The 2013 college basketball season has barely begun, but the two top teams in the nation are ready to square off. No.1 Kentucky will play No.2 Michigan State in the State Farm Champions Classic on Tuesday night at the United Center in Chicago.
It’s the first time the two teams atop the Top 25 poll will play each other since 2008. In the contest, No.2 Tennessee came out on top over first-ranked Memphis, 66-62. After the big win, the Vols went on to lose their next game.
Kentucky received 28 of a possible 65 first place votes in the AP Poll, compared to Michigan State's 22. The Wildcats are led by perhaps the most talented collection of freshmen since Michigan’s Fab Five. According to rivals.com, six of the team’s freshmen rank among the top 19 high school prospects from last year. Julius Randle is considered the best of the bunch, and he hasn’t disappointed in his first two games.
In two blowout wins, Randle had little trouble scoring. Against UNC-Asheville, his 23 points and 15 rebounds helped give Kentucky an 89-57 victory. The star forward was even better in the team’s 30-point rout of Northern Kentucky. He scored 22 points while grabbing 14 boards on just seven field-goal attempts.
Despite getting off to strong start, Randle is still looking to improve. He missed four of his 14 free throw attempts and will face tougher competition in the Spartans.
"I'm still missing some opportunities," said Randle after Kentucky’s second win. "(There were) a lot of balls I didn't come up with. I just have to learn from it and improve."
Head coach John Calipari starts four freshmen and sophomore forward Willie Cauley-Stain. It’s the first-year players, though, that have contributed the most, accounting for 83 percent of the team’s points. Sophomore Alex Poythress is almost averaging a double-double with 9.5 points and 10.0 rebounds per game off the bench.
Two players to watch for are the Harrison Twins: Andrew and Aaron. The backcourt duo combined to score 29 points against Northern Kentucky.
The Spartans have played just one game, but it would be hard to find a more impressive team performance. Michigan State beat McNeese State 98-56 on the strength of double-digit scoring performances from six different players. Sophomore Gary Harris led the teams by nearly registering a triple-double, scoring 20 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and dishing out six assists.
Harris, who is projected to be selected in the first round of the 2014 NBA Draft, is joined by seniors Adreian Payne and Keith Appling, who are also considered solid pro prospects. Junior swingman Branden Dawson is also a key contributor for the Spartans, and scored 12 points in the season opener.
Head coach Tom Izzo has been quick to praise Kentucky's talented squad, particularly Randle.
"We haven't seen anyone like that," Izzo said of Randle.
According to oddshark.com, the Wildcats are likely to open up as a 3.5-point favorite. Despite their inexperience, the Wildcats have among the most talented rosters in the nation, and strong support from their traveling fans.
Betting Odds: Kentucky by 3.5
Start Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Online Stream: WatchESPN
Prediction: Kentucky over Michigan State, 78-71