It’s the middle of June, life is (hopefully for most of you) returning to a sense of normalcy, and let’s be honest: From strictly a sport’s perspective, there just really isn’t all that much to talk about. Yet for the lack of content at this exact moment, things are coming quickly. There are less than 100 days left until the start of the college football season. After that, basketball season won’t be far behind.
Meaning that while it’s only mid-June, it’s never too early to look ahead to the start of the 2020-2021 college hoops season.
Yet what’s so wild about looking ahead is that so much still has to be determined. There are something like 70 players still testing the NBA Draft process, with key programs like Gonzaga, Baylor, Tennessee and Arkansas still waiting on final word from key players. The transfer portal is still humming with a few big names set to make decisions, and many more (cough, Olivier Sarr, cough) waiting on waivers. A few elite high school players have reclassified and will now decide which college they will attend, or which pro league they’ll play in, next season.
So yes, there is a lot to be determined. But still, the show must go on! Which it will today.
With a mere 154 days until the start of the college basketball season, let’s look at what we know about Kentucky’s 2020-2021 opponents right now, and what still needs to be determined.
We’ll start with the non-conference opponents today, and will press on with the league slate later this week.
vs. Kansas (November 10th, United Center, Chicago – Champion’s Classic)
It’ll be a blue blood battle to start the 2020-2021 campaign, as Kentucky faces Kansas in the season opener, November 10th in the Champion’s Classic. And in a sign of just how quirky this off-season has been, Kansas – like Kentucky – has a roster that is actually basically set. There will be no waiting around until the NBA Draft deadline looking for final answers from either team. We know what the Jayhawks will look like.
For Kansas, the downside is that they lost their two best players, point guard Devon Dotson and big man Udoka Azibuke. Both were named All-Big 12 first team last season and made various All-American teams. On the upside, they return just about everyone else. Ochai Agbaji is back as the team’s leading scorer (10 points per game), with senior Marcus Garrett likely to take over for Dotson as the team’s primary playmaker. Wing Bryce Thompson is a highly-rated recruit, while Jalen Wilson was a highly-rated recruit last year who missed most of the season with injury. David McCormack should mostly fill the shoes of Azibuke at the center spot, which brings up an interesting dynamic in general with Kansas: For years, Kansas has liked to play two big guys down low. But because of personnel issues last year, switched to a four-guard lineup. That led to plenty of success (the Jayhawks were the favorites heading into March) and it appears as though Bill Self will keep playing that way into 2020-2021.
In terms of this game itself, no matter what you think of Self (and we all know where most opinions lie) he always has his teams ready to play. And while this doesn’t look like a vintage Kansas team on paper, I expect it to be the same to open the season.
vs. Detroit-Mercy (November 13th, Rupp Arena, Lexington)
It’s a moment that will live in Kentucky lore forever: Brad Calipari’s return to Rupp Arena! Ok, so maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but I am guessing it will be an emotional night for the Calipari family.
Once the game starts, though? I expect Kentucky to roll.
Detroit-Mercy is entering Year 3 of the Mike Davis era at the school, but because of NCAA sanctions and postseason bans he really hasn’t been able to recruit, or had all that much success (19-43 overall). Davis’ son Antoine is the star of the team and one of the best mid-major players in college hoops (he averaged over 24 points a game last season), but outside him there really ain’t much here.
vs. Hartford (November 17th, Rupp Arena, Lexington)
Three (relatively) fun facts about University of Hartford:
- The campus is 10 minutes from where I grew up. Like literally, I can walk there from the house I grew up in. I even attended a handful of games as a kid, including one for Vin Baker’s jersey retirement. So hey, that’s kind of cool.
- The Hawks’ best player last year was a grad transfer from Pitt named Malik Ellison. Malik Ellison is the son of Pervis Ellison. Felt like that was something that might interest some of you.
- The Hawks have never made the NCAA Tournament in school history, yet last season advanced to the conference championship game… before the season ended because of Covid-19. The game was never played, so we will never know. But 2019-2020 really did look like the best chance in school history for the Hawks to make the NCAA Tournament.
So why did I share those three facts, only one of which (the third) was all that interesting? It’s because, as I just mentioned, it really feels like 2020 was the year for the Hawks, and without Ellison they’ll struggle to compete.
Two of their two three scorers return. But look for Kentucky to roll here.
vs. Georgia State (November 20th, Rupp Arena, Lexington)
During the years that Ron Hunter was the head coach at Georgia State (he left for Tulane prior to last season), the Panthers were a mid-major thorn in the sides of major programs everywhere. And it’s conceivable they get back there next season under second-year head coach Rob Lanier.
I’m not going to spend a ton of time breaking down Georgia State’s depth chart here, but the Panthers return their top three scorers and four starters overall off a 19-win team a season ago, one that finished fourth in the Sun Belt.
If you’re looking for the one game against a mid-major to not sleep on, this is the one.
vs. Richmond (November 23rd, Rupp Arena, Lexington)
Admittedly, Richmond is the real “game against a mid-major” that Kentucky shouldn’t be sleeping on. But with all the preseason hype the Spiders have received, I doubt John Calipari will have to motivate his team too much coming into this one.
