Early aggressiveness may be the key to victory Tuesday night in the Champions Classic at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, where Kansas seeks a more consistent effort versus a Michigan State squad trying to regroup from a loss largely due to a slow start.
The seventh-ranked Jayhawks opened their season with a workmanlike 74-55 home win over Southeast Missouri State on Friday. Senior center Jeff Withey had 17 points, 12 rebounds and five blocked shots for Kansas, which didn't pull away until midway through the second half and shot 2 of 21 from 3-point range for the game.
While coach Bill Self was pleased with Withey's effort, he noted the Spartans' frontcourt will undoubtedly make things tougher for the 7-footer with their trademark physical interior play.
"This is going to be a process and Michigan State is not going to let you get to three feet (from the basket)," Self said. "You're going to have to do something to get to three feet and based on what I have seen so far, we are just not aggressive.
"We are going to play against real guys soon and those guys think that this piece of meat may be the last piece of meat on earth and they play like it. So, if we don't play like it, we will get our butts handed to us."
Withey's effectiveness may depend on the perimeter play of Elijah Johnson and Ben McLemore. Johnson, who made a team-high 69 3-pointers last season, missed all four of his long-range attempts and finished with two points Friday, but McLemore enjoyed a solid debut with nine points, 12 rebounds, five assists and three blocks after sitting out last season as a partial qualifier.
No. 21 Michigan State paid a greater price for its lack of aggression in a 66-62 defeat to Connecticut on Friday at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, dropping seven spots in Monday's poll. A 1-for-8 start coupled with slow defensive rotations put the Spartans in a 16-point hole early. After rallying to take the lead, they were held to two baskets in the final 5:43 as point guard Travis Trice was sidelined with concussion-like symptoms.
"It starts with our big men, Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix," said guard Branden Dawson about avoiding another slow start. "All we have to do is come out strong, talk, communicate as a team."
Coach Tom Izzo called Trice a "triple question mark at best" for this game and is concerned about containing Kansas' size. In addition to Withey, freshman forward Perry Ellis had 15 points and eight rebounds in the opener. Izzo also is counting on freshman Denzel Valentine to efficiently run the offense if Trice is sidelined as expected.
"The guy is probably the best passer on the team, it's whether he gets a little casual because he was able to do things because of his size and skill in high school and thinks it's going to carry over," he said of Valentine, who had four points and eight rebounds in his debut.
"Now he's going to have a 6-4 guy like Johnson on him who's bigger than anyone that guarded him in high school, is more athletic, is stronger and a senior. He learns quickly and understands the things he has to do."
Dawson, who had 15 points and 10 rebounds, and Keith Appling will again be expected to carry Michigan State offensively while Nix and Payne anchor the defense down low. Nix had a team-high 11 rebounds versus Connecticut, but Payne had only six points and two boards in 15 minutes.
This is the first meeting between these teams since a 67-62 win by Michigan State in the 2009 NCAA tournament regional semifinals.