In November and December, Big Blue Nation struggles more than other blue blood programs.
Kentucky consistently starts more freshmen than any other program in the nation. It’s been this way since John Calipari arrived seven years ago and instituted a philosophy which embraces the “one and done” m.o. of so many of today’s high school prep stars who have designs on NBA riches and fame.
Playing this many Kentucky freshmen has, for the most part, panned out well on the backend of seasons. In the Calipari era, Kentucky has gone to four Four Finals and won a championship. But freshmen, no matter how gifted, take time to gell. And so, on the front end of seasons, Kentucky underperforms relative to nation’s other best programs.
That is, since 2011-12, Kentucky has “only” won 61.3% of its November/December matchups against non conference, Power 5 opponents. That’s at the bottom of the recent best of the best, as you can see below.
Duke: 20-6 (.769)
Villanova 15-5 (.750)
Kansas: 24-9 (.727)
North Carolina: 17-10 (.630)
Kentucky: 19-12 (0.613)
Below is a breakdown of each program’s season-by-season records. All data is taken from sports-reference.com.
Kentucky In Non-Conference Early Season Games vs. Other Power 5 Conferences
Kansas in Non-Conference Early Season Games vs. Other Power 5 Conferences
North Carolina in Non-Conference Early Season Games vs. Other Power 5 Conferences
Duke in Non-Conference Early Season Games vs. Other Power 5 Conferences
Villanova in Non-Conference Early Season Games vs. Other Power 5 Conferences
Kentucky’s early-season struggles have hurt the SEC’s overall cachet as a basketball conference. Consider Kentucky has been the league’s marquee program these last six years, while other SEC programs don’t play nearly as many high-profile early-season games. If Kentucky struggles to rack up significant wins pre-conference, because it more often loses head-to-head matchups with the titans of other conferences, then few other SEC teams have schedules which give them a chance to make up the difference.
So, the SEC’s strength of schedule ratings as a conference (relative to other conferences around the nation) suffers. This is one factor in the reason the SEC might have been underrated as a basketball conference until this March Madness, when three SEC teams broke into the Elite Eight for the first time since 1986.
Look for SEC programs to raise the number of their high-profile early-season games soon. The league office has mandated that in the coming years each program must play non conference opponents with a three-year RPI average of 150 or above.