RTC 09-10 Class Schedule: Kentucky WildcatsPosted by zhayes9 on August 22nd, 2009
Ed. Note: for all of the posts in the RTC 09-10 Class Schedule series, click here.
Just a mere five months ago, the once proud and feared Kentucky basketball program was mired in a state of chaos. The Billy Gillispie era at the university turned out about as well as the Harriet Miers Supreme Court nomination. Mystifying losses at storied Rupp Arena to such powers as Gardner-Webb and VMI, puzzling interviews with ESPN’s Jeannine Edwards making the blog rounds and exposing Gillispie as a clown, point guards refusing to enter games, rumors of bar scenes of an inebriated Gillispie making a mockery of his reputation and, worse of all, the Wildcats missing the NCAA Tournament in 2009 only to falter in the NIT. After Gillispie was fired, both parties sued each other and now Gillispie is releasing a book that nobody will read. It’s been a whacky offseason in Big Blue Country, and even though their new savior has some issues of his own, the Kentucky basketball program has experienced an unfathomable turnaround over the summer from the laughing stock of college basketball to a legitimate contender to win a national title.
The hiring of John Calipari and the return of forward Patrick Patterson has rejuvenated Kentucky to the point of being widely considered the favorites in an improving SEC this season. The addition of two top-five recruits- point guard John Wall and power forward DeMarcus Cousins- along with Gillispie’s recruits staying on board and a decent core returning from last season’s squad means expectations are once again sky-high in Lexington. Nobody is thinking about Billy Gillispie but rather the school’s first Final Four berth since the Jeff Sheppard era of 1998.
Here’s the official schedule for a Kentucky team that may be the most exciting to watch this season in all of college basketball:
Non-Conference Schedule Rank: 7. The non-conference schedule in John Calipari’s first season features some big names and decent tests, but no overwhelmingly challenging road games are included on the slate. The only true road game is a trip to Bloomington in early December to take on a rebuilding Indiana squad that Kentucky should run out of the building. Emotions will be high for both the North Carolina and Louisville visits during the non-conference season. North Carolina has embarrassed Kentucky handily in two previous meetings and the Wildcats will be eager to exact revenge on their rival Cardinals following last season’s Edgar Sosa miracle (not to mention the coaches aren’t exactly best friends). The schedule also includes a trip to Cancun to take on Cinderella Cleveland State and the Stanford/Virginia winner, none of those teams posing close to a threat. One team that could surprise Kentucky is their opponent in the SEC/Big East Invitational in New York: the Connecticut Huskies. UConn did lose a boatload of scoring and rebounding, but Jerome Dyson, Kemba Walker and Stanley Robinson could be enough to hang with Kentucky’s immense talent. At least for a while.
Cupcake City: While Gillispie was prone to the shocking early-season upset, we suspect Calipari will have his team 100% prepared offensively and defensively every single night throughout the campaign. Kentucky has eight games at home against mid-major or low-major competition this season and one visit to Louisville to take on UNC-Asheville. They should sprint through this slate and remain a decent bet to run the table in non-conference play.
Toughest Early Season Test: While Connecticut is on a neutral floor and North Carolina will visit Rupp, I’ll go with the Tar Heels. Remember: this Kentucky team is dealing with plenty of new parts in various roles, and since the game takes place on December 5, there may still be some confusion and sorting out to do for coach Calipari in teaching his dribble-drive motion offense. The Heels will be dealing with the same problem, but Roy Williams is a familiar face and key players like Ed Davis, Larry Drew and Deon Thompson have experience, although limited. Kentucky seems like a tremendous candidate to peak in February and March rather than December, and this young Carolina team could sneak up on the Wildcats.
Easiest Conference Stretch: A seven-game stretch from mid-January to mid-February could be where Kentucky takes off in SEC play. There are two fairly challenging road contests in that stretch with a trip to South Carolina to deal with Devan Downey and Dominique Archie and a visit to LSU with Tasmin Mitchell and Bo Spencer still involved. Four SEC schools make trips to Rupp during the stretch: Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and Alabama. While Vanderbilt and Ole Miss are being discussed as possible NCAA Tournament teams, Kentucky should be heavily favored in all four home games along with the three roadies (a trip to Auburn sprinkled in).
Hardest Conference Stretch: After that visit from Alabama, the schedule gets plenty dicey for Calipari as steep challenges begin to appear in mid-February. While a visit from South Carolina may provide a slight reprieve, the Wildcats take on Tennessee in a home-and-home and also visit SEC challengers Mississippi State and Vanderbilt during this stretch extending till the end of the month. The two Tennessee games will be ultra-hyped with one being a primetime ESPN College Gameday visit. The Vols are the only team that can be mentioned in the same breath as Kentucky in terms of talent in this conference, and the Wildcats trip to Knoxville will be the single most challenging game on the entire schedule. Mississippi State could contend for a top-five seed with Jarvis Varnado, Barry Stewart and possibly Renardo Sidney on the roster, while Vanderbilt boasts all-SEC center A.J. Ogilvy and prized recruit John Jenkins.
Most Difficult Road Test: It has to be the visit to Tennessee in late February. Tyler Smith could pose matchup problems for Patterson and Cousins, J.P. Prince is a slashing scorer and Wayne Chism can contribute inside. Behind an orange-clad crowd screaming Rocky Top and the suffocating Pearl press, the Volunteers have a shot. The one huge advantage for Kentucky comes at the point guard position with Wall running the show against Bobby Maze.
Most Anticipated Home Date: While their coach has some scars of his own, none of them involve sex in the back of a restaurant and a rumored $3,000 abortion. When Rick Pitino makes his return to Lexington on January 2, it won’t be a very happy New Year for the Louisville headman. The hardcore Kentucky fans will be out in full force with elaborate signs and chants mocking the disgraced Pitino. Best of all, Kentucky is head and shoulders above Louisville in terms of talent level this season. Like this rivalry needed any more spice.
Upset Watch: For the reasons mentioned above, I’d keep an eye on the Mississippi State game on February 16. The matchup in Starkville could get very interesting if Sidney and John Riek are eligible, Varnado stays out of foul trouble, Stewart and Dee Bost run a steady offense and Ravern Johnson is hitting threes with some consistency. If the stars align, Rick Stansbury has a very dangerous squad lined up and seems to possess the talent to play with Kentucky, at least on one given night.
Best Individual Matchup: While Ogilvy battling in the post with Patterson, Cousins and Daniel Orton should be fun, I’m loving with potential diaper dandy battle at the point guard position between Kentucky’s John Wall and Florida’s Kenny Boynton. With Nick Calathes departed, Boynton will surely be the centerpiece of Billy Donovan’s offense this season. Boynton is a prolific scorer and elite talent while Wall is widely considered to be the favorite to go first overall in the 2010 NBA Draft and could be the next of John Calipari’s tremendous point guards after Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans. Wall and Boynton trading clutch baskets could be a show to remember.
Rush the Court Potential: Kentucky fans have long considered their program the elite of the elite in college basketball. This season, really for the first time since winning the SEC in 2004-05, Kentucky fans can back up the talk with a team that has the talent to emerge as a #1 seed and reach Indianapolis in April. The freshman class is the strongest since Lawson/Ellington for Carolina, Calipari is one of the best in the business and Rupp Arena provides a true home-court advantage. The schedule isn’t very daunting, either. Kentucky fans won’t be rushing the court this season, but any opponent that knocks off the Wildcats surely will jump at the opportunity. Kentucky is back, folks, and they should be feared.