Kentucky coach John Calipari purposely avoided playing in the Phil Knight Invitational or scheduling a grueling path for his young team early this season, instead choosing a slower path of development.
That’s about to change before the start of SEC play.
After a game against Monmouth in Madison Square Garden on Saturday, the Wildcats enter a three-game stretch against Virginia Tech, UCLA and Louisville, who are arguably the toughest three opponents so far this season not named Kansas.
Kentucky then hosts Georgia on Dec. 31 to begin league play.
“We’ve got this weekend on the road and then we’ve got four games. Bam, bam, bam,” Calipari said. “Just believe me, you could go 0-4 in that stretch of games, easy.”
That’s a bit of a stretch, and the young Wildcats should benefit from additional practice time.
After playing seven games in 17 days to open the season, Kentucky only plays each of the next three Saturdays until it hosts Louisville on Dec. 29.
“This has been a grind,” Calipari said.
Missouri hanging on
Expectations surrounding Missouri took a drastic turn less than two weeks into the season when top player Michael Porter Jr. underwent what is expected to be season-ending back surgery.
But the Tigers, under first-year coach Cuonzo Martin, have so far shrugged off the loss and started the season with seven wins in nine games.
Kassius Robertson (14.6 points, 3.0 assists) and Jordan Barnett (12.7 points, 5.7 rebounds) have elevated their efforts as part of the strong start, which includes a 62-59 victory at UCF on Nov. 30.
That win should inspire confidence early and could look especially good next March.
“It’s a very unselfish team, without a doubt,” Martin said after a win over Miami (Ohio) on Tuesday. “You have 17 turnovers and 17 assists. We don’t have questions about guys being selfish, it’s making the right decisions.”
Turnovers have been a thorny problem for the Tigers so far. Missouri is averaging 15.8 turnovers per game, which is tied for 281st nationally.
Porter, who was rated the No. 2 high school prospect in the Class of 2017 behind Duke’s Marvin Bagley III, likely could have helped make up for some careless mistakes.
Without him, Missouri needs to play as clean as possible to build on its early season success.
Auburn without top players
The FBI investigation that leveled college basketball continues to be felt at Auburn.
Top players Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy have yet to play a game for the Tigers this season as the program waits for a resolution regarding their eligibility.
Purifoy averaged 11.5 points per game last season, which was second on the team. Wiley was fourth at 8.8 points per game; both players pulled down 4.7 rebounds per game.
“I really feel bad for the kids,” Tigers coach Bruce Pearl said. “That’s not just speak, that’s the truth. It breaks my heart to not see those guys out there, but it’s a process we have to go through.”
It’s unclear what the timetable to return is for Wiley and Purifoy, who are entangled in a far-reaching investigation that could have consequences around the country.
Auburn fired associated head coach Chuck Person after he was indicted on federal bribery, conspiracy and fraud charges.
Bulldogs needs a challenge
Off to a 7-0 start for the first time since winning its first 13 games during the 2003-04 season, Mississippi State has plenty of reasons to feel good about itself. Strength of schedule is not one of them.
College basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy ranks the Bulldogs’ schedule as the 346th-toughest out of 351 teams across the country so far this season.
With wins over teams such as Alabama State and North Dakota State, Mississippi State has taken advantage of lesser competition.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Bulldogs coach Ben Howland said.
Phillip Heilman: (904) 359-4063