I know it’s not what the cool kids do. I know you’re going to get mad on the Internet. But I have to say it:
John Calipari is really, really good at what he does.
Coaches have known how to use their non-conference schedules to game the RPI for a while now. The concept is simple: schedule a few truly tough teams, then choose your buy games (the cupcakes) wisely. Make sure they are teams expected to win or finish near the top of their conference standings, so that they will win a ton of games and not drag your RPI down at the end of the year.
What Calipari has done, however, is take this to another level. The intrigue in almost every non-conference matchup is enough to land the game on national TV (even if it’s ESPNU), or at least sell more tickets than any buy game should ever sell.
Here’s the schedule, and it’s optimized to the delight of Kentucky fans and mid-major fans around the country:
Forget the power conference teams on here for now. We’ll let A Sea of Blue break them down. Also forget that the only true road game is at West Virginia in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. That’ll be plenty when you also factor in conference games at Florida, South Carolina, Mizzou, and wherever else.
Just look at the mid-majors on here. Not only are they teams that should compete in their conferences, thus gaming the RPI in Kentucky’s advantage, but they provide a ton of entertainment value.
Let’s go game-by-game:
Nov. 10: Utah Valley
Here’s a game Kentucky should win by about 30. Fine. But if you’ve ever wondered what the most entertaining 30-point blowout imaginable looks like, tune in. The Wolverines were a top-150 team last year, according to KenPom, and had a knack for both pushing the pace and stifling opponents. The 114 points Utah Valley ran up on BYU last year was no fluke, as Isaac Neilson dominated inside to the tune of 8-10 shooting, then became a dominant force in the WAC the rest of the season. Conner Toolson caught fire from three in that game as well, giving the Wolverines an inside-outside threat that could cause anyone headaches. Again, Kentucky should win rather easily, but Utah Valley could make it fun before the Wildcats’ superior talent takes over.
Nov. 12: Vermont
The last time the Catamounts lost a regular season conference game, Ted Cruz had just won the Iowa Caucus, his lookalike, Grayson Allen, had only tripped one opponent, and the name Harambe was still three months from entering the Twitter lexicon. So it’s been a while. No, the America East isn’t that good, but the Catamounts are. They’ll provide the perfect contrast to a fast-paced Utah Valley team by forcing Kentucky to be patient as Vermont launches a methodical attack. The Catamounts use most of the shot clock, but are alarmingly efficient in the process, ranking in the top 20 in the country in effective field goal percentage last season. Anthony Lamb is primed for a national breakout, and a great game against Kentucky could be just the opportunity.
Nov. 17: East Tennessee State
This will be a transition year for the Buccaneers, so it remains to be seen exactly how good they will be. T.J. Cromer and Tevin Glass are both gone, but Desonta Bradford is back and will be called upon in an expanded role. This might be one of those games that looks great at first and ends up being a whiff — those things happen — but Steve Forbes is a well-respected coach for a reason. ETSU went from SoCon competitor to mid-major juggernaut last year, and this will be an early chance to see if there’s any continuity here or if it was just an instance of a mid-major having a few really good seniors at the same time.
Nov. 20: Troy
If this is going to be the least attractive game on the schedule, then Kentucky is doing something right. The Trojans were a 15 seed in the 2017 NCAA Tournament and another KenPom top-150 team. After a middling finish in the deceptively good Sun Belt, Troy ran through the conference tournament, beating three top-200 teams in the process. In the NCAA Tournament, the Trojans responded to a tough start against Duke and played them tough for the final 30 minutes in the First Round. Jordon Varnado finished last season with a flourish and will be one of many mid-major players to watch next year.
Nov. 22: Fort Wayne
On one hand, Fort Wayne is probably just another ho-hum pretty good top-150ish team that won’t hurt Kentucky in the long run provided the Wildcats actually win the game. On the other hand, Fort Wayne beat Indiana last year in a fun-as-hell game and you bet I want to watch them again this year to see if they can knock off Kentucky (they probably can’t, but you never know). The Mastadons were one of the most efficient three-point shooting teams in the country last year and they return John Konchar, who shot 52 percent from distance last season. All it takes is one guy to catch fire and crazy things can happen...
Nov. 26: UIC
It seems like every power conference team inexplicably struggles with an opponent they should destroy, only to pull away at the end, taking a few years off the lifespan of its fans in the process. This might be that game for Kentucky. On the surface, the Flames are not good; they’re coming off a losing season in a bad conference. But the team was made up primarily of highly touted freshmen and sophomores that seemed to turn it on in the postseason. UIC upset Stony Brook and George Washington in the CBI before finally falling to Coastal Carolina. If Dikembe Dixson returns to his 2015-16 form after tearing his ACL last year, the Flames will compete near the top of the Horizon League.
Dec. 2: Harvard
Not much needs to be said here. Tommy Amaker has had the Crimson competing at the level of a high-major for a while now, and that’s not about to change. Arguably two of their best players last year were freshmen (Bryce Aiken and Seth Towns), and the team did not lose a game by more than four points after Jan. 2. No one will confuse the Crimson’s recruiting for Kentucky’s, but for an Ivy League school, it has been abnormally strong. After landing three ESPN top 100 recruits last year, including Towns, they will bring in three-star guard Mario Haskett to help this season.
Dec. 9: Monmouth
The final mid-major on Kentucky’s schedule is a Hawks team determined to finally get to the NCAA Tournament. Micah Seaborn will lead the way for Monmouth as one of 10 returning players from a team that went 18-2 in the MAAC last year. Big Blue Nation always fills Madison Square Garden, so even though the game will take place closer to Monmouth’s campus, expect a Kentucky home game.