CHICAGO — Andrew Harrison's face said it all.
It was just seven minutes into the first half, seven minutes into this impossibly hyped Kentucky team's impossibly early test against No. 2 Michigan State, and the Wildcats were clearly trying to get back to basics. Harrison called a set at the top of the key, which sent guard James Young careening around screens, but Young couldn't find any space. Michigan State was playing textbook team defense. Switching over the top. Anticipating angles. Smothering.
That's when Harrison, in the middle of a live possession in front of 20,000-plus people, stopped pounding the ball into the floor just long enough to drop his shoulders and sigh.
It was a little gesture, but it said everything. No matter what Kentucky tried, Michigan State answered; the Spartans were cohesive, smart, physical and plenty talented in their own right. They guarded, they turned UK over and they finished in transition. All those Big Blue freshmen the world has waited on so breathlessly looked like exactly that: freshmen.
For one half, anyway.
There can be no indictments of Michigan State's 78-74 win in the first game of the 2013 Champions Classic Tuesday night. Michigan State won the game on the box score, Kentucky had fewer points at the final buzzer, and the Spartans are guaranteed to be No. 1 in Monday's polls.
But none of that stuff really matters — not this early, not with a team so young, not when Julius Randle and company nearly salvaged an apparent lost cause on the sheer strength of talent alone.
"I told my team at halftime, you're only down six baskets right now, and that's amazing," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "You should be down 20, 22 points. Now the question is whether you want to try to win the game. And they did."
Before Kentucky took the floor, Calipari said, he told his assistants his team would struggle early. The nerves would be too much, and the only question was whether UK would go down 15-0 or 12-0 in the opening minutes.
He was off by a basket. The Spartans forced five steals in the first five minutes, and opened a 10-0 run on the easy (and sometimes spectacular) baskets that ensued. Kentucky's offense stood stagnant. Randle, UK's undisputed star, was frustrated by both Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson. Randle had 27 touches in the first 6:30, according to STATS LLC, and exactly zero points from them.
Tom Izzo's team executed his game plan — to sink into the lane, double when necessary, and prevent penetration at all costs — to perfection. The Wildcats had no answer.
UK might have been worse on the defensive end. Transition defense was nonexistent — "guys were jogging," as Calipari described it — while the Spartans were crisp and clinical. At the 7:34 timeout, the Spartans led 26-14. At 3:59, 34-19. At the half, it was 44-32.
Between brief flashes of brilliance, the Wildcats were getting blown out.
"We really did a heck of a job in the first half," Izzo said. "We really did — on [Randle] too. We game planned it exactly how we wanted to.
"But then John made a couple of nice adjustments in the second half," Izzo said. "He spaced them out a little bit … and then they started to get it down low."
Did they ever: Randle opened the half with three straight buckets, a one-man 6-0 run. With less than 12 minutes left, as Michigan State began to falter — and Payne and Dawson, worn down by the constant thrashing in the low block, fell prey to fatigue and foul trouble — Randle took over. There were left-handed scoops through contact, putbacks off the glass, wrestling matches disguised as two-point field goals.
When Randle wasn't finishing at the rim, he was getting fouled. Often both. And Michigan State's lead began to dwindle — to five, and then three, and then to zero, when Randle's two free throws tied the game at 66-66.
Kentucky began the game in a 10-point hole, entered halftime down by 12, and yet, through Randle's sheer talent and physical strength, found themselves even with five minutes to play. Big Blue Nation drowned the United Center in noise.
"He gritted his teeth, he was ornery and nasty, and he wanted to put them on his shoulders," Izzo said. "For a freshman, that speaks volumes."
Randle finished with 27 points and 13 rebounds. He shot 9-of-14 from the field, 9-of-15 from the free throw line.
It was only almost enough. At 66-66, Keith Appling recovered from the baseline to sink a corner 3, Gary Harris created yet another steal. A few minutes later, on Michigan State's final possession, forward Dawson — Izzo's "unsung hero" — tipped in Denzel Valentine's wayward floater, giving Michigan State the four-point edge it needed.
Appling finished with 22 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and four steals; Harris had 20 points and three steals; and the Spartans survived, if only barely.
After Young launched Kentucky's futile last-ditch attempt, Harris, at midcourt, held one finger in the air. He looked dead serious for a moment, and then he smiled wide, a "hey, just playing" look the Spartans carried into the postgame scrum.
"This game didn't mean anything," Harris said. "We didn't win a Big Ten championship. We didn't win a national championship."
"It was a great win, but we didn't accomplish anything tonight," Appling said. "We want to be No. 1 at the end of the season — not at the beginning."
Izzo was less harsh.
"Of course the game matters," Izzo said. "When Magic Johnson flies back from L.A., the game matters. … We had a lot of guys come back for this game. It matters, it does. But I think what they're trying to say is what I told them before the game: If we win the game, we'll have 10,000 tweets this week. If we lose, we'll have 100,000 tweets."
Which is precisely why there was no real loser Tuesday night, and not in the warm and fuzzy everyone-gets-a-ribbon-and-an-orange-slice way, either. Michigan State was more prepared, more experienced, and more precise, and the Spartans earned a victory they deserved — one that will come in handy when No. 1 seeds are on the line in March. But Kentucky wasn't a loser, either. It was outclassed. Its defense ranged from bad to nonexistent. Its chief adjustment comprised "get the ball to Julius a bit closer to the basket," and "Julius, go score." And yet the fresh young Wildcats still nearly beat a veteran, athletic, talented Tom Izzo-coached team all the same.
"You get into a place where everyone's trying to do their own thing, and it looks discombobulated, but I expected that," Calipari said. "We don't take a lot of pride in our defense right now, but that's natural.
"I think we're going to be fine. I've got four months to get this right. Less now — three and a half months."
After a week of playful pregame squabbling, with "not fair" and "forfeit" flying between East Lansing and Lexington like barbs at a card game, Izzo and Calipari finally agreed.
"They're going to get a lot better," Izzo said. "But don't think we're not going to get a lot better, too."