A preseason look at the 10 toughest games on Kentucky’s schedule:
When: Dec. 7
Why it’s so tough: Every year, it seems like some school from a “mid-major” conference comes to Rupp and gives the Cats an actual game. Look for Valpo to do that this season, and it won’t be a fluke. The Crusaders have won the Horizon League four of the past five years and went to the NIT title game last season. They also return 6-foot-9 senior forward Alec Peters, who is projected as an NBA Draft pick.
When: Jan. 10
Why it’s so tough: The SEC will be down (again) this season, but Vandy returns some good players and Memorial Gym is always a tough place to play, especially for young teams. John Calipari is 4-2 there as UK’s coach, but none of those victories have been by double digits.
When: Feb. 18
Where: Athens, Ga.
Why it’s so tough: Yante Maten and J.J. Frazier provide a great inside-outside punch, and Coach Mark Fox should have the Bulldogs back in the NCAA Tournament this season.
When: Feb. 4
Where: Gainesville, Fla.
Why it’s so tough: League media members picked the Gators to finish second in the SEC this season, and Florida’s fans always get excited when the Cats come to town. Sophomore guard KeVaughn Allen should be one of the best players in the conference, and senior point guard Kasey Hill — a former McDonald’s All-American — might finally be ready to take the next step in his game.
When: Dec. 3
Why it’s so tough: The Bruins add national high school player of the year Lonzo Ball and fellow McDonald’s All-American TJ Leaf to a roster that includes four returning starters. If this game wasn’t in Rupp, it would come much later on this list.
5. Michigan State
When: Nov. 15
Where: New York
Why it’s so tough: Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo has arguably his best recruiting class ever, led by former UK target Miles Bridges. This will be the Wildcats’ first major test of the season. (UK has lost four of its last five meetings with the Spartans, including an early-season defeat in 2013).
4. Texas A&M
When: March 4
Where: College Station, Texas
Why it’s so tough: The Aggies might very well be the second-best team in the league this season, and they’ve given UK fits since joining the SEC. A&M almost (probably should’ve) put a stop to the Cats’ quest for 40-0 two years ago before UK pulled one out in double-OT. Last season’s trip to College Station ended in controversy (the Isaac Humphries technical) and a Wildcats’ loss.
When: Jan. 28
Why it’s so tough: The Jayhawks will probably be the best team UK faces in the regular season, but a couple of things keep this game from being No. 1 on the list. 1) It’s in Rupp Arena. 2) It comes pretty late in the season, giving the Cats’ freshmen plenty of time to jell.
2. North Carolina
When: Dec. 17
Where: Las Vegas
Why it’s so tough: The national runners-up from last season bring back a lot of veteran talent and get the Wildcats early in the year and on a neutral court. UNC should once again be contenders for a national title.
When: Dec. 21
Why it’s so tough: Yes, Calipari has owned Rick Pitino since coming to UK seven years ago — the Cats are 8-1 against the Cards during that time — but this U of L team will be a good one and the Yum Center is going to be absolutely bonkers for the 7 p.m. tip-off to UK’s first true road game. This contest also comes four days after what should be a grueling game against North Carolina on the other side of the country. If the young Wildcats escape Yum with a “W,” it likely will be as hard-earned as any they get before March.