That’s because Richmond is college basketball’s off-season mid-major darling, a team that many believe could have a similar season as Dayton did last year. The Spiders finished 24-7 overall last season, which included wins over Wisconsin (which ended up splitting the Big Ten regular season title), Vanderbilt and Boston College, and return all five starters off last year’s team. That includes a legitimately dynamic backcourt of Blake Francis, Jacob Gilyard and Nick Sherod, who all averaged double-figures. Big guy Grant Golden is a rock down low, and averaged 12 and six in 2019-2020.
Yes, the conference Richmond in isn’t great. But the Spiders are a legitimately good team, and will likely come to Rupp Arena ranked in the Top 25.
vs. Georgia Tech (November 27th, State Farm Arena, Atlanta – Holiday Hoopsgiving)
Speaking of “legitimately good” I present you the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Yes, I know that it’s been a while since Georgia Tech has been relevant on the national scene (they played UConn for the title in 2004, and since then it’s been crickets). But this will likely be the Yellow Jackets best team since their last trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2010.
Like Richmond, Georgia Tech returns three really good guards. Michael DeVoe (16 points per game) and Jose Alvarado (14.4 points per game) are each back, and Jordan Usher brought toughness and defensive intensity on the perimeter after getting eligible mid-season. Moses Wright averaged 13 and seven down low, and some guy named Bubba Parham (heard of him??) provides perimeter punch off the bench.
Beyond that, Tech played just about everyone in the ACC tough last year. Georgia Tech actually finished fifth in the ACC standings in 2019-2020, with a pair of wins over NC State and a victory over Louisville, and won six of its final seven games. What makes their run that much more incredible is that the Yellow Jackets weren’t eligible for the postseason, meaning they really had nothing to play for. last year, and were still one of the best teams in the ACC. Now they return just about everyone from that team.
I’m not quite sure Georgia Tech will be “preseason Top 25” good, but they aren’t that far back. And this will be one of Kentucky’s tougher out of conference opponents.
vs. Cleveland State (November 30th, Rupp Arena, Lexington)
Dennis Gates is one of the bright young coaches in college basketball, and despite taking over this program in the middle of the summer and then losing his best player (Tyree Appleby – who transferred to Florida), he got them to seven wins in the league standings. That was the most Cleveland State has had in five years and earned him Horizon League Coach of the Year honors.
All of that is a nice way of saying that Gates is a coach on the rise, and the Vikings are a program on the rise.
It will have little impact on what happens at Rupp Arena though, where this one could get ugly.
vs. Notre Dame (December 12th, Rupp Arena, Lexington)
With nearly two full weeks between the Cleveland State and Notre Dame games, expect at least one game to be added sometime during that stretch. Until then though, we’ll move on to Mike Brey’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The Irish were of course once a popular regional rival for Kentucky, and when the Wildcats last saw them, it was in a thrilling, Elite Eight victory over Notre Dame in the 2015 Elite Eight.
Unfortunately for Notre Dame, Jerian Grant ain’t walking through that door.
The Irish were respectable in the ACC last year, finishing 10-10 overall and tied for sixth place. Also, like Georgia Tech, they played well down the stretch, winning five of their final seven games.
The reality however is that the Irish lost its two leading scorers to graduation, including John Mooney, who averaged a monster 16 points and 12 rebounds last season. That isn’t a good sign heading into a season where the ACC should be better overall.
That’s not to say that Notre Dame can’t win in Rupp if Kentucky isn’t locked in.
Just that I wouldn’t expect it.
vs. UCLA (December 19th, TBA – CBS Sports Classic)
The fact that it’s mid-June and we still have no idea where the CBS Sports Classic will be played feels weird to me. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that this will be a legitimately awesome game.
That’s because for all the hype the Kansas and Louisville games will get coming into the season, UCLA might be better than either. Mick Cronin did an absolute surreal job in Year 1 in Westwood, as the Bruins won 11 of their final 14 games, and finished in second place in the Pac-12 last season. And now, he could return eight of his top nine scorers off that team.
Whether that happens remains to be seen, as leading scorer Chris Smith is currently going through the draft process. With Smith, UCLA is a Top 10 team in the preseason in my mind (I had them at No. 8 in my “Way Too Early Top 25”) but even without him, they will still be the favorite in the Pac-12. The Bruins are a veteran, rugged team with size down low in Jalen Hill and Cody Riley and a steady point guard in Tyger Campbell. They will also get added scoring on the wing with the addition of Johnny Juzang (heard of him?) who was deemed eligible a few weeks ago.
This should be a fun one… wherever it ends up getting played.
at Louisville (TBA – KFC Yum Center, Louisville)
It’s wild, because last season it felt like many (myself included) had Louisville a little over-ranked coming into the season. Now, I feel like the Cards might be a tiny bit under-hyped heading into 2021
That’s because when Louisville was – at times – struggling last year, the call from the fan-base was to get more playing time for the younger players, specifically David Johnson and Samuell Williamson. Well, with Jordan Nwora and the other veterans gone that is exactly what will happen, as Johnson and Williamson will be the stars. Johnson showed plenty of flashes last season (including 19 points in a win at Duke) and Williamson is a former McDonald’s All-American who feels due to break out. Behind them there isn’t a ton of depth or experience, so it will be interesting to see how grad transfers Carlik Jones (Radford) and Charles Mineland (San Francisco) handle the adjustment to the ACC.
Kentucky-Louisville games are always competitive, no matter what either team looks like on paper coming into the season. And this one should be no different.
(Stay tuned later in the week when we break down Kentucky’s SEC opponents as well)