards De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk start along with forward Bam Adebayo, and all three earned some sort of preseason All-American recognition. However, sophomore Isaiah Briscoe is leading Kentucky by averaging 19 points a game and senior forward Derek Willis is a steady force.

Michigan State healthy for showdown vs. Kentucky

Coming off the loss to Arizona, Michigan State feels it’s ready for what Kentucky has to offer.

“They’re a great team,” freshman guard Joshua Langford said. “I feel like the one thing we need to stop is their transition. We have to make sure we dig in on their bigs because we’re undersized. We need to make sure we don’t let them speed us up. A lot of teams that play Kentucky get sped up and do things they’re not used to doing. We just have to play Michigan State basketball.”

That means improving on things like turning the ball over and staying out of foul trouble. Against Arizona, Michigan State gave the ball away 18 times while Langford, Cassius Winston and Eron Harris all were limited with early fouls.

It all led to a Spartans offense that went through a lull in the middle of the game and didn’t have enough to get over the hump in the last-second loss, despite building a 15-point first-half lead. Getting more minutes from the guards should help alleviate some of the offensive issues, Izzo believes.

“I wouldn’t say we have a great penetration-type team, but Cassius is gonna help that a lot,” Izzo said. “We were up (15) points and we had three guys sitting on the bench and it was Cassius, Langford and Harris. And those guys I think can do more. I think Josh is gonna add a lot.”

After taking on Kentucky, Michigan State closes the week with home games against Mississippi Valley State on Friday and Florida Gulf Coast on Sunday. Then it’s off to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis as the treacherous opening month continues.

But for one night, the college basketball world will be focused on New York.

“I’m really looking forward to this game,” Izzo said. “I think this will be one of the best teams we’ve played in years and I’m anxious to see how we compete. But I still like this team. I like ’em a lot. I think we’ve got as good a chance as anybody to win tomorrow night. We’re not going to win by fouling. We’re not going to win by turning the ball over. Those will be two critical things, and taking bad shots, because they can get it from one end to the other better than any Kentucky team that we’ve played.

“So it’ll be a track meet. I don’t see a lot of half-court game in this game. With Kansas and Duke, and Michigan State and Kentucky, there is not another place that I’d rather be than Madison Square Garden.”

MSU IN CHAMPIONS CLASSIC

2011: Beat Kansas, 69-65

2012: Lost to Duke, 75-67

2013: Lost to Kansas, 94-78

2014: Beat Kansas, 71-40

2015: Beat Kentucky, 79-74

No. 13 Michigan State vs. No. 2 Kentucky

Tip-off: Tuesday, 7 p.m., Madison Square Garden, New York

TV / radio: ESPN / WJR 760

Records: Michigan State 0-1, Kentucky 2-0

Outlook: Michigan State won the only other meeting between the teams in the Champions Classic, beating top-ranked Kentucky, 78-74, in Chicago in 2013 as the No. 2 team in the nation. … Michigan State also has two wins over Kansas in the event (2012, 2015) and has lost twice to Duke (2011, 2014).

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter @mattcharboneau