CHICAGO — As the buzzer sounded and his Michigan State teammates raced onto the court to celebrate, Gary Harris held his index finger aloft.
No doubt about who’s No. 1.
For now, at least.
Branden Dawson tipped in a miss with less than six seconds left, and the No. 2 Spartans hung on for a 78-74 victory over top-ranked Kentucky and its latest cast of phenoms in the first game of the Champions Classic on Tuesday night.
“We want to be No. 1 at the end of the season,” Keith Appling said. “Not the beginning.”
Keep playing like this and the Spartans (2-0) are sure to be in the conversation come the end of March.
Kentucky, too. After trailing by as much as 13 in the second half, looking like the freshmen most of them are, the Wildcats (2-1) showed why there’s so much hype surrounding them. Julius Randle almost beat the Spartans single-handedly, scoring 23 of his 27 points in the second half and making a jumper with 42 seconds left that cut Michigan State’s lead to 76-74.
But Dawson tipped in a miss by Denzel Valentine, and James Young missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“You got guys crying in there, which is a good thing,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “I want it to hurt like that. I knew this would get their attention. The biggest thing is if you don’t do this together, you won’t win. You’ll never be a special team.”
This was the earliest 1 vs. 2 match-up, and first since Feb. 23, 2008, when Tennessee beat top-ranked Memphis. The Tigers coach then? None other than Calipari.
This game had even more hype, mostly because of the Kiddie Cats. Much has been made of the youngsters, with good reason. The last time Calipari had a roster this star-studded, the Wildcats won a national title.
This group might be even more impressive.
Six were McDonald’s All-Americans, and all are considered lottery picks in next summer’s NBA draft, with Randle a possibility for the overall No. 1. The youngsters did nothing to lessen the hype in their first two games, with Randle averaging 22.5 points and 15 rebounds, and the Harrison twins averaging in double figures. No wonder the game brought out scouts from almost every NBA team and celebrities including Nazr Mohammed and Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
But the Spartans aren’t exactly slouches, returning six of their top seven scorers. Just as important, big-time games like this are nothing new to them, with Izzo routinely scheduling the likes of Connecticut, Duke, North Carolina and Kansas before Jan. 1.
“They’re really good,” Calipari said. “This is the second game out and they go 17 assists to seven turnovers? That’s unbelievable. Again, understand we’re not the greatest defensive team, but 17 and seven? With these lights and all that’s going on around them? They’re well coached. They played well.”