Kentucky Basketball: Breaking Down Wildcats' 2014-15 Nonconference Schedule
Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari looks stressed in this picture. And as well he should be, considering this was taken during the national championship game in April.
When the Wildcats enter the meat of a back-loaded nonconference schedule this December, a few more occasional grimaces are likely. UK rarely has an issue taking on all comers—true road games are another story, but that's the case with many elite programs—and this season's slate serves as proof.
Calipari will match wits with fellow coaching heavyweights Bill Self and Roy Williams, along with fast-improving recruiters like Ed Cooley and Steve Alford. Whichever category you'd place Rick Barnes in is up for debate, but Texas will be one of the few teams in America with the size to bang with Kentucky.
Read on for a full analysis of the Cats' schedule, broken down into three self-explanatory categories.
A "Don't Miss" game is one that should be witnessed for any reason other than the impending birth of a child—and even then, consider pleading a weak stomach and posting up in front of the nearest thing with a screen. If you're the mother-to-be, good luck getting a TV brought into the delivery room.
The "Don't Sleep" game is one that seems like a waste of time on paper but has a few compelling reasons to watch—sort of like that show with the Kardashians.
Finally, the "Don't Bother" games are perfect occasions to check things off the honey-do list and make up for that whole bailing-on-childbirth thing, you insensitive cad.
Grand Canyon, Nov. 14
The Cats open their regular season against the only for-profit educational institution in Division I. The biggest name the Antelopes bring is their coach, longtime NBA fixture "Thunder Dan" Majerle. He's probably still the team's best dunker.
Buffalo, Nov. 16
Worth attending or watching only to hear what creative taunts the UK student section will have for Bulls coach—and legendary Duke point guard—Bobby Hurley. One year earlier and UB banger Javon McCrea would have been salivating for this matchup.
Boston University, Nov. 21
This one would have held a little interest had Terriers point guard Maurice Watson Jr. not transferred to Creighton. Three-point threats John Papale (41.4 percent last season) and Cedric Hankerson (38.8) will need to get volcanically hot to shoot BU into this game.
Montana State, Nov. 23
Opponents shot 52.3 percent from two-point range against the Bobcats last season. Unless 7-foot English freshman Bradley Fisher is worth two John Amaechis, this one will look like an NBA dunk contest in the waning minutes.
UT Arlington, Nov. 25
This makes six games in 12 days. Can the Mavericks catch UK with their tongues hanging out?
Probably not. This could be the game in which the starters get plenty of rest. Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins could play 30 minutes each and the Cats would still be favored by 15 to 20.
Eastern Kentucky, Dec. 7
EKU gave Kansas a decent game in last season's NCAA tournament, but then graduated three key seniors, including All-OVC selection Glenn Cosey. Corey Walden is a good hand in the backcourt, but the Colonels are still very likely to get fried.
Columbia, Dec. 10
The Lions return every single contributor from a team that hung tough with Michigan State and St. John's. Three players—Alex Rosenberg, Maodo Lo and Meiko Lyles—drained more than 40 percent from deep on more than 100 attempts.
However, Columbia will bring only two experienced players taller than 6'8". UK brings four, plus Trey Lyles (no relation) and Karl Towns. If the Lions' shooters aren't stroking, they can't count on second chances.
Don't Sleep: Providence, Nov. 30
While all the hype will surround Kentucky's high-powered recruiting classes, both this year's and last, Providence coach Ed Cooley has come up with some decent scores on the recruiting trail himself. The Friars landed the nation's 21st-ranked recruiting class, according to 247 Sports.
Consensus 4-star center Paschal Chukwu and fifth-year senior Carson Desrosiers—both north of seven feet, with Desrosiers tipping the Toledos at 250 pounds—can occasionally frustrate UK's big men, but there won't be enough depth behind them to counter the waves of Big Blue behemoths off the bench.
Watch for freshman wing Jalen Lindsey, who turned down offers from Florida, Louisville, Ohio State and Memphis to attend PC. An athletic 6'7", he's just the kind of player who could shake free of UK's big men, but a matchup between him and fellow Tennessee native Alex Poythress could be great fun.
