Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell might be kicking himself come Christmas, but he swears he had a plan when he loaded up the Cats' non-conference schedule.
"It makes pre-season practice better," Mitchell said of the stacked non-conference schedule released on Tuesday. "It's where we need to be. If we want to be one of the top programs, we've got to play one of the top schedules."
The Cats' calendar features six teams that were in the NCAA Tournament last season. There are games against likely pre-season top-10 teams Baylor, Duke and Louisville as well as road games at DePaul and Middle Tennessee State.
"We've been fortunate that the schedule had been getting stronger since I've been here," Mitchell said. "This is probably our strongest one."
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
If there ever was a season for an enhanced schedule, this is it. More than half (seven) of Kentucky's 13 players are McDonald's All-Americans. The Cats lost star A'dia Mathies, but they return a veteran team with five seniors.
The strengthened schedule also has created some fun scenarios for the Cats' head coach to ponder. Mitchell is hoping the Dec. 22 game against Duke at Rupp Arena will help UK break its all-time attendance record (18,488) for the second season in a row.
"That will be two pre-season top-10 schools," Mitchell said of UK and the Blue Devils. "That was a terrific game last time. It would be great if we could sell that one out."
Mitchell is hoping the Baylor doubleheader with the men's team on Dec. 6 at the Dallas Cowboys' AT&T Stadium will help UK be a part of the largest crowd ever to see a women's basketball game.
"That event down in Dallas is really, really special," Mitchell said. "We've got (John) Calipari to thank for that."
He argued that you can't put on a doubleheader like that anywhere else.
"Cal really wants that to happen and he wants it to be special for Kentucky, which says a lot about him," Mitchell said. "I'm proud that we can be a part of what they're saying could be the biggest crowd ever for a women's basketball game. That will be real exciting."
It's a part of a brutal early stretch that includes a Nov. 24 game at Middle Tennessee (where UK has lost two in a row); a Dec. 1 game against Louisville, which advanced to the national championship game last season; a Dec. 6 game versus Baylor; and a Dec. 12 game at DePaul.
Duke, which signed on for a long-term home-and-away series with Kentucky, comes to Rupp Arena 10 days later. Kentucky has won 40 straight nonconference games at home venues since 2008.
Mitchell said not to overlook the Cats' season opener in New York against Marist, which has won eight straight Metro Atlantic Conference titles. Marist is Kentucky's "strongest opening test since we opened up with Michigan at home six years ago," Mitchell said.
The Southeastern Conference schedule will be released at a later date.