Michigan State’s stay atop the college basketball rankings may last just one week. After entering its Tuesday night opener as the preseason No. 1 team in the sport for the first time in program history, the Spartans fell to No. 2 Kentucky 69-62 in the second game of the Champions Classic.
It was an excellent performance from Kentucky that led to the No. 1 team suffering its first loss in its first game. The Wildcats’ defense stifled MSU in the first half, holding them to only 24 points while forcing 10 turnovers. Offensively, UK played good — then when it turned to freshman guard Tyrese Maxey, it turned to great. Maxey finished two points shy of a UK freshman scoring record in a debut with 26 points, 15 of which came in the second half. The biggest three of those came when it mattered most.
Maxey outdueled Michigan State star Cassius Winston, who enters the season as the preseason favorite to win National Player of the Year honors. Winston scored 21 points and added four assists, but flirted with foul trouble and couldn’t quite find a rhythm that may have allowed him to take over on the big stage. He finished as the only MSU player to finish in double figures scoring.
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1. Tyrese Maxey is a treat
A TREAT. That was awesome. Borderline historic, even. Maxey, a true freshman, dropping 26 points on the No. 1 team in college basketball was quite a way to cap the first night of the college basketball season.
Listen, I knew Maxey would be good. I’ve long thought he’d lead UK in scoring and be a fun guard. I did not think, however, that he’d come off the bench and go completely nuclear. That was a freshman playing like a full grown man. And it’d have been an awesome performance in itself if not for this game-sealer, which turned it from awesome to astonishing.
2. Michigan State was out of sorts
Chalk this up to first game jitters, or heck, credit Kentucky, which did a great job of disrupting any flow Michigan State tried to establish. Whatever you want to use, it’s clear Michigan State just wasn’t in sync all night. It trailed early, then battled back, then trailed again, and battled back in the second half again before falling behind late. It was a rollercoaster — not the adjective you normally use to describe the performance of a preseason No. 1 team.
It might be, however, the adjective you use to describe a preseason No. 1 team without a vital piece. Senior guard Joshua Langford remains out indefinitely with a foot injury, and time will tell when — or if — he returns. Last season MSU made it to the Final Four without him in the lineup, but having him in it would no doubt give Sparty a calming presence it seemingly lacked tonight. Which brings us to our next point …
3. Michigan State needs a second option
I have zero doubts Michigan State will recover from this. None. Tom Izzo-coached teams get better with time, and if a seven-point loss to the No. 2 team in America is the low point of the season, then there will be a whole heck of a lot of highs. But what’s clear after this game is that Cassius Winston’s going to need some help. He was the only Spartans player to score in double figures, and on the night, MSU players not named Cassius Winston finished 17-of-44 shooting.
This is a time when a one-game sample size doesn’t tell us much, because it’s easy to say MSU doesn’t, right now, have a second option. In time I expect big man Xavier Tillman to emerge as that guy, with Aaron Henry vying for opportunities, too. We wait to see who steps up, but from the small sample size we have, the stepping up must happen soon. Winston is a great player on a great team, but Winston alone can’t do it all … not if Sparty’s going to reach the lofty expectations set for it.
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