It isn’t often that college basketball scheduling news makes headlines in late May, but on Thursday we got a little nugget that will be of a bit of interest to many folks reading this article.
The news came early this morning, when it was announced that Kentucky had scheduled a three-year series with Mike Brey’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The Wildcats will host the Irish this coming season, will play on a yet to be announced neutral court in 2021 (if the Wildcats can play Michigan in London, why can’t we double-down with Notre Dame in Dublin?) and will head to South Bend in 2022.
On the surface, this news probably doesn’t mean all that much to all that many people. But to Kentucky fans, it should be seen as nothing but a great sign: John Calipari has heard your complaints. And he’s decided to act on them.
That’s because over the last few years, Kentucky fans (specifically season-ticket holders) have seemingly grown frustrated with scheduling. Too often from the time the Champion’s Classic ends in early November until the CBS Sports Classic picks up in mid-December the Kentucky schedule could best be described as a slew of “dominant wins over a who’s who of nobodies.” Too often it leaves no real marquee home games at Rupp through Christmas (if/when Louisville comes to town) and can at times (depending on the CBS Sports Classic/Big 12-SEC Challenge opponent) leave an unispiring schedule overall.
Sure, the SEC being vastly improved does help. But it is still understandably frustrated for fans in Lexington.
Well if those were the complaints, it appears as though John Calipari has heard them loud and clear. Because for lack of a better term, 2020-2021 is shaping up to the best out of conference slate of the John Calipari era, and (without evaluating everyone else’s schedule across college basketball) it’s maybe the best anyone will play in the country. It’s one that features no less than seven teams capable of making the NCAA Tournament, with three of those teams coming to Rupp Arena. It will also feature the likely favorite in the Big 12 (either Kansas or Baylor/Texas Tech in the Big 12-SEC Challenge), the Pac-12 favorite (UCLA), an ACC dark horse (Louisville) and a trendy mid-major preseason Top 25 team (Richmond).
Without spending too much time overanalyzing May depth charts, let’s quickly break it down.
The season will open with Kansas in the Champion’s Classic. After the Jayhawks lost a pair of All-Americans (Udoka Azibuke and Devon Dodson) this might not be a vintage Kansas team, but to his credit, Bill Self always has his teams ready to play. Even if this isn’t Self’s best roster (insert your own “Where’s Adidas when you need them?” comment here), the Jayhawks should start the season no lower than in the Top 15, and realistically will probably end up in the Top 10.
Speaking of preseason hype, I present you the UCLA Bruins. UCLA got former Wildcat Johnny Juzang eligible on Wednesday, but the bigger story is that Mick Cronin returns just about everyone of substance off last year’s team. Leading scorer Chris Smith is testing the draft waters, but if he returns UCLA will bring back eight of their top nine scorers from last year’s Pac-12 runner-up. Even without Smith UCLA will be favorites in the Pac-12. With him, the Bruins are a legit Final Four contender (I had them No. 8 in my preseason poll).
Looking across the rest of the landscape, you’ve got three ACC teams, all of which should be in contention for the NCAA Tournament. While Louisville loses a lot, I actually expect the Cards to be pretty good next season (like “Top 4 in the ACC good”) and that game is at the YUM Center. What few will discuss however is that the other ACC teams are good too. Georgia Tech quietly finished in fifth place in the ACC last year, returns three of their top four scorers and is a club that I think will actually be a fringe NCAA Tournament team. Same with Notre Dame, which will come to Rupp with several key pieces back as well.
Next, there will almost certainly be another marquee opponent in the Big 12-SEC Challenge (a return game against Texas Tech? Baylor?) and finally don’t sleep on Richmond. The Spiders are a team gaining legit “preseason Top 25” buzz heading into 2020-2021 after they won 24 games last season and were in the bubble conversation late. After having their three best players declare for the NBA Draft all three have elected to return. Outside of Gonzaga, the Spiders should be the best team from outside the power conferences next year.
And while that is way too many words in May about a non-conference schedule, it underlies the point above. It appears as though Calipari really has listened to the fans, figuring out a way to still play marquee neutral site games, while also bringing quality opponents to Rupp Arena.
And although it’s impossible to know, you do have to wonder if the Notre Dame scheduling format of playing one game at home, one on the road and one at a neutral site could be something that becomes a staple at Kentucky going forward. Obviously it is happening the next three seasons with Notre Dame, and it will happen in 2021-2023 with Michigan. And understand it will be important to other teams as well. I can tell you with certainty that I have talked to people at a good Power 5 program (they would have made this NCAA Tournament this past season) who has wanted to schedule Kentucky in the past, but just couldn’t justify (to their AD or fans) playing at Rupp Arena, without bringing Kentucky back to their own home arena. You know, since Kentucky would be that school’s biggest and most anticipated home game all season. I’m positive it’s the same at several other prominent schools who’ve gotten a “thanks, but no thanks” from Kentucky about playing at their venue as well.
Therefore in looking ahead, while it’s fun to speculate on a few things (where will the neutral site game be against Notre Dame? Who could be future home/road/neutral opponents?) the more important point is that the change is in fact happening. In the coming years Kentucky fans will get games against Michigan and Notre Dame at home, not to mention marquee Big 12-SEC Challenge opponents and Louisville every other year. That, in addition to an SEC slate which has all of a sudden gotten much more impressive the last few years.
Admittedly, there are probably some fans who will still continue to complain. But the 2020-2021 schedule is definitely a step in the right direction.
It’s a credit to those who those fans for more marquee out of conference home games.
And a credit to John Calipari for listening.