Nobody in college basketball is better at putting together a non-conference schedule that Kentucky head coach John Calipari.
In a sport where it’s no uncommon to see top 25 programs avoid playing a relevant opponent until conference play has started, Kentucky has been one of the standard-bearers when it comes to building a schedule in November and December.
With the announcements today that the Wildcats will be playing games against Texas and UCLA this season, you need to take a look at who the Wildcats will be playing during the first two months of the regular season:
- Kentucky vs. Kansas in Indianapolis for the Champions Classic
- Kentucky vs. UCLA in Chicago for the CBS Sports Classic
- Texas at Kentucky in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge
- Louisville at Kentucky
- North Carolina at Kentucky
- Providence at Kentucky
Kansas is the No. 5 team in the country in the NBCSports.com Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25. North Carolina? They’re No. 6. Texas is No. 8 and Louisville is No. 11.
That’s wild, and it will only get tougher if Kris Dunn plays up to his potential for Providence this season or UCLA is able to get the kind of performance from the likes of Kevin Looney, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton are good enough to carry the team.
Kentucky is the preseason No. 1 team in the country. They are the unquestionably going to be the title favorite entering the season, and it will not take us long to get a feel for whether or not that opinion is accurate.
A strong schedule can also be a double-edged sword. Last season, for example, Kansas had one of the toughest schedules in the history of the game, so while they were tested by the time that Big 12 play came around, it may have also cost them. The Jayhawks never had the chance to learn or build confidence against their weaker opponents.
The good news for Kentucky?
This will be their most experienced team under John Calipari, as they may not end up starting a single freshman.
Not only is Wyoming senior guard Josh Adams the lone returning starter from a team that won the Mountain West tournament last season, but he’s also one of college basketball’s best dunkers. And if anyone may have forgotten about his jumping ability, Adams put it on display Saturday during the Cowboys’ win over Montana State.
After splitting two Montana State players at the top of the key Adams attacked the basket, dunking with two hands over a late-arriving help-side defender. If you’re going to rotate over, have to do it quicker than that.
Video credit: Wyoming Athletics
Even with the coaching change from Fred Hoiberg to Steve Prohm, No. 4 Iowa State remains one of the nation’s best offensive teams. Given their skills on that end of the floor many teams find it tough to go score for score with the Cyclones, and that’s what happened to Illinois in Iowa State’s 84-73 win in the Emerald Coast Classic title game.
Georges Niang scored 23 points and grabbed eight rebounds, with Monté Morris adding 20, nine rebounds and six assists and Abdel Nader 18 points as the Cyclones moved to 5-0 on the season. The three-pointers weren’t falling in the second half, as Iowa State shot 0-f0r-12, but they shot 19-for-24 inside of the arc to pull away from a team that lost big man Mike Thorne Jr. late in the first half to a left knee injury.
Illinois’ loss of size in the paint opened things up offensively for Iowa State, and the Cyclones took advantage. But where this group grabbed control of the game was on the defensive end of the floor, and that will be the key for a team with Big 12 and national title aspirations.
Nader took on the responsibility of defending Illinois’ Malcolm Hill (20 points) in the second half and did a solid job of keeping the junior wing in check, with that serving as the spark to a 12-2 run that put the game away. There’s no denying that the Cyclones can put points on the board; most of the talent from last season is back and the productivity on that end of the floor hasn’t changed as a result. Niang’s one of the nation’s best forwards, and both Morris (who now ranks among the country’s best point guards) and Nader have taken significant strides in their respective games.
Iowa State will add Deonte Burton in December, giving them another option to call upon. Front court depth is a bit of a concern, as Iowa State can ill afford to lose a Niang or Jameel McKay, but there’s enough on the roster to compensate for that and force mismatches in other areas.
But the biggest question for this group is how effective they can become at stringing together stops. Illinois certainly had its moments in both halves Saturday night, but Iowa State also showed during the game’s decisive stretch that they can step up defensively. The key now is to do so consistently, and if that occurs the Cyclones can be a threat both within the Big 12 and nationally.