As his team prepares for tipoff in a highly touted contest against No. 1 Kentucky in Chicago, head coach Tom Izzo said Monday he can’t remember a non-Final Four matchup with as much national buzz as tonight’s Champions Classic is receiving.
The nationally televised doubleheader pits the top-ranked Wildcats (2-0 overall) against the No. 2 Spartans (1-0) at 7:30 p.m. before No. 4 Duke tangles with No. 5 Kansas.
“To be a part of that, I think is a privilege and an honor and something that I’m sure my players will be as excited as I am to participated,” Izzo said.
“If not, they will be in trouble.”
The highly-anticipated contest will be a clash of contrasting styles.
MSU boasts a combination of talent and experience rarely seen at the game’s upper echelon in today’s era. Izzo has a senior point guard in Keith Appling, backed up by junior Travis Tricech, along with a senior All-American candidate in center Adreian Payne and veteran wings Branden Dawson and Gary Harris.
Kentucky head coach John Calipari builds his program by fiercely recruiting the nation’s most elite high school talent each year, most of which are “one-and-done” players with one eye trained on the NBA.
Calipari’s latest crop of blue-chip freshmen include six of the top-20 ranked players in Rivals.com’s class of 2013. Three of those players — explosive power forward Julius Randle, point guard Andrew Harrison and shooting guard Aaron Harrison, his twin brother — were ranked No. 1 at their respective positions.
“There’s no question they’ve got the most talented team, I think, in the country as far as skill and ability,” said Izzo, who believes the Wildcats have seven first-round NBA draft picks on their roster. “But they are young and it is early, so we will have some advantages the other way. It’s going to be fun to see which ones pans out and pays off.”
Tuesday will be the first true test for a pair of teams with national title aspirations. Izzo said providing an early-season measuring stick is the number one takeaway from an event such as this.
Kentucky’s young squad began the season cruising to blowouts of 32 and 30 points, while the Spartans routed McNeese State 98-56 on Friday.
“There can’t be a negative to this, at least for me,” Izzo said. “I can’t speak for the other three coaches. I just can’t see one thing in college basketball that would be bad about a matchup like this, whether you lost big or you won big.”
MSU’s date with the Wildcats is the first of many juggernaut non-conference games on the schedule.
It will be the earliest meeting of the top-two ranked teams in history, with the last regular season meeting in 2008 between No. 1 Memphis, coached by Calipari, and No. 2 Tennessee. MSU’s last appearance in such a matchup came in the 1999 Final Four versus Duke. The winner in Chicago likely will retain or take over the current No. 1 spot.
“I mean, there’s a price you pay for it … but we’ve been there in some ways before,” Izzo said of being No. 1. “But would it be an advantage to our program? I think most definitely. This whole week is an advantage to our program.”