UK schedule is out: It's a little tougher

jtipton@herald-leader.comAugust 21, 2009 

Kentucky officially unveiled a 2009-10 basketball schedule on Thursday that contained few surprises except, perhaps, for one slight eyebrow raiser. The non-conference schedule might not meet the stated goal of containing no opponent with a Ratings Percentage Index of worse than 140.

Aside from the Southeastern Conference schedule, the non-conference schedule contains the traditional rivals: Louisville, North Carolina and Indiana. Added to that mix is highly regarded Connecticut, a team UK will play on Dec. 9 in the SEC/Big East Challenge.

"We'd like to play in Madison Square Garden every year I'm here," Calipari said in an interview on UK's schedule release television program on Thursday night. "Other things are in the works to take us to the Garden every year."

Louisville, North Carolina and Connecticut are UK's only non-conference opponents with a final RPI last season in the top 50. Each ranked in the top 10 nationally in the final RPI for last season.

Calipari said he's happy to have North Carolina on the schedule. "Roy (Williams), I love. He says 'I'm not afraid of Kentucky. Bring it.' It's an exciting series. We want to continue that series."

According to analyst Jerry Palm of Collegerpi.com, UK has come up with a solid schedule.

"Three top-10 teams are three more than most teams will play," Palm said. "... I think this is a pretty representative schedule. Not all (opponents) are going to be good teams, but you've got one, two, three, four, five, six major conference opponents, three of which were top-10 teams a year ago. That's a pretty representative schedule."

Overall, the 15 non-conference opponents include seven with a final RPI last season of worse than 140, the cutoff new Kentucky Coach John Calipari has said he wants for the program.

When Morehead State Coach Donnie Tyndall inquired about scheduling a game, UK assistant coach John Robic told him that Calipari wanted opponents to have an RPI of 140 or better. Calipari also told reporters that he wanted opponents who figured to win 20 games.

"He asked me point-blank how good we'd be," Tyndall said of his conversation with Robic. Tyndall said he thought the Eagles could win between 17 and 20 games. He also saw MSU finishing in the top third of the Ohio Valley Conference despite losing the team's best player, Leon Buchanan.

The Eagles return four starters and six of their first seven players from an NCAA Tournament team. Senior Maze Stallworth, a native of Elizabethtown, figures to become a 1,000-point career scorer this season.

Morehead State had a final RPI last season of 141.

The worst final RPI of any opponent on Kentucky's 2009-10 schedule belongs to Hartford. The Hawks had a 7-26 record last season and a final RPI of 299. Spokesman David Longolucco said a season-ending injury to the team's leading scorer marred what should have been a better record.

The only other opponents with a final RPI of 200 or worse are Indiana (No. 216), which figures to be vastly improved, and UNC-Asheville (No. 200), which returns four starters from a 15-16 team and has been picked to finish second or third in the Big South Conference.

Ten of UK's 15 non-conference opponents had a final RPI of worse than 100.

But several fit Calipari's criteria of being good teams in their leagues. For instance, Long Beach State (No. 156) is picked to finish first or second in the Big West Conference. Sam Houston State (No. 153) has finished in the top three in the Southland Conference for five straight seasons.

Overall, Kentucky's schedule appears to reverse a recent trend downward.

According to Palm, Kentucky's strength of schedule the past five seasons was 30, 15, 1, 19 and 64.

Kentucky's non-conference strength of schedule dipped severely last season: down to 180. The rating the previous four seasons was 60, 34, 2 and 99.

Kentucky had a 6-7 record entering SEC play last season. That marked the program's worst non-conference record since 1988-89.

UK's six victories came against mediocre competition. The opponent with the best RPI beaten by Kentucky was Liberty at No. 236.

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