Kentucky Basketball: 5 Keys to Beating Michigan State in the Champions Classic

Matt King@TheRealMattKingFeatured ColumnistNovember 11, 2013

Kentucky Basketball: 5 Keys to Beating Michigan State in the Champions Classic

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    Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

    Two games into its season, Kentucky looks every part the powerhouse everyone expected it to be. However, the team's first real challenge comes on Tuesday night against No. 2 Michigan State.

    And the Spartans don't look too shabby, either.

    It's a big test for the young Wildcats going up against a veteran team in just their third game of the season. No offense to UNC Asheville and Northern Kentucky, but it's safe to say that UK hasn't faced talent anywhere near what MSU has to offer yet. 

    In fact, head coach John Calipari himself called it "not fair" that his squad had to face a team like Michigan State this early in the season, according to Jerry Tipton of the Lexington Herald-Leader. So how can the Big Blue leave Chicago with a victory in their last leg of this Champions Classic series? Let's take a look. 

Get off to a Quick Start

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    Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

    In their first game against UNC Asheville, the Wildcats displayed some opening-night jitters. They were taking good shots and had good looks, but they simply weren't going down. Kentucky was actually losing nine minutes into the game.

    It's safe to say this team cannot afford to have the same kind of start against Michigan State. The Spartans will make UK pay for early mistakes, unlike the teams they've faced so far.

Limit Michigan State's Fast-Break Opportunities

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    The Spartans had an astounding 40 fast-break points in their opening game against McNeese State.

    It's not like those came off turnovers, either, since the team forced just eight.

    The Spartans grab rebounds and immediately look to run. Therefore, the Wildcats need to make sure they get back quickly and get their defense set. They're fast enough to keep up with MSU, so as long as they don't send too many guys to the offensive glass and keep enough back.

    If the Wildcats do crash the offensive glass like they have been so far, that could force Michigan State to spend more effort rebounding and have less opportunity to start a fast break.  

Hit Free Throws

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    Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

    I'm not asking for too much, just something like 70-75 percent from the stripe. The Wildcats shot 48 free throws in their first game and hit 62 percent of them. In the next game, is was only 38, but they did slightly better with 68 percent.

    It's obvious with the new rules that are in place and the athleticism that the Cats have at all positions on the court that they are going to draw a lot of fouls. That means they are going to shoot a lot of free throws. A bad night at the line is going to mean a lot of missed opportunities. 

Put the Pressure on Keith Appling

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    Gary Harris is going to be Michigan State's star this year, but as Keith Appling goes, so go the Spartans. MSU's senior is expected to shoulder the load running the offense and Kentucky needs to make that as difficult on him as possible.

    The bulk of that responsibility is going to fall on Andrew Harrison, who has shown himself to be more than capable on defense so far this season. It's also encouraging knowing that the Wildcats have the ability to switch on just about any screen and have the athleticism to stay with Appling no matter who makes the switch.

    If the Wildcats apply pressure on Appling, use their quickness and stay up in his grill all night long, Michigan State's offense is going to suffer. 

Play Together

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    Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

    Calipari may complain about it being unfair that his team is playing Michigan State this early, but he at least did the players a favor by getting them two regular-season wins before they had to face a team of that pedigree.

    In those two games, the Cats have totaled only 24 assists. MSU had 32 in their one game. Kentucky is obviously still learning how to play together, and it's difficult because the team has so many talented individual players.

    Guys like Julius Randle and James Young do great with the ball in their hands, making things happen. However, they need to trust Cal and his offense as well as their star playmaker, Andrew Harrison.

    Harrison has shown a decent ability to put his teammates in the right position, but they're all still learning to trust each other.

    One-on-one basketball is not going to cut it against a veteran team like the Spartans. Live together or die alone.