That win over the Michigan State Spartans ain’t what it used to be. Tom Izzo’s club went from unchallenged preseason number one to 4-3 and out of the Top 25 in one month’s time.
The Kentucky Wildcats got ‘em when Sparty was getting all of the preseason love. Before they lost to the Virginia Tech Hokies and were crushed at home by a Duke Blue Devils team that is without Cassius Stanley and had previously been beaten at home by Stephen F. Austin.
The rest of Kentucky’s opponents have been...lackluster. Mixed it with wins over teams like UAB, Utah Valley, and EKU is a stunning loss to Evansville in Rupp Arena.
While this November hasn’t been much to boast about, December has some opportunities that should excite the fan base and the team.
After one more tilt against a non-Power Five team this Saturday, the Cats will face four Power Five teams in a row.
Two of those teams are, for lack of a better word, “meh” while the other two are top ten clubs.
The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets are off to a surprising 4-2 start. Their two losses are to SEC members: the Georgia Bulldogs and the Arkansas Razorbacks. The Cats get them in Rupp next Saturday and will most likely be double digit favorites in that affair. While there isn’t much expected from Josh Pastner’s team this season, they’re still an ACC team with a 1-0 conference record.
Then the Cats will travel to Viva Las Vegas for two games against two vastly different teams in neutral court affairs.
First up: the Utah Utes at 10:00 PM on a Wednesday night. The Utes are 6-2 with losses to Tulane and Coastal Carolina. But they do have some decent wins over Minnesota, Nevada, and BYU. While it’s easy to dismiss the Utes, take into account that the Cats will basically be on their turf and that 11:00 PM start won’t be ideal. Plus it’s against an unfamiliar foe and only the third Power 5 team of the season.
After Utah, things really get tough.
The Ohio State Buckeyes are up to number six in the country for the time being and they could be higher when they face the Cats. They’re undefeated with big wins over the Villanova Wildcats (25 point win), the Cincinnati Bearcats (8 point win), and on the road against the North Carolina (a 25 point win in the Dean Dome).
The Cats have one quality neutral court victory and this would be a second one that could have lasting value. The Buckeyes are in a prime position to win the Big 10 as Michigan State is sputtering and the Michigan Wolverines were exposed in Louisville. OSU will already be engaged in conference play before taking on the Cats and they’ll be more battle tested. It’s the second toughest test of the non-conference season.
The toughest test will come on December 28th with the top ranked Louisville Cardinals roll into Lexington. The Cards should still be number one when they arrive at Rupp Arena. The teams between them and the Cats are Pitt, Texas Tech, EKU, and Miami (OH).
By this time the Cats will either be full of confidence or still full of questions. Kentucky will arguably be more tested than Louisville at this point but the Cards will have the advantage of already playing road games against quality foes.
It’ll be the first game in Rupp Arena this season that fans will show out for and will have circled on their calendar. For better or for worse the home schedule has been a dud. Rupp has taken some hits season because of lack of atmosphere buzz and empty seats. The contest against the Cards should solve those issues.
If the Cats can emerge from December with a 5-0 or a 4-1 record, then I think BBN can be excited about the future and their tournament profile. The reality of the situation in the SEC is that it’s not very good right now. The Florida Gators have been a big disappointment.
Auburn, Tennessee, and Arkansas are pulling their weight for the moment but the rest of the conference is a question mark. There still will be top 25 win opportunities for the Cats through conference play and they do have a road game at Texas Tech for the SEC/Big 12 challenge, but the conference is a bit down.
That’s why this December is so important. This month is a chance for top ten validation and perhaps a turning point for some players as well.