As usual with the Kentucky Wildcats since John Calipari has been the head coach, the non-conference schedule is loaded with challenges at home, away, and on neutral courts against the cream of the crop of college basketball. This year is a little more exciting than usual as the ‘Cats will take two road trips to play two of the most storied programs in college basketball history.
Of course there are some games set up as sacrificial lambs for the Wildcat, so those won't be added to the list. EKU, Albany, Wright State, etc... doesn't do much to move the needle. They are great tune-ups for the ‘Cats, but they aren't the meat of the schedule.
So for these purposes, I will be ranking the top seven non-conference games.
7. vs. South Florida Bulls in Miami (Fl.) Friday, November 27th
This will be former assistant coach Orlando Antigua's second season with the Bulls. Last year proved to be tumultuous as the team was a lowly 9-23 and didn't sniff the postseason. Cal is throwing his old pal a bone by playing the Bulls. While the game is not on South Florida's home court, it is in Miami and hopefully it will give Antigua some ammo for recruits. South Florida has never been much of a basketball job, so Antigua has a lot of work to do. Expect the ‘Cats to romp the Bulls.
6. vs. Arizona State Sun Devils at Rupp Arena Saturday, December 12th
This will be Bobby Hurley's second trip in as many years to Rupp Arena. Last season he brought his Buffalo team and gave the Wildcats all they could handle. Hurley now has better talent and is with a team in a power conference. Give him a few years and that Sun Devil team will be a contender. Also of note, recruit Thon Maker is being heavily recruited by Hurley. He was a big time Kentucky target at one time, but some of that has seemed to cool as of late. But be sure that he will be paying attention to this showdown. Arizona State was 18-16 last season with a home win against Arizona and a second round exit in the NIT. Being that the game is in Rupp, I don't have much worry about this one being anything other than a win.
5. at UCLA Bruins Thursday, December 3rd
How can we forget the massacre that occurred last season as the Wildcats completely dismantled the Bruins on a neutral floor. Steve Alford was at a loss for words and his team was completely shell-shocked. I cannot personally recall one historic program annihilating another like that. Be that as it may, UCLA made the NCAA Tournament as an eleven seed and made a bit of an improbable run only to be ousted by Gonzaga in the Sweet 16. Byrce Alford will be returning but Kevin Looney left for the NBA. I doubt there will be much of a challenge, but this will be a true road game for a relatively young team. Pauley Pavilion doesn't really strike fear into the hearts of opponents, but it will be rocking when the ‘Cats come to town.
4. vs. Louisville Cardinals at Rupp Arena Saturday, December 26th
Normally this game would be in the top three or maybe even the top game, but I have a feeling the Cards are going to take a bit of a dive this season. Rick Pitino is counting on two fifth year transfers from Drexel and Cleveland State to make immediate impacts. While those guys may be pretty good, they were good players on really bad teams. This level of competition is much different. The Cards lost Montrezl Harrell, Terry Rozier, Wayne Blackshear, and Chris Jones, while the talent replacing them isn't in the same ballpark. The ridiculous record that John Calipari has over Rick Pitino will be extended another game as the match-ups will be a complete nightmare for the archrivals from the Derby City. Still, it's the day after Christmas and a game against Louisville will always get the blood pumping.
3. vs. Ohio State Buckeyes in Brooklyn, New York Saturday, December 19th
The CBS Sports Classic in the Barclays Center is becoming a nice event. The Undercard will be North Carolina vs. UCLA with the ‘Cats vs. the Buckeyes as the main event. With DeAngelo Russell gone, Thad Matta is going to have his work cut out for him against Cal and the Wildcats. The Buckeyes will have five star guard Jaquan Lyle on the team and it will be interesting to watch him against the premier guards that play for Kentucky. This is a big, primetime event and all eyes will be on these teams. In the past, these have been the types of games that Cal's Cats shine the most.
2. vs. Duke Blue Devils in Chicago, Illinois Tuesday, November 17th
Talk about a battle of heavyweights. The Champions Classic has become THE regular season event in college basketball. The Blue Devils are coming off of a national championship and yet another stellar recruiting class put together by Coach K. Kentucky is coming off another Final Four and another stellar recruiting class. These teams don't resemble the teams from a season ago, but I would give the edge to Kentucky at this point because they will have better depth in key positions. Gone are Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor, Willie Cauley-Stein, Justise Winslow, and Trey Lyles, but both teams will be young and full of talent. This game will be epic.
1. At Kansas Jayhawks Saturday, January 30th
A road game of this magnitude at this juncture of the season is an odd treat indeed; but the powers at be decided that the SEC/Big 12 Challenge needed to be take up a notch, and the best way to do it would be to pit the elite teams of each respective conference against each other in the Phog. Kansas will again be returning talent and will have a very good crop of recruits. Stealing a game on Kansas' home court is indeed a tall order, but a game like this will only benefit the ‘Cats in the long run as the SEC again doesn't look to be much of a challenge. The atmosphere will be electric as the two most storied programs in the country go head to head in one of the iconic buildings in all of college athletics.