It wasn’t the overarching theme of the Champions Classic on Tuesday night at the United Center. In fact, the vast majority of the focus was placed on the lack thereof, with all eyes pointing toward freshmen Jabari Parker of Duke, Andrew Wiggins of Kansas and Julius Randle of Kentucky. All three had big nights, but the most impressive feat, the biggest statement came from the overlooked group of experienced players who will soon be taking over as the No. 1 team in the country.
Michigan State isn’t living in the Parker-Wiggins-Randle world of uber-hyped, likely one-and-done freshmen. Tom Izzo’s Spartans team has four returning starters — even a couple of seniors (gasp!) — yet without one of America’s top five class-of-2013 recruits, they managed to knock off the top-ranked Wildcats and make a big, big statement in the process.
And the No. 1 ranking is now their’s to hold.
"If we have that, I think it's great for us,” Izzo said. “We have to learn how to handle that kind of thing. We'll see now when we get back to campus. I like what they said. I want them to enjoy the game. I told them the year is a process of these games. But there's going to be a little added pressure, a little more, but that's the fun, man.”
The maturity of Izzo’s team might have been even greater than he would have liked after Tuesday night’s win. The first words out of senior guard Keith Appling’s mouth didn’t quite equate with the level of attention this game — the first 1-2 matchup in five years — was paid.
"Coming into tonight, we knew this was a very big game, so that's just the way we approached it. But at the same time, it's still early in the season, and we still have an opportunity to get better,” Appling said. “It's a great win, but at the same time, we didn't accomplish anything tonight. There's still a long season ahead of us. We've still got to continue to get better."
After he finished, Izzo smacked him on the arm and said, “Didn't accomplish anything? What the hell are you talking about?”
But Izzo has coached his team up too well.
"This game doesn't mean anything,” sophomore guard Gary Harris said. “We don't win a Big Ten championship, we don't win a national championship from this game. Don't get me wrong, it was a huge game. We love to play in games like that."
The maturity was overwhelming, and Izzo might have regretted it.
"Keith's on dial-a-clue sometimes for a point guard,” the head coach joked. “And I think he's trying to do what we should be doing. Of course the game matters because when Magic Johnson comes back from a game, flies in from L.A., it matters. And when (Mo) Peterson and (Jason) Richardson — we had a lot of guys come back for this game — it matters. Our program needed a program win, and that was one.
"But I think what they were trying to say is it's really not going to matter. I told them earlier, if we win the game, we'll have 10,000 tweets when we get home. If we lose the game, we'll have 100,000 tweets when we get home. That's just the way it is."
No matter how much impact this game had on the Spartans actual ending point in the 2013-14 season, it was still mighty impressive. While the inexperienced Wildcats kept turning the ball over and missing free throws, the Spartans looked dominant at times. Even Kentucky’s furious comeback in the second half was halted before the Wildcats could take the lead. With the game freshly tied at 66, Appling knocked down a corner three. Harris then picked off a pass and finished a fast-break layup to put the Spartans up five. They didn’t look back.
"The play that I made and the play that Gary made helped turn the game around a little bit,” Appling said. “They went on their run, so we knew we kind of had to do something to weather the storm a little bit. That's where me and him both stepped up to try and make something happen to get things going back our way."
So let’s recap. At evening’s close, the Michigan State win at the same time mattered and meant nothing. After all Izzo’s praise of the big win, though, it’s easy to see where confusion could come from.
"The locker room was great, but it wasn't like we won the national championship because we didn't. I think I've got a mature enough team.
"We'll see what we can do with a bullseye on our back."