Kentucky vs. Michigan State takeaways: Wildcats’ additions start strong vs. defending Big Ten champs

NEW YORK — The game started Tuesday night and ended Wednesday morning, and felt longer than a six-part miniseries.

But No. 1 Michigan State vs. No. 2 Kentucky was a show worthy of the best programs in that genre. And like “Rich Man, Poor Man” launched Nick Nolte’s career four decades ago, Kentucky’s 69-62 victory over the Spartans gave Wildcats freshman guard Tyrese Maxey an opportunity to shine.

Three takeaways from UK’s first win of the season:

Tyrese Maxey can catch-and-shoot

That may seem like it’s grammatically incorrect. In everyday language, it would be better contracted as: Tyrese Maxey can catch, and he can shoot. Or, to be more succinct: Tyrese Maxey can catch, and shoot.

But in basketball, the catch-and-shoot is a specific skill that is essential to the way the game has evolved in the 21st century.

Maxey arrived at Kentucky this summer having played mostly point guard, but UK already has a returning starter at that position. There seemed little doubt John Calipari would play Maxey together with Ashton Hagans in his base lineup. For that to work best, though, Maxey needs to be more than a second dynamic ball-handler and high-level defender. Both will get plenty of opportunities to handle the basketball, but Calipari won’t always want to take the offense from the control of a player with a full year of experience at the point position.

To function effectively while playing off the ball, Maxey could generate points in a variety of ways. He is that dangerous off the dribble. But if he can make deep shots off the catch, he can excel. And that’s what he did against MSU. He scored nine of his 26 points at the foul line because of his ability to stress opposing defenses. But his first two 3-pointers were both off the catch, not the dribble. That will be an essential weapon as the season advances.

Michigan State will miss Joshua Langford for a while

A 15-point scorer last season before a foot injury ended his season, Langford was expected to return to the Spartans’ starting lineup and provide an elite complement to All-American point guard Cassius Winston.

With Langford out until at least January, and possibly much longer, MSU has no clear answer at shooting guard. Coach Tom Izzo started freshman Rocket Watts, and he played with confidence and aggression. But he didn’t score. Sophomore Gabe Brown provides much more size at 6-7, but he must shoot better than 3 of 10 to justify his developing — to say it nicely — defensive game.

Kyle Ahrens is one of the most valuable reserves in the college game, but not suited to a starter’s offensive load.

There is no obvious answer to Langford’s absence. There is a lot of talent on the MSU roster that Izzo will find a way to turn into a terrific team. But the team that was a unanimous No. 1 pick by the various polls and publications had a no-doubt double-figure scorer as its starting two-guard. This team does not.

Nate Sestina can play at this level

A graduate transfer from Bucknell, Sestina joined Kentucky’s program after 15.8 points and 8.5 rebounds last season. No one is expecting him to match the numbers he achieved mostly against Patriot League competition in the SEC, but he showed against the reigning Big Ten champions and the preseason No. 1 team that he can play the biggest minutes in the biggest games.

He was on the floor down the stretch in a tight game against the Spartans. He finished with seven points and six rebounds, including two big defensive rebounds in less than a minute midway through the second half, the second followed by a 3-point shot that opened UK’s biggest lead at 54-41.

Sestina showed off a rugged side when he threw an elbow into a defender’s chin and then tossed in a jump-hook in the first half.

He also was an important part of an excellent defensive job against Michigan State power forward Xavier Tillman, who finished with only 7 points on 3-of-8 shooting.

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