A few weeks ago, John Calipari claimed that when Kentucky basketball finally released it’s full schedule, it would be the toughest in the country.
Well, while it look a little longer than usual, Calipari wasn’t lying. With the full schedule now out, I can tell you for sure: If it’s not the toughest in the nation, it’s in the very, very, very short conversation.
#BBN, you all are crazy! And when you see our full schedule, you are going to think I’m crazy! Ten new players and nationally the toughest path before league play?!? Time for me to be drug tested?! #BuiltDifferent
— John Calipari (@UKCoachCalipari) October 9, 2020
If you don’t believe me, just know this: Of the 27 games on the schedule, a staggering 24 are against Power 5 competition, with another game against one of the top mid-majors in college basketball (Richmond). As a matter of fact, Kentucky won’t play a single non-Power 5 school after November 29th straight up until the NCAA Tournament in March.
It’s a staggering stretch of good competition on a staggering schedule.
Let’s go ahead and let you know what you need to know about everyone on the schedule.
Out of conference:
Morehead State, Wednesday, November 25th and Detroit Mercy, Friday, November 27th, Rupp Arena: To use a super corny cliche, there’s no better way to ease into your Thanksgiving weekend than with a few good appetizers, and there’s no better way to ease into this season with what should be a couple of easy wins. Morehead State finished last season 13-19, so you’d think that the Wildcats’ opener the day before the holiday should be an easy victory. And outside the fact that Detroit-Mercy is 1) Coached by former Indiana head coach Mike Davis 2) With Brad Calipari playing big minutes at guard, there really isn’t all that much reason to get excited about this game either.
Put another way, I know there was hope that when it was announced Kentucky would put together its own event in Lexington, that it would attract some big names and marquee opponents. Instead, they will open with these two games against inferior competition and with good reason – have you seen the rest of the schedule?
Kentucky needed some built in wins, before things get too tough.
Richmond, Sunday, November 29th, Rupp Arena: As easy as those two opening games should be, things will ramp up quite quickly come the final game of the Lexington event on Sunday. There, Kentucky faces arguably the best mid-major team in America, when the Richmond Spiders wrap up the weekend with a game in Lexington. Richmond is coming off a 24-win season where they were in line for an at-large berth before the NCAA Tournament was cancelled. Did I mention they return their top eight scorers off that team?
Admittedly, Richmond did just get crushing news just a few days ago when starting wing Nick Sherod was lost for the year with a torn ACL, but still, don’t sleep on the Spiders (which is probably just a good, life rule in general). They bring back a trio of players who averaged double-figures last year, highlighted by guard Blake Francis (17.7 points per game), along with big man Grant Golden (13 points, seven boards) and point guard Jacob Gilyard who averaged close to six assists per contest.
At home, this is a game Kentucky will be favored to win.
But don’t be surprised to see the Spiders give them all they can handle.
Kansas, Tuesday, December 1st, TBD (Although likely, Indianapolis): Ah yes, the Champion’s Classic. One of college basketball’s signature events, which usually signifies the start of the season, has been pushed back to the first Tuesday after tip-off.
Still, we’re talking Kentucky-Kansas here! Whether it’s played opening night, or final night, in Lexington, Lawrence or on the moon, who cares? College hoops really doesn’t get much better than this.
Now in the big picture, this isn’t a vintage Kansas team, after they lost their two best players and a pair of first-team All-Big 12 guys in point guard Devon Dodson and big man Udoka Azibuke. Still, the Jayhawks always have talent, and more perimeter depth than usual, with their squad led by guards Ochai Agbaji (10 ppg last season), Marcus Garrett (9.2 ppg, 4.6 apg), Christian Braun and redshirt, former Top 50 recruit Jalen Wilson. Garrett specifically is the reigning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and will be one of the better defenders that Kentucky’s great wings, BJ Boston and Terrence Clarke, face all year.
Ultimately, this is a Kansas team that Kentucky should beat.
But regardless of your personal opinion on Bill Self, he always has his teams ready to play.
