The Kentucky basketball season is about underway. The first exhibition game against Transylvania University is on the first November and the Big Blue Nation is excited to finally see their team take on players in a different uniform.
But the exhibition games are just that; exhibitions. There isn't much we can gather from them other than how the team executes and the types of line-ups that John Calipari will be tinkering with before the real season begins.
The real season begins soon enough. The Wildcats will open regular season play in Rupp Arena on November 8th against UNC Asheville. Kentucky has the seventh toughest non-conference schedule according to ESPN.com. Kentucky has 13 non-con games, not including the exhibitions, and I will preview all of them in three groups of three and one group of four.
Group 1: 11/08 vs. UNC Asheville, 11/10 vs. Northern Kentucky, 11/12 vs. #2 Michigan State (State Farm Champions Classic in Chicago, Illinois)
Toughest Opponent- #2 Michigan State Spartans- The Spartans are #1 in some polls due to their returning players and the fact that the brilliant Tom Izzo is their head coach. Sparty was ousted in the Sweet 16 last season by the Duke Blue Devils. They are favorites to make it to the Final Four this season and will provide the young ‘Cats with a difficult early test.
Best Individual Player Kentucky Will Face- #14 Gary Harris: Michigan State shooting guard- Harris averaged 12.9 points and 1.4 assists per game last season for the Spartans. He is also on multiple preseason All American lists.
Record Prediction- 2-1
Synopsis- While UNC Asheville and Northern Kentucky won't provide much of a test for Kentucky, it's a good thing that both games will precede the big showdown against Michigan State. Confidence in ability and execution will be key going into a match up against a veteran group like the one Izzo will bring with him to Chicago. It will be important to see how Andrew Harrison commands this team and how well the young guys pick up on the offense. It will also be important to see how Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein assert themselves as the veteran leaders of this team. While I think that the Wildcats will have the superior talent against the Spartans, I don't think that they will be mentally ready to defeat them. The game will be very close, very exciting, and very competitive, but I think Kentucky will come up just short at the end. The 40-0 talk will be out the window, but it will be too early in the season for a loss in this game to hurt too much.
Group 2: 11/17 vs. Robert Morris, 11/19 vs. Texas-Arlington, 11/25 vs. Cleveland State
Toughest Opponent- Robert Morris Colonials- We all know the story here: Robert Morris welcomed Kentucky into their home in an NIT match up and promptly beat the Wildcats on national TV. They return seven upper classmen and will have the confidence to come into Rupp Arena and hand Kentucky another upset. Will the Colonials be in the heads of the Wildcats? That question will be answered on 11/17.
Best Individual Player Kentucky Will Face- #22 Lucky Jones: Robert Morris Colonials small forward/shooting guard- Jones averaged 11.6 points and 6 rebounds as a sophomore last season for the Colonials' NIT run. Jones muscled the Wildcats for 15 points in their victory. He is a big 6-6, 210 pound body that could be a tough match up, just not a tough match up for Kentucky's size at guard and forward.
Record Prediction- 3-0
Synopsis- This is by far Kentucky's easiest stretch of the season. Cleveland State has had their moment in the sun in the NCAA tournament, but they were a very poor team last season going 14-18. Texas Arlington wasn't bad going 19-14 but they were defeated in the first round of the CIT by Oral Roberts. The game that every Kentucky fan has circled on his/her schedule for this stretch is the Robert Morris game for obvious reasons. What happened at the end of last season was embarrassing, and some of us, me included, still have a hard time forgetting that awful feeling of being defeated in a high school gym in the NIT. I honestly don't think John Calipari is looking at this as a revenge game- this is Robert Morris after all- but Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress might have a little extra motivation going into this rematch.
Group 3: 11/27 vs. Eastern Michigan, 12/01 vs. Providence (Big East/SEC Challenge in Brooklyn, New York), 12/06 vs. Baylor (In Arlington, Texas)
Toughest Opponent- Baylor Bears- Baylor is another team on this schedule that beat the Wildcats last season by the score of 64-55 in Lexington. It was John Calipari's first home loss as the Kentucky coach and was the point in which many of us started to worry about that Wildcat team. Baylor went on to win the NIT last season over the Iowa Hawkeyes. Coach Drew always has long, athletic players on his team, and this years' squad is no different in that regard. Baylor isn't ranked in the preseason coaches' poll, but they have experience with six upperclassmen and four sophomores. Oh yeah, and Brady Heslip is STILL there.
