While Rich Brooks has Kentucky football back in a bowl game for a third consecutive year, Wildcat fans have not ignored the fact that basketball is ready to rock and roll in the Bluegrass.
Kentucky fans never need an excuse to look ahead to upcoming games on the schedule, so here’s a look at ten games that Big Blue fans will be particularly excited (and nervous) about…
10. LSU @ Kentucky – February 28th
With a week left in the SEC regular season, LSU might be playing for an SEC West title and Kentucky will likely be jockeying for position in a crowded SEC East. In any case, LSU is undoubtedly the top SEC West foe playing in Lexington this season.
9. Kentucky vs. Kansas State (in Las Vegas) – November 28th
The best UK fans know their club hockey team is famous for playing its home games at midnight. Now the basketball team takes a try, as this battle of the Wildcats will keep fans in the Bluegrass up to well into the early morning hours of the Saturday which the Wildcat football team might finally defeat Tennessee.
8. Kentucky @ Florida – March 7th
Billy’s boys should be improved from last season’s late collapse. This game—Senior Day in the Swamp—will potentially crown an SEC East champion and possibly decide who has to play in the first round of the SEC Tournament on the following Thursday. The Cats have not won in Gainesville on Senior Day since 2003, and it will take an extraordinary effort for the Cats to do so this season.
7. Kentucky @ Tennessee – January 13th
It’s natural that the first SEC road test would come against what many say is the SEC’s best team. Kentucky has lost its last two games in Knoxville, but only by a cumulative margin of seven points. A win here to start SEC play and Kentucky would assume the driver’s seat in the East.
6. Miami (FL) @ Kentucky – December 6th
Not many people are discussing this game when considering UK’s top non-conference tests, but the Hurricane should make waves in the ACC this season. Miami is ranked 17th in the Associated Press poll, and few early season tests (with the possible exception of a home bout with Ohio State) should allow them to jump in the rankings. Expect this game to get much attention when early December rolls around.
5. Florida @ Kentucky – February 10th
In the meat of the SEC schedule comes a Super Tuesday clash between the Gators and Wildcats. By this time, favorites will have emerged in the East, and one of these teams will need this victory to keep chase in the division. Wildcat fans take particular delight in beating Billy Donovan at home, a fact they enjoyed for the first time last year since 2005.
4. Vanderbilt @ Kentucky – January 10th
Remember the 41-point annihilation that the Commodores dealt the Wildcats in Nashville last year? Well Billy Gillispie sure does, and he’s sure to use it to motivate his Cats to kick off SEC play with a total beatdown of a Vanderbilt team which should be significantly down from the last few seasons.
3. Kentucky @ North Carolina – November 18th
That’s No. 1 North Carolina, and in a game that Kentucky really has nothing to lose at this point, Wildcat fans have been clamoring for this game since the schedule was released. The status of Tyler Hansbrough is uncertain at this point, but perhaps Kentucky fans would not mind seeing the All-American go up against UK’s star forward Patrick Patterson. An upset win in Chapel Hill would propel Kentucky waaaaay up the rankings and have Wildcat fans starting to dream about Championship No. 8.
2. Tennessee @ Kentucky – February 21st
Besides the SEC race implications, this game may boil down to two freshmen from the Bluegrass. The Vols’ Scotty Hopson, of Hopkinsville, KY, is hyped as one of the nation’s top ten freshmen, but he was not judged to be the best outgoing senior in his own state last year.
That award of Mr. Basketball went to Maysville’s Darius Miller, who is flying under the radar preseason much the way a former Maysville (and Tennessee) star did four years ago—a guy by the name of Chris Lofton. Seeing Hopson and Miller match up should be a highlight of this mid-February contest.
1. Kentucky @ Louisville—January 4th
I mean, what else would it be? Louisville, as usual, is perennially overrated to start the season, but the Cards should be rounding into fine form when the Cats visit in the first days of 2009. The matchup to watch will be Patrick Patterson battling with freshman man-child Samardo Samuels, but the Wildcats’ front court depth will be seriously tested in Freedom Hall. Despite what the two teams’ rankings will be at that point, this game should go down to the wire.
These ten games will offer only a portion of the entire puzzle which will put together Kentucky’s season in 2008-09. Avoiding non-conference flubs like last year’s Gardner-Webb and San Diego will be pivotal to Kentucky’s journey to return and excel in this year’s NCAA Tournament, and there are many potential land mines in November and December which could cripple Kentucky early on. To ensure a return to the NCAA Tournament and obtain a higher seed than ‘8’, the Wildcats have five steps to take…
1) Win two of the following non-conference games: North Carolina, Kansas State, West Virginia/Iowa, Miami (FL), Louisville
2) Win ten SEC games, including a road game at either Tennessee, Florida, or Alabama
3) Find consistent point guard play, either by committee or the emergence of freshman DeAndre Liggins
4) Find a second option from the perimeter to join Jodie Meeks, who may be the best shooter in the conference
5) Avoid the injury bug which so crippled last year’s team
Many national pundits are perhaps overlooking the Wildcats for various reasons, ranging from last year’s limited success to the supposedly weak SEC, but a win in Chapel Hill on Tuesday would change those expectations in a hurry.
With a potential first team All-American in the post (Patterson), a potential All-SEC player on the perimeter (Meeks), and a coach who will stop at nothing to succeed (Gillispie), the Wildcats have the pieces coming together to make a strong, if not spectacular, run in 2008-09.