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Kentucky Basketball: Wildcats' Non-Conference Schedule A Very Good One

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Kentucky released their non-conference schedule yesterday. A Sea of Blue examines it in detail.

Andy Lyons

Just when you thought there was not much basketball news left to tell other than Andrew Wiggins’ school choice, BAM! We get Kentucky’s non-conference schedule to talk about and dissect. Courtesy of the Lexington Herald-Leader, here it is:

Date Tream Kenpom
11/01/13 TRANSYLVANIA (exhibition) N/A
11/04/13 MONTEVALLO (exhibition) N/A
11/08/13 UNC ASHEVILLE 206
11/12/13 Michigan State (Champions Classic in Chicago) 10
11/17/13 ROBERT MORRIS (Keightley Classic) 136
11/19/13 TEXAS-ARLINGTON (Keightley Classic) 157
11/25/13 CLEVELAND STATE (Keightley Classic) 266
11/27/13 EASTERN MICHIGAN (Keightley Classic) 245
12/01/13 Providence (Barclays Center in Brooklyn) 65
12/06/13 Baylor (Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas) 26
12/10/13 BOISE STATE 59
12/14/13 at North Carolina 30
12/21/13 BELMONT 49
12/28/13 LOUISVILLE 1

Home games in capital letters.

My first impressions of this schedule is very favorable. It isn’t the toughest schedule in the NCAA, but it is still very good. We’ll look at just how good next.

Lower Tier Games

The easiest games on this schedule, which feature teams ranked above 200 in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings last year:

  • UNC-Asheville Bulldogs: The Bulldogs of UNC Asheville were .500 overall last year, but figure to be significantly better this year. They lose star senior Jeremy Atkinson, but bring back virtually everyone else. They probably belong in the next tier up. They finished mid-pack in the Southern division of the Big South last year.

  • Northern Kentucky Norse: The Norse were mid-pack in the Atlantic Sun conference last year, and although they do figure to be improved, they are not likely to be competitive against the Wildcats.

  • Eastern Michigan Eagles: EMU was a very good defensive team last year, but could not score. The Eagles finished 7-9 in the MAC, but they won two games in the MAC Tournament. They lose one critical senior in Derek Thompson, but the rest of the main players should be back. They could be much better than last year, but I’m leaving them here for now.

  • Cleveland St. Vikings: CSU was very young last year, fielding a team composed of two juniors and the rest freshmen and sophomores. They finished only 5-11 in the Horizon league but will be improved next year.

Second-tier Games

These games are against teams ranked between 49 and 160 in the KenPom ratings:

  • Belmont Bruins: Belmont is always tough and a perennial post-season team from the Ohio Valley Conference. Last year, the Bruins were an 11-seed in the NCAA Tournament, losing to the Arizona Wildcats in the first round.

    This season, the Bruins lose several of their best players so they will be in rebuilding mode with a lot of young players. They arguably belong in the next tier down, but their history suggests that they remain in this one.

  • Boise St. Broncos: The Broncos were a 13-seed in the NCAA Tournament last year, losing to LaSalle. Boise beat the likes of LSU, UNLV, and San Diego St. last year. They lose reserve senior Kenny Buckner, but everyone else should be back.

    Boise is a very dangerous team, and will definitely not roll over for the likes of Kentucky. They will have at least three significant seniors and four significant sophomores next season, so this team cannot be taken lightly.

  • Providence Friars: Providence is the team that Kentucky would have played last year had it been able to win the first round of the NIT against the Robert Morris Colonials. Providence was a member of the former Big East, and counted the Mississippi St. Bulldogs, Villanova Wildcats, Cincinnati Bearcats and Notre Dame Fighting Irish among their victims last year.

    The Friars got to the Elite Eight of the NIT, where they lost to the eventual NIT champs, the Baylor Bears. They lose one senior contributor in Vincent Council, but otherwise should return the rest. They will be better this year than last, and will be a challenge for Kentucky.

  • Robert Morris Colonials: This team needs no introduction, having sent Kentucky home last year in the first round of the NIT. The Colonials lost in the next round of the NIT to Providence, and finished their season last year with a 24-11 record overall, 14-4 in the Northeast Conference.

    Robert Morris loses two seniors, Welton Jones and Russell Johnson, but otherwise returns intact a team dominated by incoming seniors. This will be another quality game against a foe that, considering their returners, might well belong in the next tier up.

  • Texas-Arlington Mavericks: Texas-Arlington and Kentucky have never before met in basketball. Last year, the Mavericks were 19-14 overall, 11-7 in the WAC, and played in the post-season tournament where they lost to Oral Roberts.

    UTA figures to be in rebuilding mode this season, as it loses four seniors who saw significant minutes last year. They may well belong a tier down, as I suspect that UNC-Asheville or EMU will be better next year.

Top-tier Games

  • Louisville Cardinals: It goes without saying that this will be one of the most highly anticipated games of the year, and perhaps the biggest UK-U of L matchup since the 2012 NCAA Tournament Final Four.

    Louisville loses senior Peyton Siva and early NBA entry Gorgui Dieng, but returns the rest of their main players and ads several well-regarded freshmen who could see some time. This will be a major test for Kentucky, and it comes at just the right time of the season.

  • Michigan St. Spartans: Michigan St. has often had Kentucky’s number, having won four of the last six meetings. Kentucky still owns a two-victory edge over the Spartans overall. Michigan St. finished 27-9 overall last year and earned a 3-seed into the NCAA Tournament.

    Michigan St. loses senior big man Derrick Nix, which is a major loss, but Stars Gary Harris and Adreian Payne will return, making the Spartans a probable top-5 team and serious NCAA title contender.

  • Baylor Bears: Baylor beat Kentucky in Rupp Arena last year, snapping the Wildcats long home winning streak and, along with Notre Dame, arguably began the long spiral downward of the Kentucky team last season.

    Baylor loses one very significant player, point guard Pierre Jackson, to graduation, but 7’1" center Isaiah Austin has opted to return for his sophomore season. Depending on how successful Baylor is finding a backup for A.J. Walton, many have them reckoned somewhere in next seasons’s top 25.

  • North Carolina Tar Heels: The Tar Heels return to Kentucky’s schedule after a one-year hiatus, and they are Kentucky’s only true road test of the non-conference season. UNC was an 8-seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament, making it past Villanova in the first round only to fall to the Kansas Jayhawks in the second.

    Carolina loses sophomore swingman P.J. Hairston Reggie Bullock to the NBA, but returns the rest of their team in what should be one of the more experienced UNC teams in the last few years. Carolina also gets some help coming in, with 5-star power forward and North Carolina Mr. Basketball Isaiah Hicks as well as McDonald’s All-American Kennedy Meeks beefing up the front line, and freshman point guard Nate Britt strengthening the back court. The Tar Heels should be at least a top 15 team next year, and possibly higher.

So there you have it, Wildcats fans. Unlike last year’s non-conference schedule, which was universally derided as a cupcake-filled affair, next year’s will be strong. This schedule is filled with a mix of highly-ranked teams, some solid mid-pack performers and a few less challenging games. The thing I like is that none of these games look like they will be against 300+ teams, which suggests that Coach Cal has learned yet another lesson from last year’s mess.

So kudos to Coach Cal for getting Kentucky back on the right track as far as scheduling goes. This is a non-conference slate that is worthy of the Wildcats, and Kentucky will be measured against some of the nation’s best next season in some outstanding environments.

In case some of you are wondering about the Keightley Classic, here is more about it from the Lexington Herald-Leader. I think it’s a great idea, and although Kentucky’s opponents in that tournament won’t be top tier, they are much better than last season.