History will be made Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden when No. 1 will face No. 2 on the season’s opening night for the first time in Division I men’s college basketball. That’s a great way to start the season. There have been three previous instances in which the top two teams in the preseason AP Top 25 have squared off in November, two of them coming in recent seasons. The first time it happened wasn’t on the opening night, but the second day of the 1975-76 season: No. 1 Indiana trouncing No. 2 UCLA 84-64 at St. Louis Arena. Yes, alas, neutral-court contests were a desired thing in nonconference college basketball play even more than 40 years ago.
That game was the first time UCLA was coached by someone other than John Wooden in 27 years with Gene Bartow on the bench for the Bruins for the first time.
After easily winning their first game, the Indiana Hoosiers would go on to win their next 31 and finish the season without a scratch. That Bobby Knight team remains a college hoops immortal, as no one in the sport has gone wire to wire without a loss since.
The other two instances of No. 1 vs. No. 2 happening near the start of the season came as of late. Two years ago, at the Champions Classic in Chicago, No. 1 Duke got by No. 2 Michigan State 88-81. In 2013, the event’s third iteration — and also in Chicago that year — No. 2 Michigan State upset top-ranked Kentucky 78-74. But those meetings were back when the Champions Classic was on the Tuesday after the initial Friday to open the season.
Thankfully, the Champions Classic now coincides with the start of the season. It’s the best thing possible on the best day possible: Tuesday works better than any other to get the season going and bring attention to the sport.
Let’s get to what you should know about the headliner.
Kentucky: Same story as always? Not necessarily. Kentucky’s young again, yes, but the Wildcats bring back four legitimate minutes-getters from last season: G Ashton Hagans, G Immanuel Quickley, F E.J. Montgomery and C Nick Richards, the last of whom is doubtful to play due to an ankle issue. Hagans and Quickley represent just the second instance in Calipari’s decade-long tenure at UK wherein two starting-level guards returned after their freshmen seasons. Could be a good sign.
Tyrese Maxey is the new name to know. I think he has the capability to be a top-five entertaining player under Cal at UK. How much freedom will he be given right away? I expect 10-12 shots for Maxey.
Another thing to watch for Kentucky on opening night is how stout its defense can be right away. There is potential for this to be a top-five unit in the nation on that end of the floor. The frontcourt brings questions. Can grad transfer Nate Sestina (Bucknell) provide offensive lift and some interesting wrinkles in Calipari’s offense? In a weird way, when you consider Michigan State has the pressure of being No. 1 and Kansas has the off-the-court stuff looming and Duke has the post-Zion era to embrace, Kentucky has the least amount of stress attached to it on opening night. Now, if it loses, the calculus changes just a bit.
Michigan State: The Spartans are the preseason No. 1 team in the sport for the first time in program history. That’s a bit surprising, but now’s the time for Cassius Winston and company, who are not at full strength but still, in spite of that, seem to be the most well-rounded group in college hoops. Sparty will be missing wing Josh Langford, who missed 26 games last season and is still on the mend with a freakish foot injury. Status cleared for Tuesday: Kyle Ahrens, senior forward who is expected to be a breakout player in 2019-20.
Story to watch with Michigan State is not just how Winston looks (best player in college hoops?) right away, but if Xavier Tillman breaks out immediately. The junior forward will be the centerpiece of Michigan State’s low-post attack. If he blasts through his ceiling, he’ll have a double-double almost every night. Kentucky’s good-but-flawed frontcourt is an ideal first test for us to see how far Tillman’s come since we saw him held to seven points, with four fouls, in MSU’s 61-51 chokehold loss to Texas Tech in the Final Four.
Date: Tuesday, Nov. 5 | Time: Approx. 9:30 p.m. ET
Location: Madison Square Garden — New York
TV: ESPN | Live stream: WatchESPN
Game prediction, picks
My pragmatic extremes for this game are as follows: Michigan State wins by 15 points, max; Kentucky wins by 10 points, max. If a Kentucky loss happens, it’s guaranteed to be better than last season, when Duke debuted with Zion Williamson and gave John Calipari the worst loss of his career (118-84). Nothing of that sort is happening Tuesday night, even if Michigan State is able to mostly pick up where it left off with a top-five offense.
Look for Tillman on the Sparty side; he could become a fun, tremendous force with a lot of versatility for Michigan State. How Kentucky is or isn’t able to contain him will be one of the determining factors here. I think he has a good game, as does Winston and as does Aaron Henry, who should be an X-factor type of player in this game (and many MSU games).
I think Kentucky will keep it close and interesting but never get it to the point in the second half where it feels like they’re going to take control or win the game. A respectable loss.
This will be the 43rd meeting in men’s D-I history between No. 1 and No. 2. We could easily not be treated to it again this season — or next or the one after that. Enjoy, embrace and hope for a close one to kick off 2019-20. Pick: Michigan State (-2)