A preseason look at the 10 toughest matchups on the University of Kentucky’s 2018-19 men’s basketball schedule:
When: Jan. 29 in Nashville
Led by McDonald’s All-Americans Darius Garland and Simi Shittu, the Commodores bring in their best recruiting class … maybe ever. Vandy is projected to finish in the middle of the pack in the SEC, but Memorial Gym is never an easy place to play. John Calipari has just two losses in eight trips there as UK’s coach, but all six of his wins came by single digits. Also worth noting: this one comes just three days after UK plays Kansas in Rupp Arena.
When: Jan. 5 in Tuscaloosa
Collin Sexton is gone, but there’s still a whole lot of talent on Bama’s roster (and Coach Avery Johnson is still there, too). This will be the first conference game for UK’s older-than-usual (but still very young) team, and it won’t be an easy one.
When: Dec. 29 in Louisville
Yes, the Cardinals are in rebuilding mode, but you had to know this game would be on this list somewhere. A season after sending the Cards back home with a 29-point loss, UK will roll into the Yum Center to face what should be a revitalized U of L fan base led by a very, very (very) good coach in Chris Mack.
When: Feb. 2 in Gainesville
This caps what could be a brutal five-games-in-two-weeks stretch that will lead with a trip to Auburn, home dates against Mississippi State and Kansas, and then a game at Vanderbilt. Calipari has lost four of his last six in Gainesville, and all of those losses came by 13 or more points.
6. Mississippi State
When: Feb. 9 in Starkville
Calipari is 11-0 against Mississippi State as UK’s coach, including a 5-0 record at The Hump. But Ben Howland finally has the talent and experience to get the Bulldogs back in the NCAA Tournament after a 10-year absence. Expect a crazy atmosphere when the Cats come to town.
When: Nov. 6 in Indianapolis
You were expecting to wait a little longer before this game popped up? That speaks to the strength of UK’s schedule. It also speaks to the placement of this game on that schedule. UK is getting Duke at the perfect time: Game 1, before the Blue Devils’ incoming nucleus of super recruits RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones has a chance to jell.
When: Jan. 19 in Auburn
Calipari and best bud Bruce Pearl meet again. The Cats have lost their last two trips to Auburn after Calipari started his UK career 8-0 against the Tigers. Pearl gets Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy back from suspension, Anfernee McLemore back from injury, and Bryce Brown back for another season. This could be one of the nation’s top 10 teams.
3. North Carolina
When: Dec. 22 in Chicago
Luke Maye is a preseason All-American. Fellow seniors Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams both averaged double-digit scoring last year. It probably wouldn’t surprise anyone who followed the 2018 recruiting class if Nassir Little is the nation’s best freshman. (Oh, and 6-5 point guard Coby White was a McDonald’s All-American, too). Merry Christmas, college basketball fans.
When: March 2 in Knoxville
Tennessee is a legitimate Final Four contender this season, returning just about everyone from last year’s team, including SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams. “There’s no doubt they’re the team to beat in our conference,” Ben Howland said at last month’s SEC media days. Yes, Howland knows UK is in the conference, too. These Vols are legit, and Thompson-Boling — the location of three straight Kentucky losses — should be rocking come March 2.
When: Jan. 26 in Lexington
This game is in Rupp, and the Jayhawks could be playing under a cloud of scandal all season, but that won’t make those 40 minutes on Jan. 26 much easier against the only team listed ahead of the Cats in the preseason rankings. Lagerald Vick and Udoka Azubuike are among the returning players, and the list of newcomers includes transfers Dedric Lawson, KJ Lawson and Charlie Moore, plus McDonald’s All-Americans Quentin Grimes, Devon Dotson and David McCormack. Should be fun.