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Dribble Handoff: Kentucky’s most intriguing game for 2022-23 season as John Calipari’s team seeks redemption

Dribble Handoff: Kentucky's most intriguing game for 2022-23 season as John Calipari's team seeks redemption thumbnail

Kentucky’s 2021-22 season ended in painful fashion, but the Wildcats aren’t backing down from a challenge to begin their 2022-23 campaign. UK officially released its schedule for the upcoming season this week, and it’s highlighted by nonconference games against the likes of Gonzaga, Kansas, Louisivlle, Michigan, Michigan State and UCLA, as well as the usual suspects in the SEC.

As Kentucky seeks redemption for its first-round loss to Saint Peter’s in the Big Dance, 14th-year coach John Calipari and his squad figure to be under the national microscope as much as ever. By the time the 2023 NCAA Tournament rolls around, it will have been four calendar years since the Wildcats have won an game in the Big Dance.

Though the 2020 team had potential prior to the season’s cancellation amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the fact remains that it’s been a while by the program’s standards since the Wildcats enjoyed significant postseason success. Kentucky’s last Final Four came in 2015, and the pressure is on Calipari to recapture the magic of his earlier years on the job.

For this week’s edition of the Dribble Handoff, our writers picked what they believe to be the most intriguing game on Kentucky’s schedule this season.

Gonzaga

The obvious answer is the Nov. 20 game against Gonzaga, considering it’ll be a matchup of the teams ranked No. 1 (Gonzaga) and No. 4 (Kentucky) in the CBS Sports Top 25 And 1 and feature two consensus Preseason All-Americans in the Zags’ Drew Timme and the Wildcats’ Oscar Tshiebwe, the latter of whom is the reigning CBS Sports National Player of the Year.

Would the game be better at The Kennel?

Of course it would.

But Calipari refused to play the Zags in their home arena, agreeing only instead to visit the off-campus and nothing-close-to-the-same Spokane Arena. That’s disappointing for a lot of different reasons — in part because college basketball is just always more interesting and fun in true home-road environments, and because Calipari’s decision robbed the sport of a moment when one of the biggest and best brands would visit one of the smallest and best venues. It’s why I’d stop short of referring to this two-year agreement as a home-and-home series because UK isn’t actually visiting Gonzaga’s home. All of that said, Kentucky vs. Gonzaga anywhere is better than Kentucky vs. Gonzaga nowhere. That’s a fact. So I can’t wait for this pre-Thanksgiving meeting that should be appointment television for college basketball fans even if, broadly speaking, it’ll be overshadowed by a full Sunday of NFL— Gary Parrish

Michigan

I’ve been waiting a long time for this one. On Dec. 2, UK will play Michigan in London at O2 Arena. (By the way, Marist vs. Maine is the undercard for this Basketball Hall of Fame London Showcase.) This Wildcats-Wolverines matchup has been postponed the past two seasons on account of the pandemic. Thankfully, we’re finally getting it. And not only could/should the game be a tilt between ranked teams, it will also give us Tshiebwe vs. Hunter Dickinson. The reigning NPOY is going to have a number of tests against All American-level bigs this season — and Dickinson will be a fun challenge. 

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These are not only two of the top 15 jobs in the sport, they’re historically also two of the 15 most successful programs in college basketball history. Yet, Kentucky and Michigan have faced off just six times, according to Basketball Reference. The most recent game was a regional final in 2014, when Aaron Harrison famously sank a 3-pointer to send UK to the Final Four. Before that? Kentucky and Michigan last squared off in the ’93 Final Four. And prior to that, you’d have to go back to the early 1970s. 

So it’s great to see two of the biggest attractions in college hoops patiently but diligently making sure this game happens. Best of all: this is a three-part series. The next two in the coming years will be played where they should be: at Kentucky and Michigan’s home barns. — Matt Norlander

Michigan State

Easy pick for me here. Michigan State is the only matchup on the nonconference slate for UK that features an active Hall of Fame coach on one side (Calipari) and an active Hall of Fame coach on the other (Tom Izzo).

Need I say more? 

Probably not.

Beyond the obvious tactical brilliance on the sidelines, the rosters of both teams this season should be lined with talent. Kentucky’s is pretty well known, of course; Cason Wallace and Chris Livingston were five-star signees, and Antonio Reeves seems like a hit out of the transfer portal. Michigan State’s cupboard is far from bare, though; despite losing its top three scorers, it has a host of vets. Malik Hall, Tyson Walker and Joey Hauser seem to have the experience and smarts that embody all the hallmarks of good Izzo teams of the past.

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As further intriguing background that makes this series No. 1 on my list, Kentucky has won the last two matchups against Sparty. In fact, Izzo has not downed Calipari since 2013 and is 1-2 vs. the Wildcats since Cal took the reins. Izzo might have the inferior talent here, but this being a neutral site game for the Champions Classic, combined with his recent struggles vs. Cal, you know this game will be appointment viewing. — Kyle Boone

UCLA

Kentucky and UCLA haven’t played since 2017, which means this will be the first meeting between the teams since Mick Cronin took over as coach of the Bruins. Cronin and John Calipari have met just once before, when the Wildcats beat Cronin’s Cincinnati’s squad in the second round of the 2015 NCAA Tournament. That Kentucky team, loaded with future NBA talent, spent the entire season ranked No. 1 and stayed unbeaten until a Final Four loss to Wisconsin, while Cronin’s Cincinnati squad didn’t have a single double-digit scorer or any future NBA stars. 

It will be a fairer fight this time as the Bruins return Tyger Campbell and Jaime Jaquez, who are stalwarts of Cronin’s tenure, and bring in a recruiting class featuring three top-50 prospects. In particular, the matchup between freshman guards Amari Bailey (UCLA) and Cason Wallace (Kentucky) should be of interest to fans and NBA scouts alike. The Bruins are losing a pair of veteran bigs in Cody Riley and Myles Johnson from last season’s team, and it will be interesting to see how they try and contain Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe, who is the reigning national player of the year. — David Cobb

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