Best Individual Player Kentucky Will Face- #21 Isaiah Austin: Baylor Bears center- Austin is a load down low at 7-1 and 225 pounds. His stats were pretty impressive with 13.0 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. He almost reached his averages against Nerlens Noel last season going for 11 points and 5 rebounds against the Wildcats. Willie Cauley-Stein will have his work cut out for him against Austin's bulk and John Calipari may have to call on Dakari Johnson and his frame to try and wear down the Baylor big man.
Record Prediction- 3-0
Synopsis- Kentucky again finds itself playing on neutral courts for the second and third time of the season. Cal has stated in the past that he wants his teams to play in as many early neutral court games as they can to get them ready for a tournament atmosphere and to raise the profile of the program. Profiles don't get much higher than the Barclays Center in New York or Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. The Wildcats will have already played on a big stage by this team against a quality opponent, so I'm not too worried about this stretch of games. Eastern Michigan probably won't provide much of a challenge and neither should the Friars, but playing Providence in the house that Jay-Z built will be a thrilling prospect for the young guys on Cal's team. The real test will be against Baylor in front of 70,000 people.
Group 4: 12/10 vs. Boise State, 12/14 at #11 North Carolina, 12/21 vs. Belmont, 12/28 vs. #3 Louisville
Toughest Opponent- #11 North Carolina Tar Heels- I know I'm probably going to get my name dragged through the mud by a certain team down the road for doing this, but I will explain my reasons in the synopsis. For now, let's look at the Tar Heels. UNC had a bit of a disappointing season last year under Roy Williams and are out to prove that it was just an aberration. This will be Kentucky's first true road test and the Dean Dome will be rocking. James Michael McAdoo and law enforcement enthusiast PJ Hairston are returning to lead a talented roster full of juniors and seniors, not to mention a talented freshman class with Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Nate Britt. UNC has good size all around and will have the biggest back court that Kentucky will face all season with 6-6 PJ Hairston and 6-5 Leslie McDonald. Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, and James Young will have their work cut out for them.
Best Individual Player Kentucky Will Face- #2 Russ Smith: Louisville Cardinal shooting guard- Smith averaged 18.7 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists. He is listed as 6-0 tall but I've actually met him in person and that height is a little generous. Even though he is small in stature, Smith has made a career of scoring big even over larger opponents. Smith has an unorthodox, kamikaze playing style that can be either feast or famine for the Cards. He's won games for Rick Pitino in the past but one cannot forget his self-destruction at Notre Dame and his benching at the start of the second half in the national title game against Michigan. Smith declined the pros to come back to Louisville and work on being less of a scorer and become a better all-around basketball player. Smith will face Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, James Young, or, more than likely, a combination of all three. All three of those players dwarf Smith and are just as fast. Smith might have a long day in Lexington.
Record Prediction- 4-0
Synopsis- This is by far Kentucky's toughest stretch of early games. They will face two ranked opponents, and depending how things play out, both of them could be in the top 10 or maybe even the top five. The reasons I think North Carolina will be a more challenging game are that: A). North Carolina is on the road; and B). I love Kentucky's size match up against Louisville. Kentucky is much bigger at every position, but they will have to play disciplined defense as Louisville will be able to score the ball with Smith, Chris Jones and Terry Rozier. One team that cannot be forgotten is Boise State. They went 21-11 last season and made the NCAA tournament. They return many players from that roster and are a fringe top 25 team. Hopefully Kentucky doesn't look past them toward the game at North Carolina.
Conclusion: I believe the ‘Cats go 12-1 for the non-conference slate of their schedule much like the 2012 team did. The Wildcats will have plenty of opportunities to play ranked and competitive teams at home, on the road and on neutral courts. It will be fun to watch this team grow from game to game and improve under the tutelage of John Calipari. Cal is almost giddy with anticipation about his team and believes that they have a chance to win the national title. As long as they stay healthy, work together and believe in their coach, this could be a very special season. The first 13 games will be a lot of fun.