The season began with the Champions Classic, with Michigan State and Kentucky giving us quite a show; let’s look at what happened.
One of the greatest displays of basketball has yearly come on the opening night of the season, as four of the nation’s Blue Blood programs gather for the Champions Classic. In a season shortened by the national pandemic, these games stand out even more, as we didn’t get a chance to see these teams in postseason play. Our look at the 2019-20’s season top 40 games continues with the opening night matchup between the nation’s two top teams.
32. #2 Kentucky 69, #1 Michigan State 62 (Champions Classic)
November 5, 2019, Madison Square Garden in New York, NY
Expectations were sky-high for both Kentucky and Michigan State as the season began, with the teams heading to Madison Square Garden for the annual Champions Classic. There were plenty of exciting games on opening night, but nothing quite like a matchup between the #1 and #2 teams in the nation. The two programs had split their previous two matchups, with Michigan State winning in 2013 and Kentucky in 2016, but this was a completely different match.
As per usual, expectations were high for Kentucky, as coach John Calipari once more rebuilt the Wildcats roster with impressive young talent. While the program had lost Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson, and a few other big names, there were plenty of new faces to pick up the slack. Bucknell transfer Nate Sestina joined a young recruiting class that included 5-star prospects Tyrese Maxey and Kahlil Whitney. Kentucky was ready to show off their new talent on the biggest stage
Michigan State entered the season as the favorites to win the national title. While the Spartans had lost Kenny Goins and Matt McQuaid, there was still a lot of talent on this roster. Cassius Winston announced his return for his senior season, giving a huge boost to a program that was also returning Xavier Tillman and Joshua Langford.
The season began great for Kentucky, as their offense took control early in the game, building an 11-4 before the first media timeout. Gabe Brown had five key points for the Spartans and they managed to tie the game again by the midway point of the first half. Winston had 9 points early on, though Kentucky’s offense took off again.
Maxey hit a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws, rebuilding the Wildcats’ lead. However, Michigan State’s lack of offense really doomed them in the final minutes of the half. A Marcus Bingham dunk with six minutes left was the Spartan’s final made shot of the half, leading to a 9-0 run by Kentucky. By halftime, the Wildcats’ lead was up to 10, meaning there was work ahead for the Spartans.
Michigan State began the second half with an 8-2 run to get right back into the game, with Winston providing half of those points to build on his team lead. Maxey came to play in his first game, helping Kentucky build their lead back up again. By the midway point of the half, Kentucky was threatening to run away, building a 13-point lead on 3-point baskets from Whitney and Sestina, though the Spartans weren’t done quite yet.
The Spartans scored seven points in a hurry to slice the lead, but Maxey took over on offense for the Wildcats. As Michigan State continued to turn possessions into points, Maxey went to work as well, scoring most of Kentucky’s point during a 19-8 Michigan State run. With just one minute left in the game, Maxey hit the key 3-pointer to solidify the win, giving the Wildcats a five-point lead they would not relinquish. The Wildcats hit their free throws late, while a Sestina dunk in the final seconds was the cherry on top.
In his first career game, Maxey came off the bench and led all scorers with 26 points. Ashton Hagans had 11 points while Immanuel Quickly added 10 for a balanced Kentucky offense. For Michigan State, they were left with disappointment, even after a stellar 21-point effort from Winston. The Spartans turned the ball over 16 times and shot just 19% from long range, not the best start to a season with great expectations.
The season debut of these national title contenders certainly delivered, even if Kentucky led for a majority of the game. Though the Wildcats would drop that mind-boggling game to Evansville a week later, they turned into definite contenders by the end of the season, winning the SEC title by three games. Though they didn’t get a chance to showcase their talent in the postseason, they came to play against Michigan State.
As it turned out, the season didn’t go quite as planned for the Spartans after the loss. They would lose Langford to injury, even as Winston starred for the team on a nightly basis going forward. They’d tie for the Big Ten crown, though briefly fell out of the Top 25 in February.
However, these Spartans were playing fantastic basketball by the end of the season, winning their last four games all against ranked teams. It’s a shame we didn’t get a chance to see Tom Izzo’s squad competing for another chance at postseason glory.
For all we know, this could have been a preview of the Final Four or at least a second-weekend matchup. We got an exciting showdown where a young Kentucky team bested Michigan State on this night in New York. By season’s end, these two programs had both put things together, with the national pandemic perhaps robbing one of them of their next national championship. Still, it’s a good thing we got to see this early season faceoff, ample reason for the Champions Classic to continue for years to come.