Kentucky's non-conference schedule has fun challenges, but one too many snoozers
John Calipari is in defense mode with Kentucky's non-conference schedule
I recently examined/critiqued Kansas'. Only fair I do the same for Kentucky after it released its non-SEC games for the 2017-18 season.
My immediate reaction? It's solid. Not great, not over-the-top tough. Not underwhelming. Most of all, it's understandable. Whereas I was reasonable but critical with Kansas' unusually lean non-con calendar, I'm going to give John Calipari a little more slack here. Yes, I'd love for Kentucky to schedule more ambitiously than this, but Cal's going to have a talented yet historically young team -- much younger than Kansas. It makes sense he'd arrange November and December the way he did.
In fact, he did some preemptive damage control on Twitter in the wake of the schedule's unveiling.
Calipari is using some poetic license by declaring next year's UK squad the "youngest team in the history of college" basketball but it's certainly going to be the youngest in 2017-18. More than half of Kentucky's roster has never played a minute of Division I basketball. And while UK is a freshman factory annually, the only other Cats squad that compares to next season's roster, in terms of age and roster turnover, is the 2012-13 group. That team went 21-12 against the 80th-toughest schedule and infamously lost in the first round of the NIT against Robert Morris. It's the only time Calipari hasn't made the NCAA Tournament since he's been at Kentucky.
"How do we prepare our guys to be at our best at the end of the season while also putting them in a position to grow and succeed?" Calipari also tweeted. "I think we've done that with this schedule."
On a year-to-year basis, the only team that competes with Kentucky in terms of national pull and watchability is Duke. It's on Calipari to keep his team interesting by way of a good non-conference schedule. In some ways, he's failed here. But the back end makes up for a spate of snoozer to start. With that in mind, let's look at what the Wildcats have assembled. Kentucky will play eight teams who made the NCAA Tournament last season. The composite winning percentage from last season for UK's opponents next season: .701. Three teams made it to the second weekend of the Big Dance.
Of course, the one thing missing: multiple true road games. (The SEC has already unveiled that Kentucky will play on the road vs. Florida, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, Arkansas, LSU, Auburn, South Carolina and Missouri; that's a nice batch of challenges.)
Let's roll through it.
Utah Valley (at home, Nov. 10): A buy game, an easy win, a snore of a start for Kentucky. College basketball should be trying to arrange top-30 programs to play each other, in on-campus environments, on the first night of the season.
Vermont (at home, Nov. 12): The Catamounts, out of the America East, made the NCAAs last year and will be a solid club again. This is a respectable opponent to schedule. I wonder if UK will only be a single-digit favorite here.
Kansas (in Chicago, Nov. 14): Great game on a neutral floor for the Champions Classic. Kansas will be favored. Want to see how Kentucky's youthful backcourt handles itself against Devonte' Graham and Malik Newman.
East Tennessee State (at home, Nov. 17): Four games in eight days is a lot, and but although ETSU was a top-70 team last season, four of its tops five scorers are gone. Easy W.
Troy (at home, Nov. 20): Meh. Kentucky should win by 25.
Fort Wayne (at home, Nov. 22): Fort Wayne famously upset Indiana last season, when the game was in Fort Wayne. Tom Crean was great for doing that. Calipari would never dream of it. The Mastodons won't have the personnel to upset UK here, but perhaps this could be somewhat interesting?
UIC (at home, Nov. 26): Yep, another uninspiring home game. Here's the problem. Six of Kentucky's first seven games have very little appeal. Not good for UK, not good for college hoops. Unless Kentucky actually loses two or three of these games, we won't know much of anything about the Wildcats until mid-December.
Harvard (at home, Dec. 2): The Crimson will probably be a 20-win team next season. Can't see this one as close, though.
Monmouth (in New York City, Dec. 9): This would be great ... if Monmouth wasn't losing one of the best players in program history, Justin Robinson, plus another solid scorer in Je'lon Hornbeak. The Hawks will be a step below next season.
Virginia Tech (at home, Dec. 16): It takes until nine days before Christmas to get to the second most interesting game of UK's first 10 in its non-con schedule. Hokies should be an NCAA Tournament team next season.
UCLA (in New Orleans, Dec. 23): Now we're talking. The Bruins are still a top-25 squad heading into next season. This is part of the annual CBS Sports Classic. Kentucky will probably be better than UCLA by this point, but there's good intrigue here. The fact UK and UCLA met twice last season, and split, makes for fun storylines, even if Lonzo, De'Aaron and Malik have moved on. Will probably be must-watch.
Louisville (at home, Dec. 29): The second best rivalry in college basketball. Louisville and Kentucky will both be preseason top-10 teams. In fact, they'll probably split in some polls in terms of who is ranked higher. This is a great matchup almost every year, and next year should be no different. Remember, the Cards just picked up five-star Brian Bowen and will bring back a big-time win in Deng Adel.
West Virginia (on road, Jan. 17): The only road game in non-conference play for Kentucky comes in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge. WVU qualifies as a preseason top-25 team. This is going to be an inconvenient test for Kentucky. The SEC will be better next season, the Wildcats have a lot of solid road opponents in league play, and in the middle of all of that? UK's gotta go on the road and play against a team with a hellish pace and full-court press. Big test. WVU should win.
So the final four games are all certainly consequential. I don't hate the schedule, I just wish Kentucky swapped out Troy, Monmouth, UIC or Harvard for a top-40 team.
For more context on UK's slate, with info provided by UK's communications department, check below. The endgame rankings in RPI and KenPom show you how varied the schedule is.
Final Ranking (AP/Coaches)
KenPom.com Final Ranking
NCAA first round
NCAA Elite Eight
UK leads 22-8
UK lost 79-73 on 1/28/17
NCAA first round
UK leads 4-0
UK won 88-65 on 11/12/10
NCAA first round
NIT first round
NCAA first round
UK leads 3-1
UK won 84-60 on 3/16/96
NCAA Sweet 16
UK leads 8-6
UK won 86-75 on 3/24/17
NCAA second round
UK leads 34-16
UK lost 73-70 on 12/21/16
NCAA Sweet 16
UK leads 15-5
UK won 78-39 on 3/26/17
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