Tom Izzo has been Michigan State’s coach for 28 years, facing off against Kentucky nine times, three times when the Wildcats have been coached by John Calipari. Izzo is 1-2 vs. Cal’s Cats, each matchup happening in the Champions Classic. In the past decade, Izzo has seen SUPER-young Kentucky teams (2013-14), Kentucky teams led by superstar freshmen (2016-17), and Kentucky teams with a bit more experience (2019-20). Yesterday, Izzo said he believes this group could be better than any he’s faced during his time in East Lansing.
“I think this is the best Kentucky team I’ve seen. And I say that because, as I told Cal, they’re almost illegal. They’ve got four seniors. He’s never had four seniors that I can remember, ever. And four good seniors.”
Calipari laughed when informed of Izzo’s remarks yesterday, flashing back to that 2013 game when Izzo’s veterans beat his starting five of freshmen 78-74.
“Well, he says it’s illegal, we’re supposed to be playing against freshmen. That year was Julius [Randle]the Harrison brothers, James Young, and I believe either Willie [Cauley-Stein] or Dakari [Johnson]. I mean, we started five freshmen that year. Five freshmen. And literally thought we were okay until we played them and they smashed them. And I said we kept it close because they literally threw it to Julius every time.”
Izzo: “Fredrick and Reeves make a difference on this team”
What makes this Kentucky group different than any other? The obvious answer is the amount of experience to go along with five-star freshmen talent. Izzo went through almost every player on the roster, giving special mention to two transfers, Antonio Reeves other CJ Fredrick. Reeves leads Kentucky in scoring with 20.0 points per game (52% FG, 55.6% 3PT), followed by Fredrick with 17.0 points per game (61.1% FG, 50% 3PT).
“I think the two shooters, Fredrick and Reeves, make a difference on this team and the reason — I’m not putting pressure on John — why I think it’s one of his best teams is even when they won it all, they had a lot of freshmen. Now they have a lot of seniors that can lead the freshmen and they don’t have to rely on all the freshmen. And that’s different for him, so give him credit. He’s found a way but he’s had all those guys in the program too. The only one that’s new is Reeves.”
“Reeves and Fredrick are two shooters that are averaging 37 points between them,” Izzo added. “As we know, this team is the best rebounding team in the world.”
The reason for that is Oscar Tshiebwe, whose status for the game remains unknown, although Izzo is almost certain he’ll suit up. If Oscar does, Izzo said his team will have to be especially aggressive on the boards or they’ll get burned in transit.
“You can’t go too small against a team like this. The missed shot over the year last year was as good an offense as anything. Their fast break is really good. As I said I think this is his best team because I think he’s had teams that didn’t shoot it as well. He’s got two guys that can knock shots down. He’s got a bonafide point guard who runs the team, had 11 assists in the last game. And he’s got a bunch of guys inside that have length.”
Through two games, Reeves and Fredrick have combined for 16 threes on 30 attempts (53%). When asked if it will be tougher for the pair to get open looks vs. a team like Michigan State, Calipari smiled.
“Not if Oscar’s in there. You’ve got your choice. Don’t let them touch it, stay out there and let Oscar go one-on-one. And then you trap it and Oscar has been a pretty good passer. So, he makes it different.”
Izzo: I’m 99% sure [Oscar] wanna play”
Oscar Tshiebwe missed Kentucky’s first two games of the season as he slowly comes back from a minor knee procedure in mid-October. Yesterday, John Calipari said whether Oscar plays tonight is uncertain, and even if he can, he’ll be limited.
“He’s supposed to practice today so we’ll have a better idea. He’s been doing the conditioning stuff, he just hasn’t been on that court and that’s totally different. My guess will be he plays three or four minutes at a stretch if he plays. He’s going to have to get through [practice] and make sure there’s no swelling. From what I’m hearing he doesn’t have the lift yet but knowing him, he wants to play but I can’t tell you right now.”
Izzo is preparing to see the reigning national player of the year on the court, but admitted not knowing for certain has made scouting more difficult.
“Oscar, who I’m 99% sure is playing, hasn’t played an exhibition game or any of the preseason games. So, we had to go back to last year and look at some of the film. I’m sure he’s changed some over the summer. So, it’s a little of the unknown.”
“Just getting Oscar back and even Wheeler when we have three or four tapes of him from their exhibition games and can’t use any of them, that’s what’s difficult for us right now. I’m 99% sure he’ll play from all indications I got but it’s different. How long does he play? What does he do? How do they play with him now? How much improved is he from last year? Those are all things that we’re going in not knowing and that’s a little discomforting, to be honest with you.”
Watch the latest John Calipari press conference on the KSR YouTube Channel.
Izzo: I think [Sahvir] Wheeler probably doesn’t get enough credit”
On Friday night vs. Duquesne, Sahvir Wheeler returned from the minor knee injury he suffered in the Missouri Western State exhibition on Oct. 30. Wheeler came off the bench to chip in 11 points, 11 assists, 6 rebounds, 2 steals, 2 turnovers, and 1 block in 27 minutes. Izzo spent a good portion of his press conference praising Wheeler, who he believes deserves more credit.
“Wheeler, the point guard, is a kid who can run a team. He’s kind of a Mateen Cleaves. He really runs their team well and he guards his butt off.”
“I think Wheeler probably doesn’t get enough credit for what he does for a team, like most point guards that are facilitators don’t get enough credit,” Izzo added later. “He’s a phenomenal defender and he gets into people and he can spray the ball.”
Cal vs Izzo, Game 5
This will be the fourth meeting between the two programs with Izzo and Cal at the helm but the fifth meeting between the coaches overall. In 2008, Cal’s Memphis Tigers routed Izzo’s Spartans in the Sweet 16. Yesterday, Izzo reflected on their friendship and how he’s seen Calipari evolve as a coach.
“We played against each other quite a bit. We’re actually pretty good friends. We both are on the Vitale Italian league, I guess and I’m on a couple of boards with him so I talk to him a lot. But also pretty honest with each other so we kind of know some of the goods and bads. I’m looking forward to it. There’s no question he’s always got one of the best teams in the country and he’s always got some of the most talented teams in the country. But I thought over the years, as I watch him, if you watch him on the bench, he coaches his superstars like you coach the guys at northern michigan and i do respect that. I really do. I think he’s tough on them and demanding of them and they respond.
“There are things he’s changed up because sometimes he gets different kinds of talent but the one thing that’s always been good is he’s always been better defensively than offensively, I think. I think this could be one of his better offensive teams because of the shooting he’s got from those two shooters and the fact that he’s got an anchor down there that’s pretty big and he’s got a point guard that wants to get everybody the ball.”
“I’ve had a long enough career that I’ve coached veteran teams,” Calipari said yesterday. “Would I rather do it if they’re really talented? yes But if they’re really talented, they probably leave, so this is unique. We’ve got a talented group. We’ve got a talented group of freshmen.”