GAME NOTES: Folks in the Windy City are in for a treat tonight, as a double- header of epic proportion is on tap in the third Champions Classic, starting with a matchup between top-ranked Kentucky and No. 2 Michigan State.
The nightcap boasts No. 4 Duke in a battle with No. 5 Kansas.
It is the first meeting between No. 1 and No. 2 since 2008, and only the 39th time in history that the two top-ranked teams have faced each other -- No. 1 leads, 20-19.
Michigan State improved to 91-24 all-time in season openers with a 98-56 rout of McNeese State in last Friday's lid lifter, and has now claimed victory in 34 of its last 37 such outings. The Spartans have won seven Big Ten titles and been to six Final Fours since Tom Izzo took over the program 19 years ago, and they are once again poised for a long run in the month of the March as they return the majority of last season's squad that reached the Sweet 16.
Kentucky won the national championship in 2012, but logged a disappointing 21-12 record last season, and missed out on the NCAA Tournament for the first time under coach John Calipari, and for only the second time since 1992. The Wildcats are 2-0 this season after whipping both UNC-Asheville (89-57) and Northern Kentucky (93-63) at home. This is the only game in the first seven that UK will play outside of Lexington.
Kentucky owns a 12-10 edge in the all-time series with Michigan State, but the most recent meeting went to the Spartans in double-overtime, 94-88, in the Elite Eight of the 2005 NCAA Tournament.
Gary Harris poured in 20 points and pulled down a career-high 10 rebounds in leading the Spartans to 42-point shellacking of McNeese State in last week's season opener. In all, six MSU players scored in double figures, four of them starters, and Branden Dawson (12 points, 12 rebounds) and Adreian Payne (10 points, 10 rebounds) also logged double-doubles, while Travis Trice (11 points eight assists) came close to joining them. Michigan State knocked down 51.9 percent of its field goal attempts, draining 10 3-pointers along the way. Izzo's bunch only went 4-of-5 at the free-throw line, but held the Cowboys to a meager 27.4 percent shooting effort, which included a 9-of-34 showing from distance (.265). MSU turned the ball over 15 times, compared to only 10 miscues for its overmatched opponent, which wound up on the short end of a massive 66-29 rebounding differential.
Julius Randle scored 22 points and grabbed 14 rebounds, marking the second straight double-double for the talented freshman, as Kentucky made easy work of visiting Northern Kentucky on Sunday. Aaron Harrison tacked on 16 points, and Andrew Harrison added 13 for the Wildcats, who shot 54.5 percent from the field, while holding the Norse to only 32.8 percent, which included a 9-of-35 showing from beyond the arc (.257). UK enjoyed a 26-12 advantage in points from the foul line, but is shooting only 65.1 percent from the stripe through the first two games. In addition to Randle's early exploits (22.5 ppg, 15.0 rpg), the Wildcats have three other double-digit scorers and they own significant margins in both scoring (+31.0) and rebounding (+23.0). Calipari's club has taken care of the basketball as well, committing only 9.5 turnovers game, while limiting the opposition to 35.5 percent accuracy from the floor, and 25.0 percent from long range.
There is no denying the talent on both sides of the ledger here, but Kentucky seems to have a slight edge in athleticism and that will likely be the difference as the Wildcats squeak out a close one.