Don't Miss: vs. Kansas, Nov. 18 (Champions Classic, Indianapolis)
As mentioned before, Kentucky plays six games in a 12-day span to start its season, and smack dab in the middle of the early cupcake binge comes a trip to Indianapolis to tip it up with fellow blue-blood Kansas.
Like Kentucky, most of Kansas' biggest recent celebrities have been freshmen, and this year's seniorless Jayhawks are almost as young as the Wildcats.
Rookie big man Cliff Alexander will tangle with UK's interior stoppers Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee. The Kentucky swat team will have to put on their work boots to contain the burly Chicagoan.
Junior Perry Ellis' smooth mid-range game will help open up some space for his new teammate, but he can still be neutralized by athletic length. Think Cauley-Stein or perhaps Karl-Anthony Towns.
KU's arsenal of wings will be Kentucky's greatest test. Sophomore Wayne Selden Jr. is reportedly a new man after offseason knee surgery, per KUSports.com's Gary Bedore. Freshman Kelly Oubre is always itching to put someone on a poster.
Sophomore Brannen Greene intends to repair his reputation as a three-point sniper, and Ukrainian Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk has the potential to score 20 points in a college game before he's old enough to buy cigarettes—he just turned 17 in June.
If Selden sees time at the point, which has been occasionally intimated this offseason, a Selden-Greene-Oubre perimeter trio won't give an inch to the Harrison twins and Alex Poythress. If not, the Jayhawks still have three talented, albeit small, point guard prospects battling for time.
Kansas doesn't have the staggering number of former McDonald's All-Americans that Kentucky boasts, but the Jayhawks are still every bit as deep as the Wildcats. This game could be played at a breakneck pace, and neither coach would bat an eye. UK's biggest advantage may be that the Jayhawks could still be settling into their roles at this early point of the season.
Don't Miss: Texas, Dec. 5
One of my favorite terms of endearment about big men in any sport—whether it be basketball, football, pro wrestling or any other game where size can be a desirable commodity—is "impressively large land-based mammal," or "ILLBM" for short.
While Kentucky's herd of ILLBMs has been written about ad infinitum this offseason, we've not heard quite enough yet about the impressive array of heavyweights that Rick Barnes has recruited to the University of Texas.
The entire team is about to begin its second year together, and 6'8", 240-pound forward Jonathan Holmes is still the only senior. Backing him up at power forward is the 6'9", 230-pound junior Connor Lammert, whose 117.9 offensive rating, per Ken Pomeroy (subscription required), was only 0.4 short of Holmes' team-leading figure.
Per Verbal Commits, the Longhorns augment that pair with three centers totaling 13.7 recruiting stars, 20'7" in height and somewhere in the neighborhood of 750 pounds. Cameron Ridley and Prince Ibeh were a solid tag team last season, but adding elite recruit Myles Turner to the mix is akin to Hulk Hogan forming the New World Order.
The point here is that Texas will be one of the few teams in the nation that can stand toe-to-toe with the mighty Wildcats and challenge them on the glass and in the low post. UT's backcourt wasn't terribly efficient last season, but if you'll remember correctly, neither was Kentucky's until March.
This could be the game in which Texas proves itself a worthy Final Four contender, or it could be one that sends future opponents back to the drawing board with "pummel them with size" crossed off the list of ways to beat Kentucky.
Don't Miss: North Carolina, Dec. 13
The Wildcats will have revenge on their minds when North Carolina travels to Rupp Arena. The Tar Heels pulled off an 82-77 win last December in a game that saw 57 fouls and 88 free throws. Aaron Harrison scored 20 points in that game but was unable to contain UNC star Marcus Paige, who potted 23—21 of those in the second half.
The Tar Heels don't return forward James Michael McAdoo, who scored 20 in last season's matchup, but he won't be missed if junior Brice Johnson is able to avoid the foul trouble that's plagued him for most of his first two seasons. Plus, center Kennedy Meeks is entering this season in the best shape of his career.
