State Farm Champions Classic - Michigan State v Kentucky
Good beat evil Tuesday night at the United Center. That’s what the game between No. 1 Kentucky and No. 2 Michigan State meant.
The Spartans’ 78-74 victory over the Wildcats in the State Farm Champions Classic will mean very little come Selection Sunday. As much it was billed as a potential late-round NCAA tournament preview, all it might do is vault Michigan State one seed higher than Kentucky.
But what the win meant for basketball purists is that the sport still has hope for idealism. Michigan State showed that the four-year player still can rule college basketball.
There was villainous Kentucky coach John Calipari and his four freshman starters, all All-Americans. Does McDonald’s sponsor the university yet?
Then there was Michigan State and Tom Izzo — the program and coach that seem to stand for everything good in college hoops — and a starting lineup that trots out two seniors and a junior.
Izzo sells his program by telling recruits to stay four years. That has gotten every four-year player he has coached to a Final Four. This year’s senior class would be the first not to go to a Final Four under Izzo if they fail to make it this season.
Kentucky markets its program as a health club, a brief stop on the road to the NBA. And that’s within the governing rules of the NCAA. All Calipari has violated is an idealism — one that became a reality for Kentucky on Tuesday.
‘‘What happens is this kind of tournament is great for college basketball,’’ Calipari said. ‘‘It is terrific for the teams. It’s just tough for a really young team. I knew we’d start that way. I told the staff let’s hope it’s not 15-0.’’
His prediction was almost right. The Spartans jumped out to a 10-0 lead.
That came in large part because of the leadership of senior Keith Appling. Playing in a Final Four-like atmosphere, Appling was able to push the ball up the floor. That got an inexperienced Kentucky team frantic.
But the biggest example of the difference between a fresh-faced Kentucky team and an experienced Michigan State squad came in the first half. Upset after Alex Gauna failed to box out in the middle of the first half, Appling publicly and verbally showed his anger. That was leadership. Does a freshman in his second game carry that kind of clout?
Appling knew all game the right buttons to push. He didn’t always. Not surprisingly, he credits his poise to staying four years.
‘‘I feel like that comes with growth and being with Coach Izzo,’’ Appling said. ‘‘I’ve been here a few years now, and I’ve learned a lot on and off the court.’’
Michigan State had 17 assists and seven turnovers, Kentucky eight assists and 17 turnovers. No stats are better for differentiating the more mature team.
And now the more mature, seasoned team presumably has netted itself a No. 1 ranking.
Izzo questioned how his team will handle it once they arrive back on campus. They’ll likely deal with it better than Kentucky did.
‘‘If we have that, I think it’s great for us,” Izzo said. ‘‘We have to learn how to handle that kind of thing. We’ll see now. I like what they said. I want them to enjoy the game. I told them a year is a process of these games.’’
‘‘[Calipari] found a niche. He does an incredible job with it. But I’m not saying that’s the norm right now.’’