As a basketball fan, I’d prefer to see Kentucky load up solely on top 25 caliber opponents. I’d love to see them play a yearly home-and-home series against Duke or Carolina, and dispense with the likes of Duquesne or Cleveland State altogether. However, that’s neither practical or beneficial. Look over the current list of UK’s pre-conference opponents and you’ll discover the consummate mix of sacrificial patsies versus tournament contenders; home game snoozers versus made-for-TV extravaganzas; traditional basketball heavyweights versus nameless up-and-comers. Coach Cal, the chess master, knows exactly what he’s doing—instilling confidence early on while still providing enough tough challenges in preparation for a successful tournament run in March.
On a recent reporter’s teleconference call, I spoke with popular ESPN analyst Jay Bilas. After waiting patiently for over an hour to hear questions from the likes of “Jerry from the Herald-Leader” and “Larry from Vaught’s Views”, I asked Jay what type of teams most coaches would prefer to face in their early season schedule. Would they choose a parade of cupcakes and automatic “W’s” or would they rather face legitimate contenders right out of the gate and see where their team stands? The former Duke player told me the ideal schedule would involve a combination of both but that most coaches end up overscheduling their competition. The current day pressures of winning games, padding the tournament resume and wowing recruits make for a very delicate balance in the art and science of schedule engineering.
Coach John Calipari validated that sentiment when I asked him directly about Kentucky’s early season schedule. He felt that with this young team, he did perhaps overschedule and would have preferred a softer slate of early season games. “Even your first game is against a team that’s been to three NCAA Tournaments back-to-back who will come in here with the idea of beating a young team…So yeah, I don’t like to overschedule.”
Let’s be honest—this Kentucky team will be judged primarily on whether they can bring another championship banner back to the bluegrass. Anything directing them toward that goal is golden in my book. I’m betting that UK’s non-conference schedule will provide that perfect mix of opponents in preparation for a successful run to that elusive 9th NCAA title.
If the first two home games are any indication, the schedule this year will indeed be challenging. The 87-64 opening game victory against a pesky Stephen F. Austin team followed by the 93-69 win over an outclassed but highly inspired Canisius squad allowed the youthful Wildcats a chance to get a couple of “W’s” under their belt while playing together against real competition. De’Aaron Fox showed why he is in line to inherit the mantle of the next great Calipari point guard by setting a first game record of 12 assists. Bam Adebayo showed why freshman are freshman by picking up two fouls in his first 48 seconds of play. Throughout both contests, sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe displayed not only the scoring (career high 21 versus Canisius) but the steady leadership expected of him for a deep tournament run.
Now comes the first real test of the season at the upcoming Champions Classic showdown in New York with the 12th ranked Michigan State Spartans. Sparty’s buzzer beater loss to Arizona gives them added incentive to bounce back against the Cats. A UK victory over a “mad dog” Tom Izzo coached squad will give all of BBN the assurance that the (over) schedule this year will be a definite ally rather than a stumbling block in our march toward a championship. It’s always hard to predict how a young team will perform this early in the season. The Spartans are every bit as young as the Wildcats so anticipate a sloppy contest throughout with UK pulling away at the end. Three games down, thirty-seven more to go.
This blog posting was originally submitted as a UK Basketball Column for Nolan Group Media publications.