By NANCY ARMOUR
AP National Writer
CHICAGO — Every year, Tom Izzo subjects his Michigan State team to a non-conference schedule only a masochist could love.
He might have outdone himself this time, however.
With the college basketball season only a few days old, the No. 2 Spartans face top-ranked Kentucky and its latest group of freshmen phenoms today in the Champions Classic. Not only is it the earliest meeting of 1 vs. 2 — and the first since 2008 — but with No. 4 Duke playing fifth-ranked Kansas in the second game, the tournament might very well be a sneak preview of this season’s Final Four.
“I’m not sure I’ve been as excited about an opportunity such as this in a long, long time,” Izzo said Monday. “I think it’s great for college basketball, great for the media, great for the fans and great for the programs. No matter what the outcomes of the games are, I think all teams will benefit in some way, shape or form.”
Unlike some coaches, who prefer a steady diet of patsies before the conference season, Izzo likes to test his team early — and often. Kansas, Syracuse, Duke and Kentucky are just a few of the teams the Spartans have played before Jan. 1 in seasons past, and there was one year Michigan State saw all four of them, plus Oklahoma.
This year, in addition to Kentucky, the Spartans will play Texas, North Carolina and Virginia Tech.
The brutal scheduling began as a way to draw some attention to the Spartans in a state still focused on Michigan’s Fab Five, but Izzo soon discovered there were other benefits. It’s no coincidence his team is regularly one of the best in the country, with one national title and five more Final Four appearances in Izzo’s 18 years.
“It prepares us for the tournament,” senior guard Keith Appling said. “A lot of the teams we play in our non-conference season are some of teams that we’ll end up playing in the tournament. Or are teams that are similar to these teams we’ll be playing. So I feel it helps us out in the long run, and also prepares us for the tough Big Ten season.”
And there is little doubt Kentucky will be one of those teams still around at the end of March.
On paper, at least, these young Wildcats are even more impressive than the group that led Kentucky to the national title two years ago. Six were McDonald’s All-Americans. All are considered potential lottery picks in next summer’s NBA draft, with Julius Randle a good bet to be the overall No. 1.
The Wildcats steamrolled through their first two games, winning each by 30 points. But neither was anything close to a true test, and coach John Calipari is already fretting about how his Kiddie Cats will respond to the one they’ll get from Michigan State.
“It’s a hard game to play this early,” he said. “Kansas is a good team; Duke is a good team; Michigan State — they’re all good teams and they’re well coached. This is not like you’re going to steal, sneak by. You’re going to have to ball.
“For us, it’s just a bar of where we are right now. We’ve got a long way to go,” Calipari said. “I mean, do you see how many plays we just ran? Like two. We’re still trying to figure out how to play fast, how to get in the lane, how to post up, how to cut. Trying to figure out defensively how we need to play. We’re still not right.”
The Wildcats won’t be the only youngsters on display, with Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker, er, Kansas and Duke, facing off in the nightcap.
Wiggins was drawing comparisons to Danny Manning even before he got to Lawrence, and his first game for the Jayhawks did little to damper the expectations. He had 16 points, three steals and two assists in an 80-63 rout of Louisiana-Monroe on Friday night.
Parker was perhaps the most coveted recruit last year, and he could be even more dangerous now that he’s paired with Rodney Hood. Each scored 22 in Duke’s opener against Davidson, shooting a combined 17 of 20.
“First game in college — are you kidding me?” coach Mike Krzyzewski said of Parker, who attended the same Chicago high school as Derrick Rose.
That was at home, however, against a weaker opponent. That won’t be the case today — for any of the teams — but that’s the beauty of these games. Win or lose, the teams have tested themselves against the best, and the lessons they learn will guide them the rest of the year, possibly all the way to the Final Four in Arlington, Texas.
“There can’t be a negative to this. It’s something you’re going to be able to talk to your guys about, something you’re going to be able to evaluate, win or lose,” Izzo said. “… Those other teams are going to be in the mix somewhere before the year’s over, and you’re going to be able to compare yourself to them. That’s what’s really important. You get an advantage to do that early, and see what it does for you late.”