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By LARRY VAUGHT
Not often does college basketball have an early November matchup that could be a Final Four, or even a national championship game, preview. Yet many believe that’s what the Kentucky-Michigan State game Tuesday night in Chicago could be.
Kentucky is ranked No. 1 in many preseason polls, but Michigan State has also been ranked No. 1. Both are consensus top three teams going into the season.
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas says the game is not a “traditional basketball rivalry where those two have played each other a number of times” like UK-Louisville or UK-North Carolina even.
“Last time I remember them playing in a barn burner game, didn’t they play at Texas in the NCAA tournament when — was that the one when Patrick Sparks made some shot?” said Bilas.
But Bilas said the matchup, along with Duke-Kansas in the second game of the Champions Classic, will answer questions, especially with so many freshmen expected to play key roles in the national title chase this year. Three of the best — Kentucky’s Julius Randle, Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins and Duke’s Jabari Parker — will be playing in Chicago Tuesday night.
“We’ve had the same teams in it every year with Duke, Kansas, Michigan State and Kentucky. But this year you’ve got — you’re looking at maybe the top four teams (in the country),” Bilas said. “And we’d be hard pressed to have a Final Four that good. Maybe we’ll get it.
“But that early in the season — this is the kind of thing that college basketball needs, because too many people have bought into this narrative about football, in football every game counts. Well, it does in basketball, too. In fact, more teams have a chance to win a championship in basketball than in football. By that definition hardly any of the games in football count, and they’re still great games.
“I think this is the kind of thing we need more of, where top teams play earlier in the season, because they’re games that you can learn from and recover from, and it’s good for the game overall. So I think having the contrast of the tremendous talent, young talent, that Kentucky has got, with the — sort of the older, more more experienced players (at Michigan State), it would be fun to watch.”
Bilas is also anxious to see how the new rules designed to stop hand checking and physical play on defense impact a game between top teams.
“This game is in trouble. It has become unwatchable because we have made it a hockey game,” he said. “And, look, I love college basketball, but I love it enough to tell the truth about it. And if you prefer college basketball right now to the NBA for quality — it’s not because of the basketball. It’s because of something else. It’s because the quality of play has taken a huge nose dive because we have not been vigilant in policing our game.
“Now, if some coaches want to complain, I’m willing to listen, but these complaints are unreasonable. We haven’t even started yet. And now we can’t hold and grab, you can’t play? If you can’t move your feet, you can’t play. And if you can’t guard without grabbing somebody, then what you’re saying is you can’t guard. So give a guy some space.”