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Champions Classic: Appling and Michigan State use experience to top Kentucky

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CHICAGO — The matchup of No. 1 Kentucky against No. 2 Michigan State was the much-anticipated “undercard” of Tuesday night’s State Farm Champions Classic at the United Center in Chicago, but for Michigan State and head coach Tom Izzo it was a chance to make an early-season statement.

While many fans — and the estimated 70-plus NBA scouts in attendance in the United Center — were fixated on the latest crop of “one-and-done” freshmen, the experienced Spartans threw the first haymaker of the night and landed it squarely on the jaw of Big Blue Nation.

“We wanted to keep putting them on the ropes,” Michigan State sophomore Gary Harris said. “Punch them in the mouth first before they hit us.”

Jumping out to a 10-0 lead on Kentucky, Michigan State silenced the Wildcat faithful early and held what many consider to be one of the greatest recruiting classes in history scoreless through the first TV timeout.

(MORE: Kentucky lost, but they are going to be just fine in time)

Instead of focusing on Kentucky’s loaded freshman class, college basketball fans were quickly reminded of how good the Spartans were last season.

Senior forward Adreian Payne (15 points) and sophomore guard Gary Harris (20 points) looked like potential lottery picks in the first half, but the tremendous play of senior point guard Keith Appling kept Michigan State in control when Kentucky made a run in the second half.

Payne and Harris combined to go 10-for-14 from the floor in the first half, but Appling — who has been inconsistent at point over the course of his career — handled Kentucky to the tune of 22 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and only three turnovers in 34 minutes.

Appling credits Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo for staying on him and helping him maintain his focus.

“Listening to him and believing in what he was telling me and watching film (helped me grow),” Appling said of Izzo.

“I feel like that comes with growth, being around Coach Izzo, on and off the court, I’ve learned a lot.”

The Spartans perhaps surprised the Wildcats by outscoring them 21-2 on fast break points — thanks in-part to Kentucky’s porous transition defense — but Kentucky outrebounded the Spartans 44-32.

But as Kentucky tied the game at 66-66 with under five minutes to play, Appling knocked in a huge corner three off a pass from Denzel Valentine and Harris made another layup to push the Spartans ahead by five and kept them ahead for good.

Beating the No. 1 team in America front of former Spartan greats like Magic Johnson, Morris Peterson and Jason Richardson was a big early-season moment for Michigan State but as Harris and Appling sat at the podium, they remained focused on their goals in March and April.

“We can’t win a Big Ten championship or a title playing in this game,” Harris said

“It’s a great win, but at the same time we didn’t accomplish anything tonight,” Appling said.

“We want to be No. 1 at the end of the season, not the beginning.”

VIDEO: Duke’s Grayson Allen beats No. 7 Virginia at the buzzer

Duke's Grayson Allen (3) and Marshall Plumlee (40) react during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Louisville in Durham, N.C., Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Duke won 72-65. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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Notre Dame’s Steve Vasturia sparks come-from-behind win over No. 13 Louisville

Notre Dame’s Steve Vasturia (32) goes up for a shot over Boston College’s Idy Diallo (4) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)
(AP Photo/Robert Franklin)
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Demetrius Jackson scored 20 of his 25 points in the first half and Steve Vasturia scored 15 of his 20 points in the final 20 minutes as Notre Dame landed a 71-66 win over No. 13 Louisville on Saturday afternoon.

The Fighting Irish trailed by as many as 11 points early in the second half, but Vasturia’s hot shooting combined with Notre Dame holding Louisville to just 15 points in the final 15 minutes made all the difference.

The Fighting Irish are not as good as they were last season, but they are built in a similar mold. Jackson, as we expected, as become one of the nation’s most dynamic point guards, impossible to slow-down in isolation and ball-screen actions. Steve Vasturia emerging as a legitimate secondary option offensively and Zach Auguste is one of the nation’s most underrated big men and one of the most dangerous as the roll-man in ball-screens.

Combine all of that with a handful of shooters creating space and Bonzie Colson’s emergence as a force on the offensive glass, and Mike Brey once again has one of the nation’s most lethal offensive attacks.

Where they struggle is on the defensive end of the floor, which is what makes the end of Saturday’s win so meaningful. The Irish entered the day ranked 232nd in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, which more or less means they’re as good as a bad mid-major program at keeping their opponents from scoring.

But they don’t have to be great to be able to win games.

They have to be good enough and they have to get important stops.

That’s precisely what happened on Saturday.

Whether or not that actually becomes a trend for this group will be something to monitor — it happened for Duke during last year’s NCAA tournament — but the bottom-line is this: Notre Dame does something better than just about anyone else in college basketball, and that’s score the ball.

On the nights they are able to gets some stops, they are going to be able to win some games. In the last eight days, they’ve proven that, beating North Carolina, Clemson on the road and Louisville.

And that makes them dangerous in March.