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The Dagger

Likely preseason No. 1 Kentucky will be tested early by a rugged schedule

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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John Calipari and Alex Poythress (Getty Images)

Outside the victorious Kentucky locker room not long after the 2012 national title game ended, John Calipari admitted he had even larger goals than merely winning his first championship.

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(via CatsIllustrated.com)

He told a small group of reporters he wants to coach a team that goes 40-0.

Next year's unprecedented recruiting class might give Calipari his best chance yet to chase perfection, but attaining it will not be easy with the non-conference schedule the Kentucky coach has assembled. The Wildcats will face two teams expected to join them in the preseason top three next year, a third likely top 10 team on the road and a handful of other NCAA tournament contenders either at home or on neutral courts.

The biggest early test is a Nov. 12 matchup in Chicago with a Michigan State team that returns every key player besides Derrick Nix from a team that contended for the Big Ten title and reached the Sweet 16. The Spartans will be much more experienced than the freshman-heavy Wildcats and should start the season no lower than third in the polls.

Among the other marquee games on the non-league schedule are a visit to North Carolina on Dec. 14 and a home game against Louisville on Dec. 28. The Tar Heels have the talent to contend in the ACC thanks to the return of James Michael McAdoo and P.J. Hairston, while the defending champion Cardinals have seven of their top nine back and are the only team besides Kentucky with a legit case to begin the season ranked No. 1.

There are no true road games on the schedule besides the visit to Chapel Hill, but some of the remaining home and neutral-court games will be challenging.

A Baylor team that upset Kentucky at Rupp Arena this past season has enough talent to pose a threat in Dallas on Dec. 6, as does an improving Providence team that will meet the Wildcats in Brooklyn on Dec. 1. And Boise State, which will face Kentucky in a guarantee game on Dec. 10, returns the core of an NCAA tournament team and figures to contend in the Mountain West next season.

With three marquee games instead of two and a home slate that features much stronger mid-major foes, it's clear Calipari sought to build a schedule that will boost Kentucky's RPI this season. The Wildcats missed the NCAA tournament last season partially because a modest non-conference schedule and a woeful SEC gave them many more chances for bad losses than quality wins.

Another crash-and-burn season would be stunning for a Kentucky team that could have the No. 1 recruit at every position if Andrew Wiggins comes aboard. This Wildcats team has high aspirations, but it will have to play at a high level right away to avoid suffering a few early losses against a rugged non-league schedule.

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