The “process” for UK continues with test against No. 12 Michigan State


Kentucky guard Isaiah Briscoe goes for a layup at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., on Sunday, November 13, 2016. Kentucky beat Canisius 93-69. Photo by Joshua Qualls | Staff

Anthony Crawford

While on the scoreboard, No. 2 UK men’s basketball has yet to be tested in the comfortable wins over Stephen F. Austin and Canisius, the games did expose some weakness in the team’s toughness and intensity. 

Those same qualities will likely end up being the keys to the game in the Cats next matchup as they head to Madison Square Garden in New York to face No. 13 Michigan State Spartans in this year’s Champion’s Classic. 

This event has for years now served as the the premier regular season college basketball showcase and had usually had some big postseason implications.

Last season, UK overcame Duke in a top-ten matchup that put on display the dominant guard play that would be the narrative going forward through the season for the Cats.

This year, the gritty Spartans can help UK shake off some early concerns over toughness, as that will be key to beating the Tom Izzo coached team. Izzo has kept Michigan State in it year after year in large part because of the veteran pieces on his team. This year’s team has some veterans like senior Eron Harris and junior Lourawls ‘Tum Tum’ Nairn Jr., but younger players are a bigger part of this team for a change, especially freshman Miles Bridges. 

“Miles Bridges is legitimately one of the better players in the country,” John Calipari said Monday in his press conference. “Physically, skill-wise, he’s a big body with guard skills. Not afraid. He’s Tom’s kind of player, too. He’s gritty, he’s tough, he’s good.”

Bridges was the No. 12 player in last year’s recruiting ranking and was a guy that UK recruited heavily as well. He established himself as one of the top freshmen and overall players in the country in the Spartans’ first game, a 65-63 loss to No. 10 Arizona in the Armed Forces Classic. He led Michigan State with 21 points and seven rebounds, while also displaying his athleticism with numerous highlight dunks.

Overall, Bridges was a big part for the Spartans staying in the game against Arizona, which was a back-and-forth affair that went down to the wire. He and the rest of the Spartans share the effort and toughness that is associated with most Izzo-coached teams, which should provide UK with a good test. 

In the two games so far this season, the Cats have a -5 rebounding margin. With such a small sample size, that number can be taken out of context, but it still shows that there is a bit of an effort issue when it comes to securing loose balls.

Calipari was upset with the lack of hustle out of the freshmen following Sunday’s win over Canisius, but he was happy with one player in Isaiah Briscoe. Briscoe’s leadership was a theme all preseason and now he is showing what a fully invested version of himself looks like.

Briscoe is leading the team averaging 19 points per game, but he has really impacted all aspects of the game for UK. As of now, he is the only player for UK that is making winning and effort plays, and has also been the team’s most reliable perimeter defender.

Calipari joked in his pre-Michigan State press conference about how coaches like Izzo who are not used to coaching young team have reached out to Calipari about how he deals with it year after year.

“They look at me when I walk in and I just wink,” Calipari said. “There’s more than just Tom. Everybody’s playing young guys and it’s difficult. It’s a process and you’ve got to be patient — but you can’t be patient.” 

The process has gone faster with some than with others this year, with Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo being two that have struggled some despite playing big roles on the team. 

Bam hardly played in the first game against Stephen F. Austin, but showed some improvements in the next one to put up his first collegiate double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds. Monk has had some trouble shooting but he still has gotten into double digits both games.

Even De’Aaron Fox who has looked great offensively with his speed and passing, has not looked the best on defense as Calipari noted both freshmen guards have struggled guarding when off the ball. 

The freshmen will have to continue to improve, but this time all of college basketball will be watching. This early in the “process” it’s hard to tell, but UK still has a chance to get a statement win over Michigan State in the Champions Classic.

Other Notes:

De’Aaron Fox was named SEC Freshman of the Week Monday. This makes it six times that a UK player has taken home that award following the first week of the season. Fox averaged 15.5 points, 7.5 assists, four rebounds and 1.5 steals in UK’s two wins this past weekend.

Shai Alexander gives UK it’s third Top 50 commit for 2017 class. Alexander is the No. 43 ranked prospect in the class, according to 247Sports. The 6’4” combo guard is the first backcourt addition made in the class, joining big men Nick Richards and P.J. Washington.