Georgia Tech, Sunday, December 6th, State Farm Arena, Atlanta: In a sign of just how tough this schedule is, you’d think that the schedule would lighten up a bit after Kentucky plays Kansas. Instead, the Wildcats will travel to Atlanta to face a Georgia Tech team that is better than people realize. They finished fifth in the ACC last year, which included a victory over Louisville at home.
Even more, the Yellow Jackets return five of their top six scorers, including Michael DeVoe, Jose Alvarado and Jordan Usher – who form one of the best backcourts in the ACC. If you’re looking to get a little nostalgic, they also still have Bubba Parham on their roster, a player who hit approximately 42 three-pointers in one game at Rupp Arena a few years ago.
To me, Georgia Tech is “NCAA Tournament good” but I would add this caveat: Josh Pastner announced just yesterday that because of fear of contact tracing rules, he will “contactless practices” all season long, to limit the spread of Coronavirus.
You can insert your own jokes here, but it might be advantage to Kentucky. I just don’t know how a team can build continuity without playing five-on-five at all throughout the season.
At the very least, the Wildcats will know they’re facing a fully healthy team in Georgia Tech.
Notre Dame, Saturday, December 12th, Rupp Arena: In what should be one, final lull before the grind of conference play begins, the Wildcats get Notre Dame at home.
While the Irish are a solid, name brand team, the bottom line remains that they likely just won’t be all that good this season. They lose do-everything forward John Mooney (who averaged a staggering 16 points and 12 boards per game last year) as well as second-leading scorer TJ Gibbs, and that’s off a team that went just 10-10 in ACC play last season.
Clearly, Notre Dame can win this game if Kentucky comes in unprepared. But this is far from a vintage Irish team.
UCLA, Saturday, December 19th, Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, Cleveland: First of all, how can you not be fired up for a game played in “Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse Arena.” It sounds like some futuristic gym where George Jetson’s kids would play an AAU tournament or something.
Beyond that, there is the fact that UCLA is really, REALLY good this season.
I know it’s easy to take jabs at UCLA in recent years, but this is a legitimately good team, that returns eight of its top nine scorers off a squad that nearly won the Pac-12 last year. They also add some guy you may have heard of, a kid named Johnny Juzang.
Outside of Juzang, the name to watch is Chris Smith, who was the team’s leading scorer at over 13 points per game last year. Had the NBA Draft process not been so convoluted, Smith might have stayed in, and might have ended up as a first round pick. Instead, he is back, to lead an older, veteran team full of former four and five-star recruits that Steve Alford left behind. Cody Riley and Jalen Hill will also cause problems as physical, low post players down low.
They’re not getting a ton of love, but UCLA should be really good this year.
at Louisville, Saturday, December 26th, KFC Yum Center, Louisville: Not sure if you heard, but this game is getting played. At KFC Yum Center. Without fans. And then, these two teams will return to play at Rupp Arena. Likely with fans.
It really does feel like nobody has mentioned any of those facts the last few months, right?
To Cardinals’ fans everywhere…. pic.twitter.com/vBMgnduWaD
— Chris Mack (@CoachChrisMack) September 29, 2020
In all seriousness though, college basketball’s best rivalry got some added fire thanks to Chris Mack, but I’m curious to see what it looks like when the two teams actually take the court. Louisville lost a ton off last year’s team, and now will rely heavily on David Johnson and Samuell Williamson. Both are sophomores who showed flashes last season, but need to put it together for a whole season to be successful.
In this rivalry, nothing surprises me. But let’s just say this isn’t a vintage Louisville team.
Texas, Saturday, January 29th, Rupp Arena, Lexington: This is going to sound weird, but to me, this is actually one of the more intriguing games on Kentucky’s schedule – and no, not just because of the Jai Lucas revenge factor.
As I’ve said throughout the fall, Texas has one of the 10 most talented rosters in college basketball – a group that returns its top 12 scorers off last year’s team (TOP 12!!!) and adds Greg Brown. They are also coached by Shaka Smart, who has shown no ability to get the most of his team and players.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, this could be the ultimate “boom/bust” game on the Wildcats’ schedule. If Texas is meeting expectations, it could be a matchup of Top 20 teams. If they’re not, they might have already quit on Shaka for the season and it could be a blowout. It could be the opposite, and a game that the players could view as helping Shaka save his job.
