Two players who made up nearly half of Kentucky’s scoring and more than 40 percent of its rebounds last season are busy playing in the WNBA this summer.
But despite what could be considered a rebuilding year for the Cats, who lost super seniors Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator, Coach Matthew Mitchell hasn’t dialed back UK’s non-conference schedule much.
“We played one of the toughest schedules in the country last year and I believe this season’s schedule will be similarly difficult,” he said in a release from UK, which announced its full non-conference schedule Monday. “The balance of this schedule is what sticks out with quality opponents coming to Memorial Coliseum and some very challenging road trips all over the country.”
Kentucky returns three starters and seven scholarship players in all from last season’s NCAA Tournament team. UK also added four true freshmen and a junior-college player, who all have reported for summer school and already are on campus.
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“We have been very pleased with the work our team has put in so far this summer and cannot wait for full practices to get underway this fall,” Mitchell said.
Kentucky newcomers include true freshman forwards Dorie Harrison, KeKe McKinney and Tatyana Wyatt with guard Kameron Roach as well as junior-college transfer Amanda Paschal.
The schedule seems to give the Cats some room to grow early in the season, with five of their first six opponents finishing last season with losing records.
Then things will take a dramatic turn for UK, who will face 2017 NCAA Tournament teams in five of its next seven games, starting with a game at Baylor on Nov. 30 as part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge.
The Bears, who advanced to the Elite Eight last season, return their leading scorer in Kalani Brown, but will be looking to replace their next four scorers.
Kentucky will head south in early December to meet NCAA Tournament teams in Florida Gulf Coast (Dec. 8) and Miami, Fla., two days later.
The Hurricanes finished last season ranked No. 16 nationally, but like UK, they lost some firepower from last season. Gulf Coast, coming off its fourth NCAA Tournament trip in six seasons, could be a tough challenge for Kentucky with six of its top seven scorers back.
When the Cats return home, they will have their annual meeting with Louisville on Dec. 17 in Memorial Coliseum, followed by a game against California on Dec. 21.
In all, seven teams UK faces in the non-conference portion of the schedule finished with 20 or more wins.
After playing an exhibition game versus Southern Indiana on Nov. 5, the Cats will open the season with a multi-team event sponsored by Morehead State that features the Eagles, UK, Sacramento State and Gardner-Webb.
The two out of state teams will make a trip to Morehead and each play a game at UK as part of the tournament, which Morehead State has named the “Matthew Mitchell Classic” after the Eagles’ former coach, who now coaches the Cats.
UK will meet Sacramento State on Nov. 10 and then take on Gardner-Webb on Nov. 12. Sacramento State is coached by former longtime Berea College coach Bunky Harkleroad.
Then Kentucky heads west for a two-game road swing that includes a first-time game at Montana (Nov. 16) followed by a trip to Washington State three days later.
UK returns home for an annual game with Morehead State on Nov. 22 in Memorial Coliseum and another regional opponent matchup with Marshall on Nov. 26 at home.
Kentucky will close out its non-conference schedule at Middle Tennessee on Dec. 28.
For the first time since 2010, Kentucky isn’t holding a non-conference game in Rupp Arena, but the plan is to play one of the Cats’ Southeastern Conference games there this year, a team spokesman confirmed.
The SEC schedule probably won’t be released until the end of the summer. The Cats will open league play Dec. 31 this season, and the SEC Tournament will be played Feb. 28-March 4 at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.
The NCAA Tournament is set up similarly to last season with the first- and second-round games being held at the venues of the top 16 seeds.
The four NCAA region sites this season include Lexington (Rupp Arena), Albany, N.Y., Kansas City and Spokane, Wash. The Final Four will be held in Columbus, Ohio.
Kentucky non-conference schedule
(Home games in capital letters; All times p.m. and Eastern)
Nov. 3: SOUTHERN INDIANA (exh.), 2
Nov. 10: SACRAMENTO ST., TBA
Nov. 12: GARDNER-WEBB, TBA
Nov. 16: at Montana, 9
Nov. 19: at Washington St., TBA
Nov. 22: MOREHEAD ST., TBA
Nov. 26: MARSHALL, TBA
Nov. 30: at Baylor, TBA
Dec. 3: TENNESSEE TECH, 2
Dec. 5: EVANSVILLE, 7
Dec. 8: at Florida Gulf Coast, 7
Dec. 10: at Miami (Fla.), TBA
Dec. 17: LOUISVILLE, 2
Dec. 21: CALIFORNIA, noon
Dec. 28: at Middle Tennessee, TBA