You want more respect nationally, SEC basketball? Beating brand-name opponents outside your league is the best way to get it.
Without a doubt, the SEC has stepped up its non-conference scheduling game – all but two teams in the league are playing multiple top-50 opponents and only Mississippi State plays none – but losing to good teams doesn’t do much for perception.
Kentucky (naturally) leads the way, playing five preseason top-25 teams. Florida, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee are playing four apiece from advanced-stats guru Ken Pomeroy’s top 50.
The Wildcats dominate our list of the SEC’s best non-conference games of the 2016-17 season – their five opponents here have combined to win 24 national titles – but there are some other key opportunities for the rest of the league to make a splash:
10. Georgia at Clemson, Nov. 11
The Bulldogs have strung together three consecutive 20-win seasons and Mark Fox is looking for his second NCAA Tournament appearance in three years. UGA is built to get it done with an All-SEC, inside-out combo of junior forward Yante Maten and senior guard J.J. Frazier. But tackling the Tigers on the road will be a big early test. Clemson is led by projected first-round pick Jaron Blossomgame and begins the year No. 23 in KenPom’s rankings.
9. Iowa State at Vanderbilt, Jan. 28
Another fun one in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, offering new Commodores coach Bryce Drew – who led Valparaiso to the NIT title game last year – a chance to make a big statement. Vanderbilt lost two NBA draft picks, but so did the Cyclones, including star Georges Niang. Drew still has some strong pieces in Matthew Fisher-Davis and 7-foot-1 Luke Kornet.
8. Michigan at South Carolina, Nov. 23
Colonial Life Arena should be rocking when the Wolverines come to town. Non-conference strength of schedule (one top-50 opponent) hurt the 25-win Gamecocks last season on Selection Sunday. That shouldn’t be a problem this season, thanks to four non-league games against KenPom top-40 opponents. Frank Martin thinks his team deserves more respect, and beating Michigan early would help.
7. UCLA at Kentucky, Dec. 3
The Wildcats have won more national titles (eight) than anyone but the Bruins (11). Having this showdown at Rupp Arena is another gift to college basketball – as is the battle of star freshman point guards. Draft Express projects Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox and UCLA’s Lonzo Ball to be picked 12th and 14th overall next summer, and they might be the two most exciting lead guards in the country.
6. Florida vs. Duke, Dec. 6
Can the Gators challenge Kentucky in the SEC? This game (in the Jimmy V Classic in New York) against the similarly loaded, preseason No. 1 Blue Devils should be a good barometer. Draft Express projects four Duke players to be first-round picks in 2017: No. 3 Jayson Tatum, No. 5 Harry Giles, No. 8 Marques Bolden and No. 25 Grayson Allen. Gulp. But, hey, Florida junior Devin Robinson is slotted as an early second-round pick. Second-year coach Mike White says he wants to get the program back to Billy Donovan-level success, and an upset here would be a big step.
5. Kentucky vs. Michigan State, Nov. 15
The latest installment of the Champions Classic, this time in Madison Square Garden, will be a fun one. The Wildcats signed five 5-star recruits, but they’ll face one that got away, elite freshman forward Miles Bridges, who dropped 33 points in the Spartans’ first exhibition game and is a projected first-round NBA draft pick. After losing Denzel Valentine, Tom Izzo sure is thankful to have edged John Calipari for that guy.
4. Arizona vs. Texas A&M, Dec. 17
The Holiday Shootout in Houston could be exactly that. The Wildcats have athletic, 5-star freshman guards Kobi Simmons and Rawle Alkins, and the Aggies feature one of the best big men in the country, sophomore center Tyler Davis. Neither side has a great answer for the other’s strength. But can A&M overcome losing its entire backcourt from a co-SEC champion, Sweet 16 team?
3. Kentucky vs. North Carolina, Dec. 17
Thanks to the CBS Sports Classic, we get to see two traditional powerhouses with 13 combined national titles collide in Las Vegas. The Tar Heels won five in a row against the Wildcats before John Calipari came to town. Now Kentucky has won four of six, including in the 2011 Elite Eight. UNC is coming off a national title-game appearance and has veteran stars in Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks to challenge the kiddie Cats.
2. Kentucky at Louisville, Dec. 21
Arguably the best rivalry in college basketball (sorry, Duke-UNC) should provide another terrific battle. The Wildcats are No. 4 and Cardinals No. 9 in KenPom’s preseason rankings. Incredibly, John Calipari is 8-1 at Kentucky against Rick Pitino, though all but one of the meetings have been decided by single digits, five by seven points or fewer. The fact the Cats beat the Cardinals in the 2012 Final Four and in the 2014 Sweet 16 cranked up the intensity in this rivalry.
1. Kansas at Kentucky, Jan. 28
The Wildcats lost an overtime thriller at The Phog in last season’s Big 12/SEC Challenge. Now Kentucky gets a chance to return the favor at Rupp Arena. Any time we get two bluebloods – and Final Four contenders with three projected first-round picks apiece – in a home-and-home, it’s a treat to be celebrated. The Cats’ last national championship came with a win over the Jayhawks in the 2012 title game.
SEC’S TOUGHEST NON-CONFERENCE SCHEDULES
(Teams facing at least four top-50 teams in KenPom.com ratings)
Kentucky – No. 3 Kansas, No. 5 North Carolina, No. 9 Louisville, No. 14 Michigan State, No. 21 UCLA
Tennessee – No. 5 North Carolina, No. 8 Wisconsin, No. 22 Gonzaga, No. 44 Kansas State
Florida – No. 1 Duke, No. 27 Oklahoma, No. 38 Seton Hall, No. 40 Florida State
Alabama – No. 6 Oregon, No. 23 Clemson, No. 37 Dayton, No. 45 Texas
South Carolina – No. 12 Syracuse, No. 23 Clemson, No. 31 Michigan, No. 38 Seton Hall
Vanderbilt – No. 19 Butler, No. 26 Iowa State, No. 37 Dayton, No. 47 Marquette.