- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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It's a pretty obvious thing to say, isn't it? That a Champions Classic game between two of the best four teams in the country -- a burly, veteran Michigan State team on the one hand, and a so-talented-I'm-already-running-out-of-adjectives Kentucky on the other hand -- is going to be good does not require the powers of prognostication. We don't need to get Miss Cleo on the line. In any other week of November and December, that would be the game; we're lucky enough that it will come on the same night, and in the same building, as Duke-Kansas.
But just in case you needed additional proof -- I don't think anyone currently reading fits this characterization, but hey, sometimes you have to take the segue where you can -- Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and Kentucky coach John Calipari (OK, mostly Calipari) have been happily providing it for days.
It all began back on Sept. 27, at Michigan State's Midnight Madness event, when students in attendance tweeted a choice fire 'em up line from Izzo about the team's practices to date: "We're working to kick Kentucky's [butt]." Considering the Spartans' only game before the Nov. 12 matchup with UK is a home warm-up against McNeese State (2012-13 KenPom rank: No. 308), this was a pretty innocuous thing for Izzo to say. Of course that's what Michigan State was doing. With all due respect to McNeese State … well, come on.
But John Calipari being John Calipari, it didn't take long for Izzo's otherwise ho-hum declaration to catch on. In a luncheon for UK's Greater Louisville Alumni Club Monday, Calipari gently fired back, but really spent most of his time on the topic spinning Izzo's five-word admission into another ingenious way to sell his program:
And let me say this about this team: Our third game is against Michigan State. That’s going to be hard. They’re already a veteran team. They’ve already made comments that their practices are about beating Kentucky. But I say this to you: If I ask my team when we play Florida, they’re not going to know. North Carolina (they don’t know). I’m going to do it today, because as I thought about it, they don’t know. You think they know when we’re playing Louisville? They don’t know. They want to know if there is a meal tonight. They don’t know. Now, I ask you this: Does everyone on our schedule know when they’re playing Kentucky? Oh, they know. And it’s on their locker, it’s on their ceiling of their bedroom. You’ve got to deal with that. That’s part of being at Kentucky. You know what I tell them? Not only do they want to beat Kentucky, they want to beat you as individual player. You want to know why? They wanted that scholarship that you got and they want to prove they’re better than you, not just their team is better than Kentucky. So that’s the challenge that we have. But would you want it any other way? I don’t. Bring it. Let’s go – as long as I’ve got a good team. (Laughter). Bring it, let’s go.
See what I mean? He's a genius.
I know, I know: It gets really old reading that. But what else are you supposed to say? The same guy who has turned the one-and-done rule into his personal annual NBA talent showcase, who coined "players first" and repeated it approximately once every five minutes for four years straight, who got Drake and Jay-Z on board with a program from Lexington, Ky. -- this is a man who knows marketing.
And so when Izzo says his team is working on beating Kentucky in its first non-cupcake game of the season, it's not merely a chance to say "well, good for them; we're doing the same." Oh, no. No, no, no. This is a branding opportunity, a chance for Calipari to sing from the high heavens about how prestigious Kentucky hoops is (it is) and about how teams circle their Kentucky date in bright red ink because a) it's Kentucky, and b) scholarship envy, or something. Do Adreian Payne and Gary Harris sit around thinking about their once-upon-a-time offers to play at UK? Doubtful. Is Kentucky Michigan State's second game of the season? Again: yes.
But in Calipari's world, no chance at a positive spin may go wasted. Dude is never not on-message. Which is precisely why he's so good.
It's a pretty obvious thing to say, isn't it? That a Champions Classic game between two of the best four teams in the country -- a burly, veteran Michigan State team on the one hand, and a so-talented-I'm-already-running-out-of-adjectives Kentucky on the other hand -- is going to be good does not require the powers of prognostication.