In the end, I have no idea what Texas will be by this point in the season. But I am fascinated to watch.
So earlier this week, I did a full SEC preview. So I will probably avoid going too in-depth here. If you want to know more about each of these teams, I’d consider clicking here.
Instead, I’ll give you some short details, starting with the teams that Kentucky will play twice in league play.
Vanderbilt, Wednesday January 6, Rupp Arena; at Vanderbilt, Wednesday, February 17th, Memorial Coliseum, Nashville: No need to beat around the bush here: Vanderbilt has been terrible the last two years, and with their two best players (Aaron Nesmeth and Saben Lee) going pro, there is no reason to expect them to be much better.
Jerry Stackhouse is a respected X’s and O’s guy dating back to his days as an NBA assistant and G-League coach, and there are nice pieces here (Scottie Pippen Jr., Dylan Disu).
Still, the only realistic “goal” for this team is to not finish in last place in the league like they have each of the last two seasons.
at Florida, Saturday, January 9th, O’Connell Center, Gainesville; Saturday, February 27th, Rupp Arena: Different year, same story with Florida: The Gators have plenty of talent, but will Mike White get that talent to perform when the lights come on?
The Gators return a potential SEC Player of the Year candidate in Keyontae Johnson (14 ppg last season), former McDonald’s All-American Scottie Lewis and guards Noah Locke and Tre Mann.
Still, outside of White’s second season (when he still had Billy Donovan’s players), the Gators have never been better than 11-7 in league play.
Again, I’ll believe the Florida hype when I see results.
Alabama, Tuesday, January 12th, Rupp Arena; at Alabama, Tuesday, January 26th, Coleman Coliseum, Tuscaloosa: And on the opposite end of the spectrum with Florida is Alabama, a deep, talented team with a young coach I trust in Nate Oats.
The Crimson Tide have one of the more talented rosters in this conference, with John Petty (back for his 11th year of college hoops) and Jaden Shackleford back after averaging double-figures a season ago. They’re buoyed by former McDonald’s All-American Jahvon Quinerly at point guard, five-star guard Josh Primo and grad transfer big man Jordan Bruner.
Alabama plays fast and scores a lot of points (they finished third in the nation in that category last season) and the key to their success this season will be whether they can get stops or not. But from a talent perspective, there aren’t many better teams anywhere in the SEC.
at Auburn, Saturday, January 16th, Auburn Arena, Auburn; Saturday, February 13th, Rupp Arena: I love Bruce Pearl, but this team simply isn’t as talented as the teams he’s had each of the last few seasons. In total, Auburn lost its top six scorers off last year, basically completely turning over the roster from their 2019 Final Four run.
Yeah, Jared Harper and Bryce Brown aren’t walking through that door.
Instead, freshman point guard (and former Kentucky recruit) Sharife Cooper will be their best player, and fellow freshmen JT Thor (great name!) and Chris Moore will be good in time.
That time is not “now” however.
Tennessee, Saturday, February 6th, Rupp Arena; Saturday, February 20th, Thompson-Boling Arena, Knoxville: Pretty much everyone has Kentucky and Tennessee as the top two teams in this conference in some order, and with good reason. The Vols return a bunch of talent off last year’s team (John Fulkerson, Yves Pons, Santiago Vescovi), add key transfers (Victor Bailey and EJ Anisoke) and a top-five recruiting class nationally, headlined by Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson.
In the bigger picture, the only real “questions” for Tennessee are good ones to have: Is it possible they have too much talent, and will Rick Barnes be able to keep everyone happy? And are they really an SEC title contender after finishing in the middle of the pack last season?
Still, those good problems to have and this is a legitimately good team.
(Also, to listen to my interview with Rick Barnes about his 2020-2021 team, click below)
Teams Kentucky will face once in league play:
South Carolina, Tuesday, December 29th, Rupp Arena: In a testament to the phenomenal coaching job John Calipari did in 2019-2020, Kentucky took just three league losses all year. One was in a foul fest at Auburn, one was in a game where John Fulkerson went silly at Rupp and the third was on the road against South Carolina.
Well, Kentucky will open this year with that same South Carolina team, which isn’t quite an SEC title contender, but probably better than folks realize.
