Wow. No. 2 Michigan State upset No. 1 Kentucky 78-74 in the Champions Classic on Tuesday in Chicago. The second-ranked squad has won seven of the past eight meetings between No. 1 and No. 2 squads, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Here are five quick observations from the game:
Give Michigan State the credit it deserves: This wasn’t just a situation where a bunch of freshmen were shell-shocked, their first big stage at this level for the most talented recruiting class in NCAA history.
The Spartans were just the better team. They are the better team. Give them their credit. Gary Harris looked like a lottery pick. Adreian Payne (when he wasn’t on the bench due to foul trouble) did, too. They outhustled the young Wildcats. They were better on defense. And they were just more efficient.
Kentucky was tough down the stretch, but Michigan State was in control most of the night. Why? Because as of early November, the Spartans -- not the Wildcats -- are the best team in the country.
A healthy Gary Harris is a dangerous Gary Harris: Last season, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year was hindered by a bad shoulder. That didn’t stop him from averaging 12.9 PPG. Harris is healthy now. And in this matchup, it was clear why so many NBA execs view him as a lottery pick in next summer’s NBA draft. He was 5-for-7 with 15 points in the first half. He was also a defensive stud all night. We know he’s the best player in the Big Ten. But Tuesday’s effort tossed Harris into the “best player in America” conversation, if he wasn’t already in it.
Experience mattered: As Kentucky tried to emerge from a double-digit deficit in the first half, you could see the role that experience played in the matchup. The Wildcats were down by as many as 15 points in the first half. And they were uneasy. They weren’t communicating. They always looked lost on defense, especially in transition (Michigan State shot 58 percent from the field in the first half, 48 percent overall). At one point, Dakari Johnson appeared to look at a teammate and say, “You gotta listen to me.” No one was listening.
Entering the season, the main concern about this Kentucky team was its lack of leadership. As the game got away from the Wildcats, they needed a leader. But they were all in the same position due to their inexperience. They fought back in the second half, but that early deficit was too much to overcome. Michigan State, however, relied on juniors and seniors who helped the Spartans carve out a nice lead early and remain calm as Kentucky bounced back.
Payne (15 points, one block) was so smooth when he wasn’t battling foul trouble. Keith Appling (team-high 22 points) and Harris (20 points) were too. Branden Dawson made a multitude of plays on defense -- and a huge putback in the final seconds. The Spartans were ready for the moment. Their experience made a difference.
Too many turnovers for Kentucky: Kentucky had 17 turnovers. Julius Randle had seven of them and point guard Andrew Harrison was responsible for five. When two of the best players on any team have 12 combined turnovers, that team usually loses. I’m sure John Calipari will use this tape to scrutinize a variety of miscues by a young Kentucky squad. But those turnovers ruined too many valuable possessions that will cost Kentucky other games against elite teams in the future if it’s not more cautious handling the ball.
Don’t overreact: Randle had 27 points and 13 rebounds, despite struggling in the first half. There’s no chemistry on that Kentucky squad yet. But there are a bunch of high-level players who must learn how to play together. The Wildcats couldn’t buy a 3-pointer (4-for-20) or a free throw (20-for-36). But they stormed back against an elite Michigan State squad in the second half. They could have quit. But they fought back. They just made too many mistakes. It was still a remarkable rally. No, they’re obviously not going to go undefeated. Come March, however, they’ll be one of America’s most dangerous teams. They just ran into a better team on Tuesday night.