NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Gonzaga

Kentucky opens up the 2023-24 season on Nov. 6 at home against New Mexico State and plays another game in Lexington, Kentucky, later that week against Texas A&M-Commerce before the real fun begins. The Wildcats will play in one of two marquee matchups (vs. Kansas) in a double-header at the State Farm Champions Classic during the opening month of the season; Duke vs. Michigan State is the other. 

The Wildcats' other big nonconference test in November is a matchup with Miami, a Final Four participant from last spring. The Hurricanes fell one game short of reaching the national championship after losing to eventual champions UConn

Despite only reaching the Round of 32 last season, the exceptions for John Calipari's program remain high. Kentucky welcomes to campus the No. 1 recruiting class from the 2023 cycle, which includes former blue chips Justin Edwards, Aaron Bradshaw, DJ Wagner and Rob Dillingham. Bradshaw, who ranked as the No. 5 overall player in his class and the top-ranked center, has an uncertain status heading into the season because of a foot injury suffered in the offseason. 

Here are the top five Kentucky nonconference games to watch for this season.

1. Kansas

When: Nov. 14, 2023 Where: United Center (Chicago, Illinois)

Kansas is likely going to start the season as the No. 1 team in the country, so this game will provide a valuable test for both sides. The Jayhawks got the No. 1 transfer available in former Michigan center Hunter Dickinson over the offseason. Kansas has a deep roster filled with both youth and experience, and playing this game in the first week of the season should draw massive hype. Kentucky leads the all-time series 24-11. The last matchup between these two blue-blood programs came earlier this calendar year when the Jayhawks went on the road and beat the Wildcats. 

2. Gonzaga 

When: Feb. 10, 2024 Where: Rupp Arena (Lexington, Kentucky)

Last year, Gonzaga and Kentucky signed a six-year series contract that will feature two games each at home sites along with two neutral-site games. After Gonzaga recorded a blowout win over Kentucky last fall in Spokane, the series will head to Lexington. The Zags will look much different than last season following the departures of Drew Timme and Julian Strawther to the NBA. However, Gonzaga also had a huge pickup in the transfer portal by snagging former Creighton guard Ryan Nembhard. He will play next to returning guard Nolan Hickman to provide a versatile backcourt. 

3. North Carolina

When: Dec. 16, 2023 Where: State Farm Arena (Atlanta, Georgia)

Another matchup between blue bloods at the end of the calendar year should provide fireworks. The Tar Heels are coming off one of the most disappointing seasons in modern college basketball history after failing to meet massive preseason expectations. North Carolina started last season as the No. 1 team in the country but missed the NCAA Tournament entirely despite brining back a majority of its Final Four roster from 2022. Star big man Armando Bacot returns to the fold, while Cormac Ryan and Harrison Ingram were brought in through the transfer portal. 

4. Miami

When: Nov. 28, 2023 Where: Rupp Arena (Lexington, Kentucky)

The Wildcats have the benefit of playing two massive nonconference games at home. Miami reached the Final Four after an incredible NCAA Tournament run and should be a contender in the ACC this season. The Hurricanes return three starters (Nijel Pack, Norchad Omier and Wooga Poplar) but lost stars Isaiah Wong and Jordan Miller to the NBA Draft. Miami went into the transfer portal and added former Florida State forward Matthew Cleveland. He should be an impact starter from Day 1.

5. Louisville

When: Dec. 21, 2023 Where: KFC Yum! Center (Louisville, Kentucky)

Kentucky vs. Louisville is one of the best rivalries in college basketball and pretty much the sole reason why it's on this list. Louisville was one of the worst Division l basketball teams in the country under coach Kenny Payne last season and don't appear to be close to making a massive jump. Trentyn Flowers, one of the Cardinals' top recruits from the 2023 cycle, left the program last month to play in the Australian Basketball League. Even if Louisville is as bad as last season, there's no denying this is one of the most entertaining games of the entire college basketball slate.