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Keith Taylor: Top 25 showdown against Michigan State in MSG a ‘hard deal’ for Kentucky

After opening the season with two lopsided victories, Kentucky faces its first big test of the season against Michigan State in the Champions Classic Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.

The second-ranked Wildcats (2-0) will be making their sixth-straight appearance in the prestigious event and lost to the Spartans 78-74 in last meeting between the two teams three years ago at the Georgia Dome. Michigan State (0-1) is ranked No. 13 in the Associated Press poll and dropped a 65-63 decision to 10th-ranked Arizona in the Armed Forces Classic last week in Honolulu.

Kentucky coach John Calipari doesn't expect an easy game when the Wildcats take on Michigan State in the State Farm Champions Classic Tuesday night in New York (Tammie Brown Photo)

Kentucky coach John Calipari doesn’t expect an easy game when the Wildcats take on Michigan State in the State Farm Champions Classic Tuesday night in New York (Tammie Brown Photo)

“It’s a hard deal,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said Monday. “Last year we beat Duke, it made it a nice couple of weeks. Then we go back and lose to Ohio State or whoever we lost to. I mean, it’s an early game. It’s great for fans (but) it’s tough for coaches. But for us, what I am excited about is that the issues we have, if we don’t improve them in this game, you will see it glaring, and then we have the attention of this team – like, if you really want to win.

“We have good players, but that is not what wins. It’s the grind, the toughness, the grittiness and the offensive rebound attempts.”

The contest will be the first against a Top 25 opponent for Kentucky’s freshman class. Point guard De’Aaron Fox, named Southeastern Conference Player of the Week on Monday, isn’t “necessarily pumped up” but has been looking forward to the matchup since he arrived on campus.

“I mean, those guys want to play us,” Fox said. “We don’t really have anybody, well I can only speak for myself, circled on our calendar. We go out the next game and do what we are doing and I think we will be fine.”

Even though he knows little about Michigan State, Fox knows all about Spartans freshman Miles Bridges and played with the freshman forward on the AAU circuit.

“I know him pretty well,” Fox said. “We played each other once in AAU. He is a strong guy who can get up and down the floor. He played two, three, four and has been putting up good numbers since he has been at Michigan State. You just have to go out and play.”

Like Fox, sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe is excited about the early opportunity to play against a ranked opponent so early in the season.

“I am looking forward to it,” Briscoe said. “Michigan State is a great team from what I’ve heard. We’ve been playing pretty well (too).”

Read More at Keith's Blog

Read More at Keith’s Blog: Out of the Blue

Although anxious, Fox also is taking a low-key approach to the national showdown and the allure of playing at Madison Square Garden.

“I know it is history,” Fox said. “I know all the guys that have played there and obviously it is an NBA stadium. They have concerts and football games and stuff. But I don’t want to go in (thinking it is more). I mean, it is another arena. There is no wall behind the goal. I mean, you have people sitting behind the goal. Go in and think of it as another game.”

The contest will be the third in five days for the young Wildcats to open the season. Kentucky rolled to an 87-64 win over Stephen F. Austin in the opener last Friday, followed by a 93-69 victory over Canisius Sunday night. Briscoe said the three-game stretch will prove to be a beneficial experience, especially for the newcomers.

“Coach says he forces young guys to grow up quick and three games into the season, we’re playing at the Garden,” Briscoe said. “But we have to come out with the win. They’ve played in other big-time games before, I’m sure. This is another big game and we have to come out and play.”

Although avoiding an upset would be preferable, Calipari is anxious to see how far the Wildcats have progressed in the first month of the season.

“I’d rather win and learn from a win than a loss,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t think you learn much from a loss other than you lost a game, and you learn how to lose. This may be beyond us right now.”

Gametracker: Kentucky vs. Michigan State, Tuesday, 7 p.m. TV/Radio: ESPN, 98.1 WBUL.

Keith Taylor is a senior sports writer for KyForward, where he primarily covers University of Kentucky sports. Reach him at keith.taylor@kyforward.com or @keithtaylor21 on Twitter

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