The Kentucky Wildcats released their basketball non-conference schedule today and it’s absolutely loaded, to say the least. This portion of the schedule has seven teams who made the tournament last season and features blue bloods like North Carolina, UCLA and Kansas. Here’s a closer look at specifics.
The non-major conference teams on the schedule — Grand Canyon, Buffalo, Boston, Montana State, UT-Arlington, Eastern Kentucky and Columbia — aren’t exactly sleeping upsets. Eastern Kentucky was the only one of the bunch to make last year’s tournament and the seven teams had an average ranking of 176 on KenPom.com. Grand Canyon (241) and Montana State (308) have the lowest 2013-14 rankings.
But the other six teams on the schedule will be a true test for the ‘Cats next season. Kansas, Providence, Texas, North Carolina, UCLA and Louisville will all provide their own challenges.
The Jayhawks hauled in the fifth-best recruiting class in 2014 according to ESPN.com rankings. The class includes standouts like Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre, the 3rd and 11th ranked players in the country, respectively, per ESPN. Sure they lost Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, but there’s talent left on the roster with Wayne Selden and Perry Ellis. This game will also be Kentucky’s third “true” contest if you don’t count the exhibitions.
Providence and Texas come rolling along towards the end of November and into December. Don’t sleep on the Longhorns, as they return four key players, Isaiah Taylor, Jonathan Holmes, Cameron Ridley and Javan Felix. Not to mention, they’ll add one of the best prospects in the country to that group with center Myles Turner. If you’re looking for a team that can come close to Kentucky’s size next season, Texas has it. Ridley goes 6-9, 285, while Turner is a legitimate 7-footer.
Kentucky will close out the month of December with three straight games against North Carolina, UCLA and Louisville. Just hearing that trio of games might worry some, but the ‘Cats will have a week to prepare for both the Bruins and Cardinals, while getting Columbia three days before the Tar Heels.
All three teams are bringing in impressive recruiting classes — North Carolina finished third in ESPN’s rankings, while Louisville and UCLA finished fourth and 10th, respectively. North Carolina returns just about everyone outside of James Michael McAdoo, and while UCLA and Louisville lost a ton, they are replenishing the system with big recruiting classes.
Last month, I talked about how this upcoming season will be another experiment for John Calipari — how the first 31 games on the schedule will be all about finding the right lineup combinations and knowing what to turn and when to turn to it. I imagine this non-conference schedule was a part of that plan. This Kentucky team is deep, as you know, and features a solid mix of older players and rookies. Testing them from the jump is an excellent strategy.
Major wins in November and December don’t necessarily matter and can be forgotten. Wins in April are a different story.