LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Go small, John Calipari. And put Tyrese Maxey in the starting lineup.
Don’t fear playing without the standard recommended size in the middle. Go small — and go with Maxey, your turbo-charged freshman point guard.
That’s my primary take after Kentucky worked over top-ranked Michigan State, 69-62, Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Maxey introduced himself to Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, the Spartans and America by punishing the Spartans with 26 points, including a dagger three-pointer from several feet behind the line with 59.9 seconds to play.
It was a shot that had former Kentucky point guard John Wall throwing up his arms and standing up from his seat across from the Kentucky bench. It left ESPN commentator howling.
It was a shot that had students of Calipari’s string of point guards suggesting that Maxey will take his place with Wall, Brandon Knight, Tyler Ulis and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. He is a 6-foot-3 burner from suburban Dallas, who committed to Kentucky as a high school junior.
Credit the kid with making three of eight shots from distance as well as nine of his 10 free throws. He played 30 minutes and only turned the ball over once.
Not bad for a sub, who likely won’t be coming off the bench for long.
It was a victory that ensured the Spartans will vacate the No. 1 ranking next week and the Wildcats will advance from No. 2 to take it.
It was not a fluke. Kentucky looked the part of the deeper more talented team. This was nothing like the opening game the Wildcats played in this event against Duke a year ago.
Michigan State came to Manhattan, led by senior Cassius Winston, a point guard universally acclaimed the best college basketball player in the country.
Kentucky’s backcourt was better. More productive. More athletic. More impressive. They were better than Michigan State’s backcourt, even with Winston scoring 21 points.
With Maxey, Ashton Hagans (11 points, three assists) and Immanuel Quickley (10 points, four rebounds), Calipari has three guys who can control the basketball, direct a team, attack the rim and make opposing coaches wonder how they can defend all that speed.
Maxey played like a guy who understands he has star power. He beat Michigan State, even Winston, with his quickness. He looked like a guy comfortable with his jump shot. He played with a total absence of fear.
The Wildcats frontcourt was functional. At times even a bit better that that. Nate Sestina, the graduate transfer from Bucknell, looked like a guy who will be a better shooter and ball-handler than Reid Travis, but perhaps not as powerful around the rim. Credit Sestina with seven points and six boards. He was Kentucky’s leading rebounder.
That’s not surprising.
Calipari missed on the two frontcourt players who would have made the Wildcats a truly elite team.
One was high school senior James Wiseman, who scored 28 points wih 11 boards for Memphis in his college debut Tuesday night. The other was Virginia Tech transfer Kerry Blackshear, who had 20 points and 10 boards to lead Florida past North Florida in his first game for the Gators.
E. J. Montgomery and Nick Richards will have some solid nights this season, but they aren’t Wiseman or Blackshear.
They certainly aren’t DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Julius Randle, Karl-Anthony Towns or a few other of the big men Calipari has had in Lexington.
There’s nothing challenging over at least the next seven games for UK. Not until Dec. 14 when the Wildcats host Georgia Tech, which delivered a shocking Atlantic Coast Conference victory at North Carolina State Tuesday night.
But, truth be told, Ken Pomeroy’s analytics website gives the Wildcats a win probability of 90 percent or better over their next nine games, including Georgia Tech. It won’t drop below 70 percent until they play Ohio State Dec. 21.
By the time Kentucky gets to those games, everybody will know about Tyrese Maxey.
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