NEW YORK – For only the second time in NCAA Division I history, the No. 1 and 2 teams will open their seasons against each other, as No. 1 Michigan State takes on No. 2 Kentucky in the Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York on Tuesday. The Spartans are coming off a run to the Final Four last season, while the Wildcats reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.
TV: 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN.
There are a number of reasons why Tom Izzo's squad is ranked No. 1, but the biggest is senior point guard Cassius Winston, who averaged 18.8 points and 7.5 assists in winning Big Ten Player of the Year honors a season ago. Junior forward Xavier Tillman emerged in the second half of the season in 2018-19, finishing with averages of 10.0 points and 7.3 rebounds.
Winston isn’t the only star point guard in this game, as Kentucky has one in sophomore Ashton Hagans, the team leader in points, assists and steals among returnees.
There is a lot of buzz for Hagans’ backcourt mate, freshman Tyrese Maxey, a McDonald’s All-American who was named to the All-SEC preseason second team before he’s stepped on the court.
ABOUT MICHIGAN STATE (2018-19: 32-7)
Michigan State's problems usually come when facing pressure defenses, as Winston can force things and commit turnovers, so look for Kentucky to be in his face for much of this game. The fact that Winston doesn't have running mate Joshua Langford (foot injury) to lean on for help won't make the Spartans' situation any better. Freshman Rocket Watts is expected to start at shooting guard, and he'll need to handle the ball some to allow Winston a break from the pressure.
ABOUT KENTUCKY (2018-19: 30-7)
In a starting five that features two freshmen and two sophomores, graduate transfer Nate Sestina from Bucknell will provide some needed experience for coach John Calipari. The 6-9 forward averaged 15.8 points and a Patriot League-best 8.5 rebounds a season ago, and he’ll be expected to be a stabilizing force in the paint. Sestina averaged 12.0 points and 9.0 rebounds in Kentucky’s two exhibition games, shooting 64.7 percent from the field, and could be a big factor against MSU’s smaller front line.
1. This is the third straight season Michigan State's game in the Champions Classic has involved the No. 1 team in the country, though the first with the Spartans holding the top spot.
2. Kentucky F Nick Richards is questionable for the season opener after suffering a sprained ankle in the Wildcats' exhibition opener and sitting out the team's second exhibition contest.
3. The Spartans and Wildcats met as the top two teams in the country in the Champions Classic once before, with No. 2 Michigan State beating No. 1 Kentucky in 2013.