Much has been made of the impact of the Champions Classic, of the "importance" -- for lack of a better term -- of four teams this good, this talented, and this high-profile meeting so early in the college hoops calendar. And rightfully so: Tuesday night at the United Center might comprise the best non-Final Four event in the game in a decade. Maybe more.
Then again, it might not. For all of the pre-lionization you've heard these past few weeks, in the end the Champions Classic will be remembered well only if its actual basketball manages to measure up. With all of the fuzzy hype stripped away, what should you expect Tuesday night in Chicago? Let's dig in.
Note: Part two of the breakdown -- on Kansas versus Duke -- will come later this morning.
No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 2 Michigan State, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Can Kentucky's offense do enough? Kentucky coach John Calipari and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo have spent the past week congenially faux-sparring over one key question: Which feted coach with the massively talented roster has the tougher lot Tuesday night? Is it Calipari, with his crazy-young, crazy-gifted, hard-to-scout group of McDonald's All Americans? Or is it Izzo, commanding his most complete roster in a decade, in charge of veterans with long resumes and reels of scoutable tape?
The answer matters. The answer doesn't matter. All at the same time.
Let me explain. It is silly to ponder which among Izzo and Calipari has it rougher; that's like asking whether Henry VIII or Louis XVI had shinier forks. But there is some kernel of insight here: Even with two easy, comprehensive blowouts in the books, Kentucky's youth really does make the Wildcats difficult to scout. You can imagine Izzo and his staff frustrated in the film room, poring over the same tape again and again, wondering whether any of the data are actionable. Conversely, as Calipari happily asserted, it is sort of bonkers to ask a team with so many freshmen in crucial roles to be ready for No. 2-ranked Michigan State as early as Nov. 12.
Which is why this game might well come down to one question: Is the Wildcats' offense good enough?
Calipari, by his own admission, devoted most of his preseason practice to offense. He wanted his players to absorb the dribble-drive motion intuitively, to learn to unleash their individual skills without hesitation, and in their 140 possessions thus far -- in blowout wins over UNC Asheville and Northern Kentucky -- Kentucky has pumped in 182 points.
That is very good. The question is whether it is beat-Michigan State good. The Spartans are not Northern Kentucky; they are not UNC Asheville. They will have the two best pure defenders on the floor, point guard Keith Appling and forward Adreian Payne. Not only that, but they are perfectly suited for Kentucky's stars specifically. Appling and shooting guard Gary Harris are excellent at preventing penetration. And Payne? That brings us to our next question ...
Can Adreian Payne shut down Julius Randle? With the possible exception of Jabari Parker, Randle has been the most impressive offensive force thus far in this young season -- and not in the ways you might expect. Billed as a low-block banger throughout high school, Calipari has rewired Randle's role in Lexington, Ky. Randle often begins UK possessions much farther away from the basket, where he can catch, drive, gain an unstoppable head of steam, spin (if necessary) and finish with contact at the rim. There are maybe three or four players in the sport that look physically capable of defending him, and that's a generous estimate.
Payne, it just so happens, is the leading candidate. Rangy and long and a constant shot-blocking threat since his arrival in East Lansing, Payne earned raves last season for expanding his offensive toolbox out to 20 feet. But nestled in that perimeter expansion was a player who could defend in space as well as at the rim, someone who could check smaller players out to the 3-point line and recover to the glass with a stride and a leap. That is exactly what you need to defend Randle: Someone who can stop his momentum early, force him to give the ball to a guard, force the Wildcats to play conventionally, and, if/when the Wildcats miss, keep Randle off the offensive glass.
In two games, Randle has been UK's most-used player and its most efficient. According to Synergy scouting data, Randle has used 20.6 of UK's possessions, averaging a team-best 1.34 points per. Sixteen of those possessions have been offensive rebounds and putbacks. Just six have been traditional post-ups. You need a unique defender to guard Randle's unique attack. You won't find a better fit than Payne.
Where experience matters. Why focus so much on what happens when the Wildcats have the ball? Because that's what they've done for the better part of a month. In this accelerated, unusual development cycle, Calipari might momentarily have delayed his traditional coaching strength -- form-fitting elite defenses from the precious freshmen metals. We know UK has the talent to put points on the board, but we don't know whether the Wildcats are ready to play total team defense against a team as smart and as cohesive and as talented as the Spartans for 40 intense minutes.
We know all that, and much more, about Michigan State. Advantage Izzo? We'll find out Tuesday night.