If there were one word to describe Kentucky's non-conference schedule for the 2016-2017 basketball season, it would be absolutely strenuous.
We all like to chant 40-0 with teams as talented as the one Kentucky has for next year, but when Cal loads up the early part of the season with as many high-level teams as he can; well it is gonna be a tough road.
Here, we are breaking down the five most difficult non-conference games for the Wildcats next season.
If we're not talking about how much we dislike Louisville, then why even talk at all. Kentucky will be traveling the Yum! Center in Louisville to take on a Cardinals team that is going be a lot better than people may expect now. The Cards lost their top two scorers in Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, but their fair share of talent is returning. Mangok Mathiang will take over the center position, after missing all but ten games with a broken foot last year.
Those returning from last year's team include Louisville's leading three point shooter Quinten Snider, forwards Jaylen Johnson, Raymond Spalding, and 7-foot Anas Mahmoud, a potential star in Deng Adel, and guard Donovan Mitchell. The Cards also have an incoming freshman guard by the name of V.J. King; the number 26 ranked player in the class of 2016. There is a massive load of talent on this Louisville team, whether they'll be able to piece it together by the time they host Kentucky is a mystery.
North Carolina Tar Heels
No matter what year it is or how good the teams are, it's always a fun time when the two blue-bloods meet up for a battle. This year the Kentucky-North Carolina rivalry is renewed when the two meet in Las Vegas for the CBS Sports Classic on December 17th. While it's not the fully loaded team that got the Tar Heels to the national championship game last year, Carolina is returning three starters from lasts year's team: Joel Berry, Justin Jackson, and Kennedy Meeks.
UNC is also returning key role players from last year's team as well, with wings Nate Britt and Theo Pinson as well as big man Isaiah Hicks. Also new to the Tar Heel's squad are two extremely talented freshman. Tony Bradley, arguably the most skilled and versatile big man in this class, and point guard Seventh Woods. No more Marcus Paige or Brice Johnson for North Carolina, but this will still be an efficient group that shall put up a good fight.
When UCLA come to Rupp Arena on December 3rd, we may see the most riveting point guard matchup of the entire college basketball season. De'Aaron Fox will be put up against what will be one of the best players in the entire nation, Lonzo Ball. Both are top five recruits in this freshman class, and if you aren't aware of what Lonzo Ball is capable of I suggest you get to know him.
Ball is one of the best pure passers that I have ever seen come out of high school. The kid was a stud baseball player as well, and he zips the basketball around like its a baseball. In his senior year of high school, Ball averaged a triple-double with 24 points-11.3 rebounds-11.7 assists per game. I don't care what level you are playing, that is absolutely insane. Watching him slug it out with De'Aaron is gonna be a treat to watch.
Incoming freshman PF TJ Leaf is also a player to watch for this game, and Bryce Alford is gonna be Bryce Alford (yes, he's still there). The Bruins have a strong roster next year, this should be a fantastic game.
Michigan State Spartans
It doesn't get any better than the Champions Classic, and this year Kentucky gets a heralded rematch against Tom Izzo and Michigan State. Three years ago, the Spartans beat the Wildcats in this same event that pitted the number one and two ranked teams against each other. That team consisted the likes of Adrien Payne and Gary Harris that defeated Julius Randle and company. This year, it is going to be an absolute slugfest.
Tom Izzo managed to build next year's squad around three highly touted freshman recruits; three tremendous freshman in Cassius Winston, Josh Langford, and Miles Bridges will make Michigan State one of the best teams in the country yet again. Guards Lourawls Nairn and Eron Harris are also returning to add depth to the Spartans' back court.
What the Spartans will lack in this matchup is size down low. MSU's two best big men, Matt Costello and Deyonta Davis are both headed to the NBA. The only true big men that are gonna be able to produce in the post will be senior Gavin Schilling and incoming freshman Nick Ward; those are going to be the only players above 6'6" for Michigan State this year. We have a good feeling Bam Adebayo is gonna have his way in that game.
News just broke yesterday that Kentucky will host Kansas in Lexington on January 28th. All we have to say is, bring it on. Kansas is as good as ever heading into this season, with a roster blended with experience and elite young talent. Since the Jayhawks beat Kentucky in an overtime thriller last season, John Calipari will certainly be looking for revenge.
Kansas won't be as deep as Duke or Kentucky next year, but the Jayhawks are still loaded. Led by Josh Jackson, arguably the top player in the 2016 class, along with senior point guard Frank Mason, this is an elite team. The supporting class includes guards Devonte Graham, Svi Mykhailuk, and Legarald Vick, along with forwards Carlton Bragg Jr, Udoka Azubuike, Landen Lucas, Mitch Lightfoot, and Dwight Coleby.
Seeing two elite guards like our Malik Monk and Kansas' Josh Jackson pitted against each other is not something you'll get to watch every day. The Jayhawks will also be one of few teams in the country that will be able to match Kentucky's depth in the front court. They will be rotating Bragg, Azubuike, Lucas, and Coleby; while we rotate Bam Adebayo, Marcus Lee (maybe?), Wenyen Gabriel, Derek Willis, Sacha Killeya=Jones, and Isaac Humphries.
It is a tough road ahead, but who ever said winning a championship would be easy?