After a long eight months, UK's basketball season begins tonight. Fans are more anxious than usual to see their teams take the court following the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament in March because of COVID-19’s major landfall in the U.S.
Though the pre-season No. 10 Wildcats originally planned to begin their 2020-21 schedule against Kansas in the annual Champions Classic, the season’s delay – also due to COVID – forced contingency plans into action. The Cats are now starting their season with the “Bluegrass Showcase”: a three-team bubble at Rupp Arena featuring Richmond and Morehead State. Kentucky’s contests will take place in a five-day span (Nov. 25 and 29), ultimately leading into its matchup with the aforementioned Jayhawks on Dec. 1.
The decision to host the bubble with teams from lower-level conferences comes after Kentucky head coach John Calipari emphasized the importance of helping mid-major squads during this strange season.
“We have to make sure that we’re taking care of some of the smaller schools,” he said on a March Madness 365 podcast with the NCAA’s Andy Katz. “[They’re] missing out on buy games, [which] could end their program.”
A number of teams - including Kentucky - have already seen this grim possibility become reality. In addition to the Cats, Tennessee, Baylor, Ole Miss and Duke are just some of the numerous schools tasked with reconfiguring their upcoming slates due to COVID-19.
For the time being, the Coach Cal's crew still has two games on this week's docket. Here’s what Big Blue Nation can expect from its opponents:
The Wildcats are 10-0 all-time in matchups with the in-state Eagles, beating them 92-67 in their last meeting at Rupp Arena in 2017. Morehead State finished 13-9 (7-11 OVC) last year, winning only two home games along the way.
The Eagles lost their powerful senior guard duo of Jordan Walker and Dijmon Henson, who were the only players to average double figures in 2019. Now-sophomore Tyzhaun Claude, who averaged a team-leading 9.5 points and 6.4 rebounds per game while shooting 59.0% from the field last season, will now hold a leadership role.
Senior forward James Baker Jr. is also expected to step up in 2020-2021. A native of Meade County, Baker Jr. played in all 32 of MSU’s games last year. As a junior, he racked up 9.1 points per game along with 4.4 rebounds and 1.3 blocks.
The Eagles are led by head coach Preston Spradlin, who is beginning his fourth season in the driver’s seat. He served in an interim position for the majority of the 2016-17 season after former Wildcat player Sean Woods resigned from the job due to reports of misconduct.
Spradlin worked with UK for five years as a graduate assistant and assistant director of operations before leaving to become an Eagle assistant coach in 2013.
The Cats will take on Morehead State in their season opener on November 25.
Richmond comes from the Atlantic-10 conference, where it competes with recent Kentucky NCAA Tournament foe Davidson, among others. After ending the 2019-20 season with a record of 24-7, the Spiders were planning to return all five of their starters, but guard Nick Sherod is out for the year because of a torn ACL suffered last month. Though Richmond is not featured in the preseason AP Top 25, it did receive 40 votes.
Junior guard Jacob Gilyard is key to the Spider offense. He averaged 12.7 points per game last year, shooting 46.6% from the field and 36.7% from behind-the-arc. He also led his team in steals, snagging 3.2 per game.
Grant Golden paced the Spiders with 6.9 rebounds per game. The graduate student, who is listed as a forward, was one of 20 players named to the watchlist for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award, which is given to the nation’s best center.
The Spiders are led by head coach Chris Mooney, who is the winningest head coach in the school’s history. 2019-2020 was shaping up as one of the program’s best; the sixteenth-year head coach’s team was looking forward to a potential Cinderella NCAA Tournament run before the season was canceled.
Defense is believed to be the calling card for Richmond this year. The expected performance on that end of the court prompted Andy Katz’s to put the Spiders on his list of Final Four “Sleepers” – mid-major teams with the ability to make a surprise Final Four run.
Kentucky will get to see just how talented the Richmond team is when the two round out the bubble on Nov. 29.
**The Wildcats' game with Detroit has been postponed due to a positive COVID test from a staff member in the Detroit program. The schools are working to reschedule for later this season.**
The matchup with the Titans is a special one for Coach Cal. His son, former Wildcat Brad Calipari, transferred to Detroit after spending three years with his dad in Lexington. Calipari earned six starts in 2019-2020, leading his team in three-point shooting (38.0 %) and free throw percentage (70.8).
His teammate, junior guard Antoine Davis, has been a beacon of hope for Detroit fans. Over his first two seasons, he scored 1,513 career points, which ranks 13th in school history.
Named the 2018-2019 Horizon League Freshman of the Year, Davis started in all 30 of Detroit’s games last season, averaging 24.3 points per game on 32.4% shooting from downtown and 90.1% at the free-throw line. The two-time First-Team All-Horizon League player is the son of Titans head coach Mike Davis.
The elder Davis was appointed to Detroit-Mercy’s leading role in 2018. He has been working hard to build the program since that time. Last year, his team finished with eight wins, six of which came in conference play.