They’re Big Apple-bound. This weekend, John Calipari and his (perhaps you’ve heard) young basketball team travel to New York City not for some pre-Christmas shopping or to see Bruce on Broadway, but to meet Monmouth in Madison Square Garden for a noon tip on ESPNU.
If this is indeed a pre-final exams pleasure trip, the Cats need to enjoy it while they can. After Saturday’s matchup with the 3-5 Hawks, the schedule ramps up into a considerably higher gear for a team that starts (perhaps you’ve heard) five freshmen.
“We’ve got this weekend on the road, and then we’ve got four games, bam, bam, bam,” said Calipari, again breaking out the sound effects after his team improved to 7-1 with a 79-70 win over Harvard last week. “Just believe me, you could go 0-4 in that stretch of games, easy.”
Actually, Cal, we do believe you. ACC member Virginia Tech visits Lexington on Saturday, Dec. 16. The following Saturday, Dec. 23, the Cats travel to New Orleans to face UCLA. The annual Kentucky-Louisville grudge match is Friday, Dec. 29, in Rupp Arena. UK then closes the book on the calendar year by opening SEC play with a New Year’s Eve date against visiting Georgia.
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All four of those foes own better Ken Pomeroy and Jeff Sagarin computer ratings than seven of the eight teams Kentucky has played to this point. Now, AP No. 2 Kansas is the lone and very notable exception, and though the (perhaps you’ve heard) young Cats played well in Chicago, they ended up losing to the Jayhawks 65-61.
So far, that KU game has been Kentucky’s one true test. Vermont was the best of the rest as the Catamounts proved by slicing a 14-point second-half deficit all the way to three before losing 73-69 on Nov. 12. UK’s other six opponents are all saddled with triple-digit Pomeroy rankings — 116. Troy; 127. East Tennessee State; 158. Harvard; 164. Fort Wayne; 169. Utah Valley; 202. UIC.
Little wonder the Pomeroy adjusted numbers rank the Kentucky schedule as the 192nd toughest in the nation. Sagarin’s computer is not quite as generous. It ranks UK’s SOS at No. 219.
This was by design, of course. Rather than toss his freshmen into the deep end of the pool that was the power-packed PK80 Tournament out in Portland, Calipari scheduled games in which his newbies could put a toe in the water before increasing the degree of difficulty. That time is almost here, however.
Virginia Tech is 7-1 with wins over Washington, Iowa and Ole Miss, the latter an 83-80 overtime triumph in Oxford last week. The Hokies are ranked No. 36 by Pomeroy.
UCLA is also 7-1, its lone loss coming against Creighton 100-89 in Kansas City. LaVar might have taken his Balls and gone home — Lonzo is now a Laker; LiAngelo is now a free agent after being pulled from school by dad in the middle of the China/shoplifting fiasco — but the Bruins are still talented enough to be ranked No. 43 by Pomeroy.
Despite a 4-2 record, Louisville is at No. 27. The first loss was at Purdue, now 21st in the AP poll, where the Cards led by as many as six in the second half. The second loss was at home by two points to previously unranked Seton Hall. But Pomeroy respects the Cards and by the time they take I-64 East, “acting” coach David Padgett might have figured some things out.
Last but not least of the foursome is Georgia, which is 6-1 and fresh off an impressive 73-66 win at Marquette. Coach Mark Fox still has the vastly underrated Yante Maten. Pomeroy’s numbers put Georgia at No. 66, just in front of Vermont at 67.
You have to play them one at a time, of course. Ranked No. 138 by Pomeroy, Monmouth at The Garden is next up on Kentucky’s tuneup list. Afrer that, exams begin, in the classroom and on the court.
No. 8 Kentucky vs. Monmouth
Noon Saturday in Citi Hoops Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York (ESPNU)
Kentucky men’s basketball 2017-18
vs. Kansas (chicago)
vs. Monmouth (New York)
vs. UCLA (New Orleans)