Compared to a season ago, Kentucky will not be able to cakewalk through this year’s non-conference schedule.
The schedule for the 2019-20 Wildcats Women’s Basketball Team pales in comparison to that of the upcoming 2020-21 slate, when the ladies waltzed through a lineup of OVC and C-USA opponents with impressive ease on its way to a 10-0 undefeated streak to start the year. They weren’t all easy-wins–even if they should have been–with a tightly-contested win on the road coming against a Virginia team that finished the season with a 13-17 overall record. Blowout victories were forced upon the likes of Stetson (finished 9-18 in 2019-20), Morehead State (8-20), Grambling (4-24), and Winthrop (11-19). The most thrilling potential matchup was against Middle Tennessee State, a mid-major out of Conference-USA that ended its season 21-9. Kentucky won by 15.
Heading into its first real challenge of the season–a Rupp Arena home game against the No. 7 ranked Louisville Cardinals–there was a sense that this Kentucky team was up for the task. And as far as the outcome goes, they were. The ‘Cats were a missed Rhyne Howard jump shot away from beating the Cards at the buzzer. But then they soon traveled out west to take on Cal-Berkley where it came down to Howard once again taking the final shot, but lifting her team to a win this time around. Even though the Golden Bears went 12-19 on the season, it was a big-time recovery win (on the road, no less) after a brutal loss to an in-state rival. It felt like those two outings against UL and Cal were enough evidence that Kentucky could contend with the likes of South Carolina and Mississippi State.
After a nearly two-week-long break following the wire-to-wire win over Cal, UK finally took the court again to tipoff the first of a strenuous SEC schedule. The first interconference team up? The No. 4 South Carolina Gamecocks. And quickly did the Big Blue Nation learn that those two games against UL and Cal meant nothing. In front of its home fans, South Carolina massacred the ‘Cats by a final score of 99-72. Following a 10-0 start to the year with a National Player of the Year candidate in the fold, Kentucky had dropped two of its last three games against its first decent stretch of opponents all season.
Granted, Kentucky quickly recovered, winning four consecutive games against SEC foes, including a massive win over Tennessee in the first game since losing to USC. As the schedule toiled along, the ‘Cats compiled a 10-6 conference record, good enough to narrowly sneak them into a double-bye at the SEC Tournament. And while every bad loss was followed up with a good win, the opposite was also true. Had there been an NCAA Tournament, Kentucky was viewed as a five-seed, and that was with zero notable non-conference wins.
Going into the 2020-21 season, interim head coach Kyra Elzy will have plenty more opportunities to boost her team’s resume in the non-conference (and even more during SEC play) compared to a year ago. They can potentially avoid the same fate they met a season ago that saw them build themselves into something special on the surface, only to find out that was not accurately reflected on the court. That UK squad was a top-15 team in the rankings, but untested all-around until they finally jumped into SEC games.
So let’s breakdown the eight non-conference games that are scheduled as of right now. Kentucky is required to play 25 games in order to qualify for Divison I eligibility, so they are expected to add one more non-conference opponent to go along with the 16-game SEC slate. Currently, the open date is on Dec. 22. The ‘Cats recently added the Indiana Hoosiers, as well, a preseason top-25 team.
Ranked games against No. 16 Indiana and No. 19 DePaul
Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, Kentucky could not schedule the annual matchup against Lousiville this season (although it will return in 2021-22), who is once again a preseason top-5 program, but the ‘Cats were able to find two more-than-respectable replacement games. No. 16 Indiana and No. 19 DePaul are a one-two-punch of out-of-conference teams that will put this Kentucky team to the test early in the season. I suggested earlier this month that the Hoosiers might be a solid option for the ‘Cats to add, especially considering the history between the two men’s programs. It will be the first time the women’s teams go head-to-head since 2006.
Media members around the Big Ten conference and country expect Indiana to compete for a conference title this season. They return senior guard Ali Patberg, who is expected to contend for the Conference Player of the Year award alongside her teammate, Grace Berger, who will compete as an All-Big Ten player. The Big Ten media and coaches both picked Indiana to win the conference over the likes of No. 12 Maryland and No. 17 Northwestern. Kentucky taking on Indiana will be a tougher opponent than any team outside of Louisville from a year ago. The same goes for DePaul, too, who media members believe will finish second in the Big East–and the only reason the Blue Demons aren’t projected as the top team in its conference is that UConn (preseason No. 3 overall) just returned after a stint in the American Athletic Conference.
DePaul won its third Big East Tournament title in a row a season ago and was an easy pick for the NCAA Tournament. They return 12 players for the upcoming season, three of them starters who combined for over 30 points per game last year, and brought in impressive first-year forward Darrione Rogers. Junior guards Lexi Held and Sonya Morris have been tabbed to the preseason All-Big East Team.
The game against Indiana will be UK’s fourth of the season (on Dec. 6 in Memorial Coliseum) while Kentucky will travel to Chicago to take on DePaul for the seventh game of the year (on Dec. 16).
Big 12/SEC Challenge @ Kansas State
While Kansas State might not be ranked, they will provide another road environment for the ‘Cats to play in (even if the fan capacity is reduced) and a matchup against one of the most talented players in the country in Ayoka Lee, a 6-foot-5 sophomore center who tore it a season ago and many expect will do the same this year. The Big 12 media and coaches both tabbed her as a preseason All-Big 12 performer.
Despite the lack of a number next to its name, KSU does figure to contend among the Big-12’s top-tier programs such as Baylor, Iowa State, and Texas. They’re tabbed to finish fourth in the conference behind those three, who are all either ranked (Baylor at No. 4 and Iowa State at No. 15) or receiving votes (Texas receiving the most of all unranked teams). A dominating win by Kentucky over Kansas State would go a long win in improving its resume and preparing them for the size of the SEC.
All three of the teams mentioned–Indiana, DePaul, and Kansas State–are better talent-wise than any non-conference game a season ago that wasn’t against Louisville. Of course, there are still a few mid-major opponents that should result in 30-plus point blowouts, including the season opener at home against Murray State (picked to finish seventh in the OVC), Marshall (picked to finish 12th in C-USA), the same Samford team (out of the Southern Conference) the ‘Cats destroyed a season ago by a final score of 79-49, and Wofford (another Southern Conference opponent).
The lone surprise among the remaining mid-majors is Belmont, who has been tabbed as the No. 2 preseason team out of the OVC. Kentucky should handle them easily, but it’s still a matchup that could create some headaches and sweaty palms along the way; a quiz more than a true test.
All this is to say that Kentucky should be well-prepared once the SEC schedule comes around, which will undoubtedly be a tough run. Matchups against Arkansas (No. 14), Texas A&M (No. 13), Mississippi State (No. 6), and two against South Carolina (No. 1) is frightening. Throw in two games against a Tennessee team on the brink of making a leap to the top of the SEC and it gets even harder. The ‘Cats need every early-season test that can come its way.
Kentucky luckily won’t be thrust into an impossible environment such as Columbia, SC for the first game of the conference slate–instead, they’ll play a ranked Arkansas team in Lexington–but the ‘Cats will be far more battle-tested by the time that day comes compared to a season ago.