Yet somehow, Tuesday night tilted otherwise. Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden had a revelation wrapped in a reminder and wrapped in a sole Kentucky player. As No. 4 Duke beat No. 3 Kansas by 68-66 and then No. 2 Kentucky beat No. 1 Michigan State by 69-62, and as the teams combined to shoot a clanging 220 times while making only 87, and as the coaches bemoaned a lack of readiness for such bright lights, there was that one young player with that one, old lesson.
The lesson retold from a 6-foot-3 freshman from Texas named Tyrese Maxey is that basketball, even more than all our other game concepts, should always be at least partly about joy. And while joy doesn’t always seem plausible at pressurized places such as Kentucky, the Kentucky fans who long have spent games in states of nervousness seem to be all in for somebody who can remind them they actually love this game.
“Great intangibles,” Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said of Maxey. “He’s got a feel. He’s kind of happy-go-lucky but plays hard. He’s got a smile on his face.” So it wasn’t just Maxey’s stat line on the day after his 19th birthday, even though that line went like this: 7-for-12, 26 points, five rebounds. It wasn’t just the audacious three-point shot he hit from the left of the top as the game clock reached one minute and the shot clock reached four seconds with the score a precarious 62-60 in favor of Kentucky.
It was how it looked through all Maxey’s expressions, all the electricity beaming from his smile, all through the court and then right on up to the interview dais. That’s where he said of the big shot, “I felt like he (defender Aaron Henry) dropped his back foot and I knew I was going to knock it down.” That’s where he said in general, “This is an amazing birthday celebration. I’m very happy, for me and my guys,” even though they haven’t been each other’s guys for very long.
So, on a night when Kentucky Coach John Calipari said, “This was a learning experience for all four teams here,” and bewailed the lack of an August exhibition series that could get teams going, this Tuesday night still had this joy.
On a night when Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said, “None of these teams are ready for February or March,” and, “It is difficult to try to play that kind of competition this early,” and, “The timing was off. The knowledge of what to do was off,” there came this joy, apt to be memorable no matter how far anybody goes from here.
And on a night when Kansas made committed 28 turnovers — that was twenty-eight turnovers — and Coach Bill Self said, “Duke’s defense is better than the exhibition games we’ve played,” and Duke’s defense thus proved superior to those of Fort Hays (Kan.) State and Pittsburg (Kan.) State, the night belonged to a freshman from Texas playing for Kentucky.
“He’s the greatest kid,” Calipari said.
“I recruited Maxey,” Izzo said. “He visited our place. I love Maxey. Great kid. Great family. It’s one of those shots that I don’t know, I think he had to take the shot because the shot clock was almost out. If it was a little earlier, Cal would have killed him. But he made a big-time shot.”
“(It) says he’s a pretty good player,” Calipari said. “A lot of courage.”
Calipari did not start Maxey — with an optimistic purpose. He wanted Maxey to study the game and then, Calipari told him, “You get in there and you let it go.” He already knew what Maxey could add. “He has to go against Ashton (Hagans) every day,” Calipari said of Kentucky’s sophomore and primo defender. “It’s ridiculously hard and he gets demoralized at times and I tell him, ‘There’s no defender like this.’” Sometimes, as Calipari told it, Hagans steals one from Maxey, while Maxey persists with smiling.
Hey, you’re in college. You’re playing basketball. That’s a tough deal in life, but you might as well enjoy it.
“I felt like I played okay,” Maxey said at the start of his remarks. “I felt like I played to win.” He credited “the reps (in practice) since the summer.” He said, “I thought the repetition really helped me today.” He said he will never forget “looking up at the zeroes, and seeing that we were ahead of the other team.” In addition to his points, and his repeated rescues of Kentucky when things got hairy late, and his energy going toward the basket as if he had played college ball for more than half an hour, he spoke of what else he contributed and said, “One thing I would say is spirit.”
“I expect that from Tyrese,” Hagans said of everything. “He was doing that at high school, AAU.”
Yeah, high school, AAU. He pretty much just arrived from high school, AAU. That’s the bulk of his bio to date, high school and AAU. Yet on a night at Madison Square Garden with the top four teams slogging through the slogging part of the season, he proved that sometimes the big lesson can come from among the youngest.