Kentucky basketball on Monday released its non-conference schedule for the upcoming 2021-22 season and it’s jam-packed with goodies. Among the headline games on the slate include a season-opener against Duke in the Champions Classic, a potentially epic road showdown against Kansas scheduled for Jan. 29 inside Allen Fieldhouse and a homecoming game for championship-winning coach Tubby Smith.
The Kentucky program plans to honor Smith, who coached the Wildcats from 1997-2007 and won a title with them in 1998, during the homecoming tilt on New Year’s Eve. Smith is one of several former UK coaches who will face off against John Calipari’s program in the non-conference slate along with Central Michigan and its head coach, Tony Barbee, as well as Southern and its head coach, Sean Woods.
Here is Kentucky’s nonconference schedule in full:
Nov. 9: vs. Duke (State Farm Champions Classic in New York)
Nov. 12: Robert Morris
Nov. 16: Mount St. Mary’s
Nov. 19: Ohio
Nov. 22: Albany
Nov. 26: North Florida
Nov. 29: Central Michigan
Dec. 7: Southern
Dec. 11: at Notre Dame
Dec. 18: vs. Ohio State (CBS Sports Classic in Las Vegas)
Dec. 22: Louisville
Dec. 31: High Point
Jan. 29: at Kansas (Big 12/SEC Challenge)
And here are the top five best non-SEC games — ranked in order of the most appealing — decided by yours truly.
1. vs. Duke
Nov. 9: Champions Classic in New York
Early Top 25 And 1 ranking: No. 8
An epic way to ring in the new season. Duke, entering its final season under Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski, faces off against John Calipari and Kentucky potentially one final time to open up the 2021-22 campaign. Both teams are top-15 in Gary Parrish’s latest CBS Sports Top 25 (and one) with the Blue Devils — led by a pair of potential top-five picks — likely entering this showdown inside Madison Square Garden as a slight favorite.
2. at Kansas
Jan. 29: Big 12/ SEC Challenge in Lawrence, Kansas
Early Top 25 And 1 ranking: No. 4
Nearly six years ago to the date that Kentucky and Kansas played an overtime thriller in Lawrence (on Jan. 30, 2016), Kentucky returns to the same hallowed grounds seeking some revenge. The Jayhawks won that one 90-84 and have won three of the last four matchups against UK since then. Like Kentucky, Kansas has an overhauled roster heavy on transfers but should enter the season — like Kentucky — with title hopes. By this time in the schedule we’ll have a good feel about how realistic those chances are and whether this one has potential NCAA Tournament seeding implications on the line.
Dec. 22: in Lexington
Early Top 25 And 1 ranking: Not ranked
The best rivalry in college basketball doesn’t have its usual luster — Louisville likely enters the season unranked and Kentucky may not be a preseason top-10 team — but who are we kidding, really? It’s still Kentucky and Louisville for Bluegrass State bragging rights. Here’s to hoping we get more petty beef in the lead-up to the Dec. 22 matchup between the two coaches like we did last season.
4. vs. Ohio State
Dec. 18: CBS Sports Classic in Las Vegas
Early Top 25 And 1 ranking: No. 18
Ohio State got back one of the best players in the Big Ten when E.J. Liddell opted to return for the season, thrusting the Buckeyes into the mix as a conference title contender and — by extension — a darkhorse to contend in national title race. The team returns six of its top eight scorers from last season’s team that earned a No. 2 seed in the Big Dance and the backdrop to this one — in Las Vegas for the CBS Sports Classic — should be fantastic. Ohio State is 2-0 against UK in the CBS Sports Classic series since its 2014 inception.
5. High Point
Dec. 31: in Lexington
Early Top 25 And 1 ranking: Not ranked
How Kentucky will honor Tubby Smith in this homecoming is still being worked out (maybe they’ll play some MMMBop over the loud speakers at Rupp as a tribute to the late 90s hits UK had under his watch?), but it’s ultimately irrelevant — Smith returning to Rupp is, plain and simple, a wonderful storyline. He was 263-83 as UK’s coach with 10 SEC titles and so properly honoring him — already a UK Athletics Hall of Famer — in his first time as the opposing coach in the building should be a joy to watch.