Cats seek tone-setting win in Champions Classic


Michael Clubb

Kentucky Wildcats guard Sahvir Wheeler (2) gets fouled in the air during the UK vs. Saint Peter’s mens basketball game in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, March 17, 2022, at Gainbridge Arena in Indianapolis, Indiana. UK lost 85-79 in overtime. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Samantha Money, Asst. Sports Editor

The annual Champions Classic is just around the corner with No. 4 Kentucky basketball set to take on the Michigan State Spartans.

Played inside Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana, the event will also feature No. 7 Duke taking on No. 5 Kansas, with the four teams cycling opponents every year.

The Champions Classic typically occurs on the opening day of the season for each of the four teams, but the date had to be pushed back this year due to Election Day taking place on Nov. 8, meaning all four teams will have begun play prior to meeting in Indy.

Duke currently sits atop the Champions Classic leaderboard, winning seven out of its 11 matchups over the years, including three over the Wildcats, most recently last season.

Kansas follows close behind with six wins, Kentucky places third with five, and Michigan State is last with four wins.

Part of the excitement the Champions Classic brings every season is that the games could be a toss-up every year with all teams just beginning to find their respective rhythms on the court so early on in the season.

Each team also represents a different conference and often a potential favorite to win their respective conferences, so the opportunity to play each other does not come often.

Diving deeper into the Kentucky-Michigan State game, it will be the fourth time that the two will face off in the Classic since its inception in 2011.

The last matchup between the Cats and Spartans came in 2019 when Kentucky triumphed over Michigan State 69-62 on the back of a 26-point performance by current Philadelphia 76ers guard Tyrese Maxey.

This year, Kentucky is the higher ranked of the two, sitting at No. 4 in the preseason AP Poll. Meanwhile, the Spartans do not find a number next to their name.

Each team’s season openers were successful showings, with Kentucky defeating Howard 95-63 and Michigan State overcoming Northern Arizona 73-55.

That said, Kentucky’s starting lineup runs the risk of missing two of its stars in the forms of Oscar Tshiebwe and Sahvir Wheeler, both of whom missed the season opener with leg injuries.

Currently, it is unclear whether or not the duo will be taking the court against the Spartans.

For Michigan State, players to look out for this season are junior AJ Hoggard and graduate student Joey Hauser, both of whom have no shortage of hype surrounding them early on in the year.

In MSU’s game against the Lumberjacks, Hauser racked up 18 points, showing he could potentially be dangerous from beyond the arc.

Hoggard, who led the Big Ten in assists last season, is also seen as a significant gamechanger on the court and, as a returner, has experience under his belt.

The Wildcats, despite the potential absence of Wheeler and Tschiebwe, will still have a stacked bench with around nine players who could play consistent minutes this season, 11 including the injured starters.

Both Antonio Reeves and CJ Fredrick led the Cats in scoring against Howard and were complimented by freshman Cason Wallace, who finished the game just a single assist and two baskets away from achieving a triple double during the season opener.

Wallace impressed both his teammates and head coach John Calipari with his character and work ethic thus far into the season with Calipari comparing him to former Wildcats such as Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray and Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

The Cats are completely capable of easily putting up more points in the paint against the Spartans, even without Tshiebwe, but last time Kentucky took a trip to Indianapolis, things didn’t quite go their way. The matchup with Michigan State will take place on the same court where the Saint Peter’s Peacocks stunned the Wildcats in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in March of this year, with a fair amount of Kentucky’s current roster having played in that game.

The Spartans also have an advantage in the sense that they play a ranked team earlier when they take on No. 2 Gonzaga on Friday, Nov. 11, while Kentucky meets Duquesne that same day, meaning MSU will be its first real test.

The Champions Classic will tip off inside Gainbridge Fieldhouse on Tuesday, Nov. 15, with the Cats and Spartans set to face off at 7 p.m. EST. The game will also air live on ESPN.