While Kentucky has superb depth inside, these two players are both capable of great games if they're playing to their potential.
The most intriguing question concerns whom Carolina defensive stopper J.P. Tokoto is assigned to shadow. He could do the most damage to UK's offense if he's allowed to cover point guard Andrew Harrison, who would hold a major size advantage over Paige, Nate Britt or freshman Joel Berry.
Whether it's Tokoto or one of UNC's talented rookies—Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson being the others—someone has to aid and abet Paige on the perimeter. UNC can't expect to hit 51 percent inside the arc again, not against a Kentucky post group that has more seasoning and depth than last year's.
Spacing will be central to the Heels' offensive effort, as Paige, Britt and Berry will need as much room as they can get to attack the sea of prying arms that will await them in the paint. Otherwise, UK can pack the lane and dare someone to find their groove.
Don't Miss: vs. UCLA (CBS Sports Classic, Chicago), Dec. 20
Part of the reason that so many of Kentucky's games this season are must-see affairs is that four of these "Don't Miss" opponents join UK in landing top-10 classes in 247 Sports' rankings. The fifth, Texas, managed to land only two recruits—one a top-10 prospect in his own right—because they're all it had room for.
UCLA's class ranks seventh in 247's list, and three of coach Steve Alford's rookies should see action against the Wildcats. Forward Kevon Looney is one of the most tireless rebounders in the entire class of 2014, and he'll be difficult for even Kentucky's interior stars to keep off the glass.
Seven-footer Thomas Welsh could beat out junior Tony Parker for the starting center role, but even if he doesn't, he's another who could make a living if he can snare offensive rebounds. Wing Jonah Bolden can win some runouts, of which there will certainly be several.
UCLA's backcourt has talent, size and a fair bit of experience, just not all at this level. Senior Norman Powell could be difficult for Kentucky to keep out of the lane. He's got quickness that would test Alex Poythress and strength that could frustrate Aaron Harrison. If he can get some of UK's trees in foul trouble, he could keep the game much closer than Wildcat fans may expect.
Sophomore Bryce Alford may be settled in as the Bruins' point guard by Christmas time, and if he's not, grad transfer Jon Octeus may get a shot. The veteran averaged 13.4 points and 4.7 rebounds for Colorado State last season. Redshirt freshman Isaac Hamilton will serve as the resident floor-spreader, as he's capable of lighting up the scoreboard from tremendous range.
What UCLA may lack in experience and cohesion, it can make up in versatility. As long as the Bruins don't wilt under the CBS lights and stifle themselves with silly mistakes, they can hang with Kentucky. For once, however, UK will be at an experience advantage.
Don't Miss: at Louisville, Dec. 27
It's the annual Commonwealth blood feud that ignites tensions in schools, sports bars and dialysis clinics all over Kentucky. Over the last three years, the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry has taken on a different dimension, as U of L's last two NCAA tournament losses have come at UK's hands.
There's a national title sandwiched between them to soothe the wounds, but that's a lot of hurt to make go away.
Louisville appears very well-equipped to succeed in its new home in the ACC, but the Kentucky game is another kind of test. Cardinal guards Chris Jones (5'10", 195 lbs) and Terry Rozier (6'1", 170 lbs) face a massive physical disadvantage against the 6'5" Harrison twins.
The one guard who could pose a physical threat, Wayne Blackshear, has to live down last December's 12-minute disqualification. The Cardinals must also find a replacement for the shooting threat Luke Hancock provided in the archrivals' NCAA tournament matchup.
Prospective Louisville All-American Montrezl Harrell was largely a non-factor in December, pulling down only four rebounds while watching UK wing James Young rip 10. Harrell performed better in March with 15 points and eight boards before fouling out, but how will he hold up when there's a lot more beef than just Willie Cauley-Stein and Julius Randle leaning on him?
A win in this game will establish Louisville as not just a top-10 team, but a bona fide national championship contender. For that to happen, though, Cardinals coach Rick Pitino has to find answers to several pressing questions.
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