The good news for Kentucky is that they get the Gamecocks at the right time – this team usually gets better as the season goes on, so catching them in late December, at home, is advantage Wildcats.
at Mississippi State, Saturday, January 2nd, Humphrey Coliseum, Starkville: I’m just going to get right to it: Mississippi State is not good this year. Reggie Perry, Robert Woodard and Nick Weatherspoon are all gone off last year’s team, leaving the Bulldogs with two sophomore guards (Iverson Molinar and DJ Stewart) and an energy big (Abdul Ado) as essentially the only returnees with experience.
This should be an easy UK win.
at Georgia, Tuesday, January 20th, Stegeman Coliseum, Athens: Following Mississippi State, Kentucky will get its first look at Florida, Vanderbilt, Alabama and Auburn (listed above) before traveling to Georgia for what should be an easy win.
Look, I know Georgia always gets hyped for home games against Kentucky, but not only did they lose Anthony Edwards, but also four of their top six scorers overall. And that was off of a team which finished 5-13 in SEC play.
In other words, the Tom Crean experiment is going exactly as many of us who watched him at Indiana expected: Not well.
LSU, Saturday, January 23rd, Rupp Arena: I feel the need to say it every time I write about Will Wade, but, whatever your opinion is about him (and I’m guessing I already know what it is), he once again has a talented team this year. In my opinion, a team talented enough to potentially win the SEC (even if I think Kentucky and Tennessee are ahead of them).
Javonte Smart, Trendon Watford and Darius Days are all back after averaging double-figures last year, with three transfer big guys who all contributed at Power 6 schools and add depth up front (Shareef O’Neal (UCLA), Josh LeBlanc (Georgetown) and Bryan Penn-Johnson (Washington). They also have another Top 10 high school class, led by big-time scorer Cameron Thomas.
In other words, Will Wade has a strong ass team. One that Kentucky needs to ready for when they come to Rupp Arena.
at Missouri, Tuesday February 2nd, Mizzou Arena, Columbia: This is a team that – on paper – should compete for an NCAA Tournament berth. In total, they return 88 percent of their scoring from last season, and all five starters will be juniors or seniors. They also added depth in the transfer market, with point guard Drew Buggs from Hawaii (why anyone would go from college in Hawaii to college in Columbia, Missouri is beyond me – but I guess that’s not the point).
So yeah, this team is good. But can we trust Cuonzo Martin?
My lean is no, but he will have a chance to prove us wrong this season.
Arkansas, Tuesday February 9th, Rupp Arena: There are seemingly always plenty of fireworks when Arkansas and Kentucky get together, dating back to the Mike Anderson era and into last season when a John Calipari double-technical fueled the Wildcats to victory in Fayetteville.
So what’s in store for this season? Who knows. But Arkansas again has a tough, competitive team, in this case, largely made up of transfers (Justin Smith, Conor Vanover, Vance Jackson, JD Notae) and – like the rest of the SEC – a highly-touted freshman class.
The name here to know is Moses Moody, a potential one and done.
Texas A&M, Tuesday, February 23rd, Rupp Arena: Following the Arkansas game will be return games against Auburn, Vandy and Tennessee before they host the Texas A&M Aggies in Rupp Arena.
Texas A&M is still probably a year away from being a real contender in the SEC, but does return a bunch of talent off last year’s team that finished 10-8 in league play.
As I’ve said 100 times this off-season, Buzz Williams (who won SEC Coach of the Year last year, by the way) will have A&M rolling in a matter of time.
I’m just not sure that “time” is this year.
at Ole Miss, Tuesday, March 2nd, the Pavilion at Ole Miss, Oxford: Rather than hit you with too many boring details on Ole Miss, let’s note that Kentucky’s regular season finale isn’t against Florida and isn’t on a Saturday (like it normally is) but instead will take place on Tuesday, March 2nd in Oxford.
To me, that means one thing: The SEC plans on leaving that final Saturday open for make-up games. It’s a smart move, by a group of smart people in the SEC league offices.
It’s also the latest sign that this season will be unlike any other.
But even with all that said, it can’t get here soon enough.