Kentucky coach John Calipari will waste no time testing his team’s talents in the 2019-20 season. Like last season, when he opened the season against title favorite Duke, he’s opted to again bypass a ramp-up-friendly schedule by introducing this season’s iteration of the Wildcats to Michigan State in the season-opener.
The Spartans are No. 1 in the. Kentucky is No. 3. In summation: Wipe your calendar completely clean on Nov. 5 — heck, take the whole day off! — because that evening tilt in the Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden already looks like it could be the crown jewel of college basketball’s early-season slate.
As for the rest of Kentucky’s nonconference schedule, which was finalized Thursday with the Big 12/SEC Challenge matchups being announced, Calipari and his Cats face plenty of other challenges including a challenge against Ohio State before Christmas in the CBS Sports Classic and a home tilt vs. Louisville before 2020 arrives. The schedule has tons of traps littered about — and that’s not factoring in a grueling SEC slate to be announced later.
Kentucky plays six teams from one of the seven major college basketball conferences, a reigning national runner-up, and two preseason top-5 caliber teams in Michigan State and Louisville. The deck is stacked.
Kentucky nonconference schedule
UK’s five toughest nonconference games
5. Utah Valley
Nov. 18 at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky
2018-19 record: 25-10
Coach: Mark Madsen
Outlook: Utah Valley may be the most underrated team on Kentucky’s schedule — and perhaps one of the most underrated teams nationally. The team improved each year under Mark Pope’s watch since he took over in 2015, and that rise should continue under new coach Mark Madsen, a long-time Lakers assistant who replaced Pope this offseason. Madsen has the roster in place to remain competitive. Expect Oklahoma State transfer Brandon Averette to be a reliable scorer, and returning forward Isaiah White to take a huge leap into a potential No. 1 role.
4. Ohio State
Dec. 21 T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas (CBS Sports Classic)
2018-19 record: 20-15
Coach: Chris Holtmann
Outlook: Ohio State is your darkhorse Big Ten contender in 2019. Five of the team’s top seven scorers from last year are back, including big man Kaleb Wesson, and a top-15 recruiting class is on the way. This team should be deep with talent and primed to push a young Kentucky squad to the brink in Vegas.
3. Texas Tech
Jan. 25 United Supermarkets Arena in Lubbock, Texas (Big 12/SEC Challenge)
2018-19 record: 31-7
Coach: Chris Beard
Outlook: Texas Tech has one-upped itself as a program in each of the last two seasons, with last year’s national runner-up finish showing just how far the program has come under Chris Beard. While Jarrett Culver and several other key contributors from last year’s team are gone, Beard deserves the benefit of the doubt that Tech will again be nails next season.
Dec. 28 at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky
2018-19 record: 20-14
Coach: Chris Mack
Outlook: Jordan Nwora’s return to Louisville after testing the NBA Draft waters signaled one thing: that the Cardinals would be a force in the ACC and beyond in 2019. Their depth coupled with graduate transfer Lamarr Kimble and a top-15 recruiting class should make them a viable threat to win it all next season.
1. Michigan State
Nov. 5 at Madison Square Garden (State Farm Champions Classic)
2018-19 record: 32-7
Coach: Tom Izzo
Outlook: Cassius Winston. Josh Langford. Xavier Tillman. Tom Izzo! Michigan State has itself a squad. The to win it all and should be an excellent litmus test for Kentucky to gauge its young squad early in the season. Even with UK’s youth, this one on paper looks like a toss-up.