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Preseason Expectations for UK's Nonconference Opponents

John Calipari has once again put together a strong nonconference schedule against which to test his young team.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

I've always been interested in nonconference schedules.  You can't do anything about who you play in your conference or how good those teams are when you play them, but the nonconference slate is entirely within your control.  From them we learn who is willing to go out and challenge themselves and who is just out  to pad their win totals.

The Top 25 teams get the most publicity on any schedule, but there are a lot of good basketball teams out there at every level of play.  It's inevitable that high major teams like Kentucky are going schedule their share of mid- and low major schools, but that doesn't mean you can't do your best to pick good teams from those conferences.  Fortunately, good schedules are a tradition at Kentucky and John Calipari has once again put together a terrific set of opponents for the Cats to learn, grow, and develop against before entering SEC play.  (Kansas doesn't actually fit with the rest since that game is in January, but I've included them for the sake of completeness.)

The National Perspective

Below I've compiled rankings from the AP and Coaches preseason polls and two computer polls: Ken Pomeroy's and Dan Hanner's respective preseason rankings.  The media and coaches polls provide one perspective on who the top teams will be each year.  The computer rankings do this too, but their primary virtue lies in the fact that they rate every team in Division 1, allowing us to get a sense of how UK's schedule looks from top to bottom.

National Rankings
Opponent Conference Location AP Poll Coaches Poll KenPom Hanner/SI
Albany America East Home

133 121
NJIT Atlantic Sun Home

147 141
Duke ACC Neutral 5 4 1 4
Wright St. Horizon Home

127 176
Boston University Patriot Home

124 158
South Florida Am. Athletic Neutral

186 222
Illinois St. MVC Home

95 84
UCLA Pac 12 Away 47 29 38 41
Eastern Kentucky OVC Home

234 215
Arizona St. Pac 12 Home

70 75
Ohio St. Big Ten Neutral
43 42 28
Louisville ACC Home 32 27 25 22
Kansas Big 12 Away 4 5 4 2

  • No surprise at the top, as Duke and Kansas are expected to be good by everyone. Louisville, Ohio State, and UCLA form a solid middle. There is more uncertainty about how good the Buckeyes and the Bruins are, and it's anyone's guess how recent allegations will impact the Cardinals on the court.
  • Arizona St and Illinois St round out the Top 100 teams on the schedule.  Albany and NJIT are both seen as Top 150 teams by KenPom and Hanner. 
  • NJIT of course is best known for their stunning victory at Michigan last year, but the Highlanders also made a run to the championship game of the CIT last season.  That's really quite impressive for what was the NCAA's last independent school: the strong season helped NJIT to finally be invited to join a conference.
  • EKU is the only team ranked below 200 by both rating systems, but as we saw last year, the Colonels are no pushover.
  • Wright State, Boston U., and South Florida all have widely different rankings.  There's always uncertainty about how the season will play out compared to expectations, but that goes double for these schools.

The Conference View

A national perspective is good to have, but there's also a lot to be gained from looking at where teams are predicted to finish in their own conference.  This is particularly true for mid- and low-major teams since these polls are voted on by the coaches and/or media that know them best.

Opponent Conference Location Poll KenPom Hanner/SI KP Conf Rank
Albany America East Home 2 3 3 22
NJIT Atlantic Sun Home 3 2 1 26
Duke ACC Neutral 3 1 2 1
Wright St. Horizon Home 5 2 6 14
Boston University Patriot Home 3 2 1 17
South Florida Am. Athletic Neutral 10 9 11 7
Illinois St. MVC Home 4 4 3 9
UCLA Pac 12 Away 5 4 5 4
Eastern Kentucky OVC Home 5 4 5 24
Arizona St. Pac 12 Home 8 8 8 4
Ohio St. Big Ten Neutral 2 8 6 3
Louisville ACC Home 7 6 4 1
Kansas Big 12 Away 1 1 1 2

  • Four of UK's opponents are expected to win their conference by at least one poll.  Five teams are consensus top-3 finishers.
  • South Florida and Arizona State are the only two teams that no one expects to compete for a league title.  Everyone else on the schedule has at least one believer putting them in the Top 4.
  • Given the choice, I think it's always better to bring in teams who have had success and expect to compete in their conference.  The Cats will benefit the most from facing opposing teams who have experienced previous success and expect to do so again this year.

A few final thoughts

  • The top of the schedule isn't as tough as it was last year, what with only two Top-10 opponents as opposed to four, but that's a better fit for this squad.  Last year's team was only ever going to be tested by the best, but this year's team will benefit from a more balanced schedule.
  • And this schedule definitely has balance.  The median KenPom/Hanner rank of Kentucky's opponents is 95/84.  By comparison, last year it was 135/111.  There's a good variety of strong high major, mid major, and low major opponents for this edition of the Cats to test itself against.
  • Duke, Kansas, Louisville, UCLA, and Ohio State get the headlines, but don't sleep on Illinois St, Boston University, or Albany.  BU of course paid a visit to Rupp Arena last year and pushed the Cats for a good 30 minutes before finally succumbing to the platoon effect.  Albany has made the NCAA Tournament three years running and Illinois St returns several players from an NIT squad that finished 3rd in the MVC last year.  One, and maybe all three, of those teams is my pick for the sneaky good game of the year.