It’s late January and you already know what that means: A John Calipari coached basketball team is hitting its peak heading into the homestretch of the season. And after wins at Arkansas and Texas Tech in the last 10 days, there is no doubt that this team is in fact hitting its peak.
Yet despite the Wildcats playing their best basketball of the season, it doesn’t mean that landmines don’t await. A few actually.
Therefore, rather than looking back on Kentucky’s first 19 games, let’s instead ahead, to what awaits in their final 12 of the regular season.
In our quest to figure out who these Wildcats are, and how good they can be, I decided to look at those next 12 games and power rank them from the least difficult to most challenging.
Below is that ranking, with thoughts on the opponents and how Kentucky matches up with them.
12) Vanderbilt, Wednesday, January 29 (Rupp Arena)
The game that appears to be “easiest” on Kentucky’s schedule is the next one, Wednesday night against Vanderbilt at home.
And that’s no disrespect to the Commodores, but instead just the reality of how bad they truly are.
That’s because entering Rupp Arena on Wednesday night, Vanderbilt is currently riding a staggering 24-game SEC losing streak dating back to last year, and recently lost their best player (Aaron Nesmith) for the season. Of their six SEC losses this season, five have come by double digits.
At this point the Commodores aren’t just bad, but historically bad.
Meaning that it will literally take Kentucky’s worst game of the season to lose this one. Even that might not be enough.
11) Ole Miss, Saturday, February 15 (Rupp Arena)
To the Rebels credit, they play incredibly hard and if you take them too lightly, they can and will beat you. Just ask Georgia, which entered Saturday’s game against Ole Miss as a comfortable home favorite… and walked out with a 10-point loss.
So yeah, the Rebels can beat you (also, shout out to Tom Crean!).
Still, while the Rebels can beat you, their best chance to actually do it is catch you off-guard.
Therefore, as long as the Wildcats can slow down Ole Miss’s best player (Breein Tyree – who is averaging nearly 19 points per game) and don’t completely disrespect and overlook the Rebels, this should be a comfortable win.
10) at Vanderbilt, Tuesday, February 11 (Memorial Coliseum)
We’ve already discussed the historical streak of awful that Vanderbilt is in the midst of, so it doesn’t feel necessary to pile on here. Especially since, even though this is a road game, we know that 90 percent of the fans in the stands will be wearing blue.
Again, if the Wildcats just come out ready to play, they will win going away.
9) at Texas A&M, Tuesday, February 25 (Reed Arena)
Quick story time for you: Over the Thanksgiving holiday Texas A&M went to the AdvoCare Invitational in Orlando and proceeded to lose three straight games, including one to Fairfield. At that point I had a DI coach comment to me “That has to be the worst Power 5 team in college basketball.”
And the crazy thing was that he was, quite literally, right. When the first NET ranking came out, Texas A&M was actually ranked dead last among all Power 5 teams.
That’s also what makes what Buzz Williams has done since that much more impressive. He’s slowly but surely turned the Aggies turned around, and has them playing hard. A&M has three SEC wins to their name entering tonight’s game against Tennessee.
Still, the Aggies have gotten by mostly on playing hard, and as teams have realized that they can’t just show up and walk over A&M, it’s been tougher and tougher for them to pick up victories.
Therefore, while this team is tough, and while Kentucky has struggled somewhat in College Station (losing two of their last three) this just doesn’t appear to be a game where an upset will happen.
8) Tennessee, Tuesday, March 3 (Rupp Arena)
Quietly Rick Barnes has done a pretty good coaching job with this group.
Remember, this team lost three players from last year who are currently on NBA rosters (Jordan Bone, Admiral Schofield, Grant Williams) and then saw their best returning player, Lamonte Turner, go down with a season-ending shoulder injury in December.
When Turner went down, the Vols were 8-3 and it kinda felt like their season was done. Tennessee then lost its next two games and it really felt like they had no shot.
That’s also what makes what Rick Barnes has done since then that much more impressive. The Vols have won four of their last six overall, as guys have stepped up and reinforcements have come in freshman guard Santiago Vescovi (midyear enrollee) and forward Uros Plasvic (via transfer).
Still, while the win-loss record is good the last few weeks, most of those wins have been against the bottom of the SEC (those victories have come over Missouri, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss – or as I like to call them, “The Four Awful SEC Horsemen”).
Ultimately, we shouldn’t discredit the Vols for taking care of the teams they’re supposed to. But with a step up in competition, and with this game at Rupp Arena, it’s one the Wildcats should win.
7) Florida, Saturday, February 22 (Rupp Arena)
Maybe by the time this game actually gets played in a few weeks Florida will have figured things out. But this article isn’t about blindly guessing the future, as much as it is using the information we have right now, to accurately gauge what Kentucky’s season will look like going forward.
And with the information we have right now, I can tell you this: Florida stinks.
Well, that’s probably a tiny bit unfair, but entering their game tonight against Mississippi State, the Gators are currently 12-7 overall, have taken some hideous losses (at Missouri, at UConn – hate to say it but it’s true) and outside of one afternoon against Auburn, they haven’t played a complete game all season.
