Kentucky’s non-conference schedule is out and there is no shortage of difficult games, despite the nonsense you’re hearing from other fan bases. All eyes will be on the Champions Classic in Chicago for the third game of the year, followed by a December slate of games unlike anything college basketball will see in the 2013-14 season. It won’t be easy, but no one ever said going 40-0 is a simple task.
Here are the five toughest November and December games, in my opinion:
1.) MICHIGAN STATE
United Center, Chicago IL
November 12, 2013
With Gary Harris and Adreian Payne returning for another season, Michigan State will be a top three team in the preseason polls this fall. Payne will likely be a First Team Preseason All-American at center and veteran guard Keith Appling will join Harris to form one of the better backcourts in the country. Draymond Green is finally gone, I think.
Not only is Michigan State the best team on Kentucky’s schedule — or Louisville, depending who you ask — but Tom Izzo’s guys have the advantage of taking a shot at Kentucky’s young team early in the season. UK’s freshman-heavy squad will meet the experienced Spartans in the third game of the season in the Cats’ first game outside of Rupp Arena. Tom Izzo will have his boys ready; but will UK be ready for the Spartans?
2.) NORTH CAROLINA
Dean Dome, Chapel Hill NC
December 14, 2013
Coming in at No. 2 on the degree of difficulty list is Norf Carolina. Are the Tar Heels the second best team on the schedule? No. Not right now, at least. But the Dean Dome will be rockin’ in Kentucky’s first true road test of the season.
The eight guys in UK’s historic recruiting class, though extremely talented, have never played in an environment like the one they’ll face on December 14. Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein and Kyle Wiltjer will have to step up and be the calming, stabilizing force in this game because the freshman will be wide-eyed and flustered early on. Nothing can simulate that atmosphere.
With all that said, the game really rides on the shoulders of the Andrew Wiggins decision. If Wiggins chooses UNC, the Cats are in trouble and this is the biggest game in college basketball next season.
Rupp Arena, Lexington KY
December 28, 2013
Ah, Louisville. The defending National Champs will challenge Michigan State for the No. 2 spot in the preseason polls and they’ll be fired up to silence Big Blue Nation for a second season in a row when December rolls around.
Russ Smith’s return is big for the Cardinals, but how far they go depends on how good Chris Jones really is at point guard. I’ve seen Jones play — he knocked my cousin’s team out of the NJCAA Tournament last season — and he’s worth the hype he’s receiving right now. But he still has to translate that game from JUCO to Division 1 championship-level basketball and how well he handles the adjustment remains to be seen.
I assume Rick will play Harrell and Behanan together in the paint to soften the blow of losing Gorgui Dieng to the NBA. Harrell is going to blow up next season, but Randle and Cauley-Stein are a very good counterpunch for UK.
Rupp Arena, Kentucky’s depth and raw talent give UK the early advantage.
Cowboys Stadium, Arlington TX
December 6, 2013
Baylor awaits on December 6 in a Texas homecoming game for the Harrison twins and Julius Randle in one of sport’s most extravagant venues. The Bears’ upset of Kentucky in Rupp Arena last season adds to the magnitude of the non-conference game, the teams’ third meeting in three seasons.
Isaiah Austin passed up the NBA to return to Baylor for a sophomore season. The seven-foot-one center will join Corry Jefferson, who also passed up the league, to create an intimidating frontcourt in green. Baylor’s backcourt, however, has a lot to prove.
Yes, Brady Heslip is back.
5.) BOISE STATE
Rupp Arena, Lexington KY
December 10, 2013
Boise State is the fifth-best team on Kentucky’s non-conference schedule but the No. 5 spot on this list could’ve gone to Providence. Providence benefits from getting a game away from Rupp, but Boise is a better team, thus earning a higher ranking. (I flipped a coin.)
The Broncos will likely be a preseason Top 25 team and the six leading scorers from a year ago are back for another run. With the exception of one graduating guard, this is the same team that knocked Kentucky off the bubble last season and earned an NCAA at-large bid.
UK will need to be careful to not overlook Boise in this trap game, tucked between the trip to Cowboys Stadium and the road game at North Carolina.
Providence: Ricky Ledo’s departure stings, even though he never played a game, but the Friars will still be a good team. Providence returns four starters from a 19-win team, including Big East leading scorer Bryce Cotton and dynamic guard Kris Dunn.
Belmont: The Bruins are the early favorite to win the OVC in 2013-14.
Robert Morris: Just kidding.