By RICHARD CHEEKS
As the Cats prepare for their 2016-17 basketball season, many observers rank them as a top 5 team. 2016-17 UK opponents in the preseason top 50 are Michigan State #14, UCLA #21, North Carolina #5, Louisville #9, Kansas #3, Texas A&M #30 twice, and Florida #17 twice. That will be 9 (5 nonconference and 4 SEC) basketball games against teams in Pomeroy’s preseason top 50. Last season, the Cats played 8 (3 nonconference and 5 SEC) regular season games against teams that ended the season in Pomeroy’s top 50.
As has been the case every year, Coach Calipari has said that while he likes this team, he will need time to learn how this team should play before they have any chance to be worthy of such a high preseason ranking. That learning process has begun. Following the Blue-White game, Coach Calipari said that he will make sure to have either Isaiah Briscoe or De’Aaron Fox on the floor at all times, and he certainly plans to play them together as well during games. Malik Monk showed all in the B/W game that Coach Calipari will need to have him on the floor as much as possible as well. However, Dominique Hawkins put the entire Big Blue Nation and the team on notice that his return for a senior season is not simply to put in time on the bench. The Cats have 4 solid guards that Coach Calipari can use in his rotation to distribute about 100 minutes of playing time per game.
The front court is also worthy, and the battle for playing time will be fierce. Edrice (BAM) Adebayo is a man-child who will command playing time. Derek Willis will be a contributor in his senior season, and Isaac Humphries has improved during the off season. I seems clear that one or two of the freshmen front court players will challenge these three for playing time.
On Sunday night, Coach Calipari will see his players perform against a live opponent for the first time. These exhibition games will provide significant input to Coach Calipari about how his team should play together.
Clarion will appear in Rupp Arena on Sunday, October 30, 2016 game is a repeat appearance for Clarion, Coach Calipari’s Alma Mater. These exhibition games are about the Kentucky team, and identifying the areas that Coach Calipari must emphasize over the next 10 days as the Cats prepare to open their quest for a return to the Final Four in search of the program’s 9th National Championship.
Let the journey begin with the exhibitions, just as it has every year within my memory.
Over the past 7 seasons, the Cats have averaged a 41 point victory over its first exhibition opponent (96-55) and for those same previous seven (7) seasons, the Cats have improved between their first and second exhibition games to a 58 point average margin (109-51). This and the second exhibition game the following Sunday are about effort and improvement. The measuring sticks are the margins of victory and the degree of improvement between the first and second starts.
For the past seven “First Exhibitions” the opponents have been Campbell (74-38), Pikeville (97-66), Transy (97-53), Northern Kentucky (93-61), Transy (76-42), Pikeville (116-68), and Ottowa (117-58). This year, based on how prior exhibition games have played out and the relative strength of Clarion, this game shapes up to be a 57 point game, 104-47 if the Cats are on par with the previous seven Calipari led teams at the beginning of November.