To their credit the Gators have played a few good teams tough, including a two-point overtime loss at LSU last week. But again, this article is being written today and we can only use the information that we currently have available to us. And that information is simply “Florida isn’t all that good right now.”
6) Mississippi State, Tuesday, February 4 (Rupp Arena)
Mississippi State is currently one of college basketball’s great, “Are they good or not?” what ifs.
On the one hand, they are just 12-7 overall, and 3-3 in league play. They also took some brutal losses out of conference, including Louisiana Tech and New Mexico State at home.
On the flip side, those losses came without point guard Nick Weatherspoon (who began the year suspended) and the Bulldogs have actually looked pretty good since he returned. Mississippi State has now won three of its last five, with those two losses coming by one point each. Furthermore, those two losses came at LSU and at Oklahoma, two teams comfortably in the NCAA Tournament field right now. Again, by one point each.
Also, Mississippi State is one of the few teams in the SEC that has the size to give the Wildcats real problems. We all know about Reggie Perry, who is currently averaging 16 points and 10 boards a game. But forward Abdul Ado is also a big, physical presence down low, that – at the very least – crashes the glass and can block shots.
Add in the fact that this will be one of Mississippi State’s best chances at a signature win over the last month of the season, and I think the Wildcats get the best version of the Bulldogs.
Even at home, this will be by no means an easy win.
5) Auburn, Saturday, February 29 (Rupp Arena)
More than just the opponent, what should concern the Wildcats is that this game begins what is a tough stretch of three games to end the season. In the final eight days before the end of the regular season, Kentucky hosts Auburn and Tennessee and finishes the year at Florida, which won’t exactly be a walk in the park.
That’s also why this game is so important. A loss here could turn into a bit of a cold streak heading into the postseason.
Now, in terms of “how likely is this loss?” well, that’s another question altogether. If only because, now three months into the season, I think we’re all trying to figure out exactly how good Auburn is.
To their credit they took care of everyone on their schedule they were supposed to, something that shouldn’t be discounted in a wild up-and-down season like this one.
On the flip side, they’ve only played three true road games and lost two of them, at Alabama and at Florida.
So who is the real Auburn? We should have a much better understanding by the time these two teams meet on the second to last Saturday in the regular season.
Yet even at home, my guess is that this is a tough one.
4) at Florida, Saturday, March 7 (O’Connell Center)
Alright now we’re starting to get into the nitty-gritty, the final four brutal games on Kentucky’s schedule. We’ll start with this one, but really any of the next four are interchangeable.
Admittedly as I said up top, I’m just not sure how good the Gators actually are. But this game is at the O’Dome, it’s Senior Day, and with it looking increasingly likely that Florida will be sitting on the bubble come Selection Sunday, it will be a really important game for their resume.
If we’re ever going to see the “best” version of Florida, this feels like the spot.
3) at Auburn, Saturday, February 1 (Auburn Arena)
As I sit back and think about this game, I couldn’t help but think about something an opposing coach, whose faced Auburn at Auburn told me last season, before Kentucky went down to the Plains.
“I’ve coached at almost every high-major venue,” the coach said. “When it’s rocking, it’s as good as any of them, man.”
Now, I can’t imagine it will be any more loud, obnoxious or crazy than what the Wildcats have seen the last two weeks at Arkansas and at Texas Tech. Yet on the flip side this is going to be a hornet’s nest, and with Auburn’s size and physicality it’s going to be a dog fight.
For each of the last two weekends, Kentucky has faced a tough opponent, on the road and come out with a win. Let’s see if they can make it three-for-three this weekend.
2) at LSU, Tuesday, February 18 (Pete Maravich Assembly Center)
The P-Mac isn’t generally known as one of the toughest places to play in the SEC, but it can rock for a big game, and as we all know, there’s never a bigger game for any SEC opponent than when Kentucky comes to town.
Beyond that, LSU currently sits atop the SEC standings, and if we’re being perfectly honest, probably has the roster best suited to play with Kentucky. They not only have elite guard play with Skylar Mays and Javonte Smart, but are also tough and physical down low with Emmitt Williams, adding Trendon Watford on the wing.
The Tigers are 15-4, 6-0 in the SEC and haven’t lost a game since before Christmas. Both from an environment and stylistic standpoint, this will be Kentucky’s toughest on-court matchup the rest of the regular season.
1) at Tennessee, Saturday, February 8 (Thompson-Boling Arena)
While Tennessee is far from the best team left on the schedule, it’d be silly to put any other game at No. 1 – if only because Thompson-Boling Arena has been Kentucky’s own personal house of horrors in recent years.
Overall, Kentucky has lost its last four at TBA, and five of its last six. Heck the only time that the Wildcats have won in Thompson-Boling since 2012 came back in 2014-2015, during the super team/platoon season. And with due respect, this year’s team is nothing close to that one.
Now, with Tennessee playing good but not great lately, maybe this season is the year they break through.
But playing at Tennessee has been Kentucky’s biggest challenge in recent years. And could be again this year.