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By LARRY VAUGHT
LEXINGTON — Now comes the game every Kentucky fan, and probably every UK player if they were honest, has been waiting for.
Kentucky dominated Northern Kentucky 93-63 Sunday as one would expect a No. 1 team with superior size, athleticism and talent to do. But UK won’t have all those edges Tuesday in Chicago when it plays Michigan State, a No. 1 team in some preseason polls.
This game will let UK’s talented freshmen test themselves against older, talented players who will bring the toughness Michigan State coach Tom Izzo depends and UK coach John Calipari knows his team will see often this year.
Izzo said this would be an “epic” game after his team’s opening win and said that Kentucky looked like “an NBA team” with its size at each position.
Julius Randle certainly is playing like a NBA player. Okay, maybe that’s a bit much but he led UK with 22 points, 14 rebounds and three assists — all team highs. Calipari would like to see him do more — “If I get 20 rebounds, he will want 25,” joked Randle — and the freshman will get his chance to showcase his talent on the national stage against Michigan State.
“I know they are a tough, physical, hard team,” Randle said after Sunday’s win. “It’s going to be a big step up. I think as a team we are getting better, but Tuesday is going to be a war. We are willing to fight. Coach doesn’t think we are ready, but he’s just trying to challenge us.”
Calipari explained why facing No. 2 Michigan State will be “unfair” for his young team.
“This is not like you’re going to steal, sneak by. You’re going to have to ball,” Calipari said. “For us, it’s a bar of where we are right now. We’ve got a long way to go.”
True, but Randle didn’t seem overwhelmed by the theory that UK is too young for this game just two games into the season.
“I am not buying into it. We are playing the same game,” Randle said. “Guys on our team are experienced, too. I am not buying into the experience thing. It will be a war.”
Calipari says his team will “win or learn” against the Spartans.
“I think we can win and learn how good we can be,” Randle, who got poked in the eye early Sunday and briefly had to leave the game, said. “They are always known as a physical team. It will be a battle. But I love competition. We all do.”
Sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein, who had seven points and 11 rebounds Sunday, just smiled when told of Randle’s remarks.
“That’s why he’s our leader. When he goes, we go. I am glad he’s looking at it like that,” Cauley-Stein said. “You can’t let the hype get you in a game like this. You want to be the first to smack them in the mouth. They are going to try and bulldog us because we are young. We just have to have the right mindset and play.”
Kentucky did Sunday and easily beat a team that was within 30 seconds of winning at Purdue Friday. Kentucky made shots early, dominated the boards and had the issue settled with a 26-point halftime lead.
Calipari found faults — not enough assists (12), missed assignments, etc. — but he knows every flaw will be exposed Tuesday in the Champions Classic.
“I think what they will try to do is beat us up the court, fly, and we don’t fly every time they’re going to get layups or open 3’s. That’s how they play,” Calipari said. “They’ll grind us and we will learn. Crisis brings about change. Meetings and talking and tape and all that, no. Are you ready to change now?”
The coach also wonders how UK will respond to adversity or a sustained Michigan State spurt, something UK didn’t encounter in two easy wins to open the season.
“How do we respond? We don’t know yet until we get in those wars and that game is one of those,” Calipari said. “I just wish it wasn’t so early. I wish I had another two weeks with my team so we could have a better kind of showing.”
Again, Randle isn’t worried about that.
“I am not worried about other teams or seeing who is No. 1,” Randle said. “We just have to get better and play like we can. If we do that, we are going to be fine no matter who we play. It’s not just another game in some ways, but it is in other ways. We’re excited for the game, but we’re not overwhelmed or anything. If we just play, it will be fun.”