After breaking down the non-conference portion of next season's schedule, it's time for a look at what the SEC holds in store for Kentucky Basketball in the 2016-17 season.
While the SEC doesn't have all the outstanding programs that Kentucky will play in their non-conference games, running through the SEC gauntlet for much of the regular season can be quite the task, as we have seen in the past. There is not a confirmed when and where schedule of SEC play yet, but let's run through what each team will bring to the table against Kentucky.
We'll start with the Alabama Crimson Tide. The Tide are losing a couple players to transfer, but they are bringing in four-star forward Braxton Key, the number one player in his home state of Tennessee on ESPN's rankings. The program isn't exactly in tip-top shape, but Avery Johnson is making strides as head coach, and a win in Coleman Coliseum wouldn't quite be a walk in the park. If the Tide come into Rupp this season, we'd expect the game to be very much in Kentucky's favor.
The Arkansas Razorbacks are next, as Mike Anderson's team brings in a few recruits, the highest-rated being the three-star prospect Brachen Hazen. The Razorbacks finished at exactly 16-16 last season, and without a notable recruiting class coming in their result against Kentucky isn't likely to be better than it was last season. Even if it's away from Rupp, the Razorback faithful probably won't be enough to hand Kentucky a loss.
On to the Auburn Tigers. Auburn had a disappointing season last year, finishing 11-20, but they managed to pull out an incredible victory against the Cats. The Tigers are bringing in a solid recruiting class, featuring five-star shooting guard Mustapha Heron, who will get to face off against fellow five-star shooter Malik Monk. If they have to play on Auburn's campus, Kentucky will have to be cautious to avoid another upset. Obviously, UK will be favored much more if they play in Lexington.
Now onto one of Kentucky's biggest basketball rivals in the conference, the Florida Gators. The Gators were 0-2 against the Cats last season in their first year without Billy Donovan at the helm. Florida is bringing in three three-star recruits, and will be adding Charleston transfer Canyon Barry, as well as Jalen Hudson from Virginia Tech. With the players that Cal has coming in, Kentucky would certainly be expected to win any games played against Florida this season.
The Georgia Bulldogs are next, another team that Kentucky handled in both of their games against each other last season. Four-star shooting guards Tyree Crump and Jordan Harris have joined the Bulldogs, which will give Malik Monk an in-conference test. Georgia certainly doesn't make it easy to win in their house, but a much-improved Kentucky team that blew out Georgia at Rupp last season would be expected to get the job done wherever the game is.
The LSU Tigers are certainly an intriguing matchup for UK this coming season. They didn't have a boatload of talent outside the top NBA prospect Ben Simmons last year. With Simmons gone, LSU looks to replace him with a few recruits, one of which is four-star prospect Skylar Mays.
Mays will likely see a lot of De'Aaron Fox, which will probably cause some problems for the LSU point guard. The Tigers seem to always compete in their house, but now without Simmons or someone capable of what Simmons could do, Kentucky would expect to win in Rupp at the very least.
Next is Ben Howland's Mississippi State Bulldogs. Howland has managed to pull in four recruits from the ESPN Top 100, the best of which is small forward Mario Kegler. While Mississippi State lost its only game to UK last season, this recruiting class coming in is nothing to take lightly, regardless of the venue, and a game in Starkville especially would be no easy task for the Wildcats this season.
The Missouri Tigers are next on the SEC list, a team that Kentucky demolished in their only game last season, winning 88-54 at home. The Tigers are bringing in four recruits, but they are all three-star players. With the program not having been all that successful as of late, Kentucky should be expected to pull out a victory.
The Ole Miss Rebels, another team that fell to the Cats in their only game against them last season, are next. Ole Miss' recruiting class is headlined by three-star center Nate Morris. There isn't a lot of star power within their recruiting class, but there are five members of the class so the Rebels will add some depth and hope to improve on their 20-12 record last season. With the incoming talent discrepancy, UK should look to get a win against Ole Miss, although going into Oxford may not be easy.
Now onto a team that got awfully excited to take on Kentucky in their house last season, although it didn't work out too well for them, the South Carolina Gamecocks. Frank Martin's squad will add three players to the roster through recruiting this year, the most notable being the four-star power forward Sedee Keita, who will be seeing plenty of Adebayo and Gabriel.
South Carolina finished third in the conference last season with an overall record of 25-9, and Sedee Keita should be a valuable addition, but the Cats handled the Gamecocks well last year, and if they come out as an improved team like they are expected to, this season should be no different.
One team Kentucky will have to watch out for, especially on the road, would be the Tennessee Volunteers. Tennessee topped UK in Knoxville last year, and the addition of four-star recruits Jalen Johnson and Grant Williams will only make this team better. The Cats would take comfort in a game at Rupp, but Thompson-Boling Arena is a building that not even Calipari has been able to thrive in.
The Vanderbilt Commodores were a team that Kentucky had trouble with on the road last year, and it's never easy facing Vandy in their house. The Commodores have a recruiting class of two, led by three star recruit Clevon Brown. With the talent coming in, Kentucky should take a game from the Commodores much easier than they did last season, regardless of the location. It could get out of hand if the teams meet at Rupp this season.
The Texas A&M Aggies were Kentucky's toughest competition in route to an SEC tournament title, and the team that prevented them from winning the regular season title outright last year. A&M has just two signees to their team this coming season, but both are four-star recruits, as power forward Robert Williams and guard J.J. Caldwell have joined the A&M roster. The Aggies do however lose Danuel House, their leading scorer from last season. Even with that loss, A&M will likely pose a threat to Kentucky, especially if the Wildcats have to travel to College Station down the stretch.
The SEC competition is not overwhelming, but it poses a few threats, and Kentucky has to watch themselves on the road as always to avoid any devastating upsets. Kentucky is expected to succeed in the conference as usual, but it's not guaranteed that they're going to take the conference.
That about sums it up for the opponents that we know about for sure for UK next season. The Wildcats have a ton of talent incoming, and they aren't going to have weaknesses that very many teams will be able to exploit, especially in an SEC that continues to improve, but still lacks the kind of elite competition UK will face in the non-conference portion of their schedule.
However, a tough non-conference schedule and an always strenuous SEC schedule will be sure to provide Kentucky with plenty of tests throughout the season.