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Non-conference schedule fits perfectly with Calipari's priorities

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The 2013-14 season will be John Calipari's fourth as Kentucky head coach. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) The 2013-14 season will be John Calipari's fourth as Kentucky head coach. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Every coach in America has a theory when it comes to scheduling. It's typically based on the nature of his program, the quality of the team he expects to return and a number of other factors.

As you'd expect, John Calipari has undergone quite the evolution over the years.

At Massachusetts and Memphis, he was tasked with rebuilding programs and scheduled as such. Whenever there was an opportunity to play on television, he took it, regardless of the time, place or opponent.

At Kentucky, he needs not worry about national exposure - that will take care of itself. Instead, Coach Cal has a primary goal in mind when seeking out non-conference opponents: getting his team ready for the NCAA Tournament.

With UK's 2013-14 out-of-conference slate now complete and released on Wednesday, Calipari seems to have exactly the kind of schedule to do just that.

It starts with the handful of marquee matchups that dot the schedule.

Games with Michigan State, North Carolina and Louisville await the Wildcats. In addition to facing Michigan State in Chicago's United Center as part of the State Farm Champions Classic, UK will take on Providence and Baylor at neutral sites, the second of which will be at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Every year, Calipari seeks to expose his team to the kind of domed stadium that hosts the latter rounds of the NCAA Tournament. This year, the Wildcats will do one better and take the floor in the building where the Final Four will be played.

This year's schedule - which will be finalized when the Southeastern Conference sets UK's 18-game schedule - is notable for more than just its marquee matchups.

In scheduling opponents from "mid-major" conferences, Calipari looks for teams that will contend for their leagues' automatic bids, and it appears he's found them. Of UK's eight opponents from outside the historic BCS conferences, six finished fourth or better in 2012-13 regular-season play and two finished first.

One of those is very familiar to the Wildcats.

After ending UK's season barely a month ago in the NIT, Robert Morris will come to Rupp Arena in the Keightley Classic - an event named after legendary equipment manager Bill Keightley. UK will also play host to Texas-Arlington, Cleveland State and Eastern Michigan as part of the inaugural event, but the game against the Colonials on Nov. 17 will draw the headlines.

But as anticipated as the opportunity for revenge against Robert Morris will be, two games against NCAA Tournament teams could make for the most compelling on-the-floor matchups with non-BCS opponents.

Within 11 days in December, Boise State (Dec. 10) and Belmont (Dec. 21) will come to Rupp Arena. Boise State - returning all but one member of last year's team that received an at-large bid - will be pushing for a preseason ranking in the fall, while Belmont will seek its seventh NCAA Tournament berth in nine years.

Comparing next season's schedule with the one from last year, it looks mostly the same on its face. North Carolina is back, but the mix of big names, neutral-site games and a true road game or two remains.

The difference, at least in theory, comes in the games against teams from non-power conferences.

When UK found itself on the bubble this season, its resume was weighed down by a mediocre strength of schedule. The average RPI of those eight opponents was 214.0 in 2012-13. Things obviously change from year to year, but UK's eight mid-major opponents this upcoming year had an average RPI of more than 60 spots higher.

The best comparison for the 2013-14 schedule is the one from two seasons ago.

That year, the Wildcats played three neutral-site games and one true road game against a perennial power (Indiana). Next year, UK will do exactly the same, trading North Carolina out for the Hoosiers. The Cats also played two Final Four teams that seasons (Kansas and Louisville) and another Elite Eight squad (UNC) in non-conference play and it wouldn't be a surprise for history to repeat itself with Michigan State, North Carolina and Louisville all potentially ranked top 10 in the preseason.

Considering UK won a title playing that schedule in 2011-12, that's likely no coincidence.

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