UK basketball notebook: Cats enjoy schedule quirks

Being an ESPN darling gives UK edge in SEC

Herald-Leader Staff WriterFebruary 6, 2011 

Vanderbilt Florida Basketball

Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings figures Kentucky is fortunate not to have to play two SEC games in three days.

PHIL SANDLIN — AP

When Tennessee plays at Kentucky on Tuesday, it will be the Vols' third game in six days. It will be UK's second game in seven days.

Such is the price the Southeastern Conference is willing to pay to get the kind of exposure only ESPN can offer.

As John F. Kennedy noted, life isn't fair. Well, neither is college basketball scheduling. An SEC coach may occasionally point out an inequity, but then we all move on.

Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings had reason to complain on Monday's SEC teleconference. His Commodores won a taut struggle at Mississippi State on Jan. 27. Then less than 48 hours later, Vandy got blasted at home by Arkansas, which hadn't won on an opponent's court all season.

"It's just something everybody in the league — except for Kentucky — has to do," Stallings said when asked if the two-games-in-three-days schedule contributed to the loss to Arkansas.

Actually, Kentucky is not alone in avoiding games on a Thursday and Saturday of the same week this season. That's also true of South Carolina, Louisiana State and Arkansas.

But, make no mistake, it's good to be Kentucky.

As Nick Dawson, ESPN's director of programming and acquisitions, explained last week, his network puts a priority on its so-called Super Tuesday lineup of SEC games. Because Kentucky is Kentucky, it gets a number of these games. And because the SEC does not want any team playing on a Tuesday and Thursday of the same week, UK avoids Thursday games. So no Thursday-Saturday games for the Cats.

"The Tuesday franchise is kind of the premier SEC franchise," Dawson said. "Like the SEC Game of the Week priority."

During the summer, ESPN tries to anticipate what SEC teams will be star attractions. Those teams get the Tuesday games.

"In a way, you have to earn your way there by being continually successful," Dawson said.

ESPN tries to be mindful of giving all SEC teams a chance to play on Super Tuesday. But ESPN is a business, not a charitable organization.

"We're cognizant of it," Dawson said of trying to spread the Super Tuesday wealth. "Given the scope of the overall deal with the conference, if certain teams are not on Tuesday a number of times, we feel they're still getting a lot of exposure."

With ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN3, ESPNU and ESPN's syndication deal with stations throughout the Southeast, all SEC teams can be seen on television.

The better your program, the better chance you have of moving up the television food chain.

"I think everybody understands the more successful your program, the better exposure you're going to get from a TV perspective," Dawson said. "That just comes with the realm of it."

After fixing its Super Tuesday lineup and setting matchups for Gameday visits for the league, ESPN delegates more of the decision-making to the SEC for the rest of the schedule of televised games.

ESPN is sensitive to the dictates of television forcing teams to play on Thursday and Saturday of the same week. In the two seasons of the ESPN-SEC deal, Kentucky has had to play two games in three days only once. It happened last season, with the Cats beating South Carolina at home and then losing at Tennessee.

Overall in the SEC, it happened 21 times last season. Teams playing a second game in three days won 14 of the 21 games.

This season, SEC teams playing two games in three days had a 2-3 record in that second game heading into this weekend's action.

While Kentucky has been in the situation only once, UK has been the beneficiary on the other end of that made-for-TV scheduling quirk. Last season, UK won all four games against teams playing the Cats in a second game in three days.

It could happen two more times this season: at Vanderbilt next weekend (the Commodores play at home against Alabama on Thursday) and at home Feb. 26 against Florida (which plays Georgia in Gainesville two days earlier).

Rarer still, SEC teams also face the possibility of playing three games in six days. That means games on Thursday and Saturday of one week, then a game on Tuesday of the following week.

That happened five times last season, with the teams winning two and losing three of those third games. Again, Kentucky was a beneficiary, never having to play three games in six days but being the opponent in those third games twice. UK went 2-0 in those games, beating Alabama and Mississippi State.

Tennessee on Tuesday will be Kentucky's only chance to feast on such a potentially tired opponent this season.

"We honestly want to avoid that 100 percent of the time," Dawson said of the three games in six days. "It's not ideal. We recognize that."

Host salutes Gray

UK officials surely have their collective heart set on a new arena. If only they could pay for a new arena; but they can't.

Presumably, UK officials were not happy with Lexington Mayor Jim Gray's recent call to study how Rupp Arena might be renovated to meet UK's need (or mere wish) for a new home court.

Lexington Center Corp., the entity that runs Rupp and the adjoining Lexington Civic Center, might not be happy either. A renovation would kill the idea of converting Rupp Arena into part of a larger project that includes an expanded convention facility.But Jim Host, the chairman of the Louisville Arena Authority, saluted Gray for making Rupp Arena's future part of his first State of the Merged Government address.

After acknowledging that he'd received a few calls telling him a renovation of Rupp Arena was not feasible, Host said, "Look, at least the mayor got the subject out in the public."

Host said that UK and Lexington Center Corp. need to be involved in discussions of how to proceed. But the time to discuss options is now.

"If we wait any longer, the lease is here and gone," Host said.

UK's lease agreement to play in Rupp Arena expires after the 2017-18 season.

"It took us five years from start to finish as far as the Louisville arena is concerned," Host said. "It's time for this thing to move. What I commend the mayor for is saying, 'Let's discuss it.'"

'Walkability'

The inquiring minds among UK fans might ask: If Jim Host likes the retrofit idea so much, why didn't he push for a renovation of Freedom Hall rather than the construction of the KFC Yum Center?

Host said the critical difference was where the existing arenas are located. In Louisville, Freedom Hall is near the airport. It stands practically alone in the concrete wasteland known as the State Fairgrounds.

Meanwhile, Rupp Arena is at the heart of downtown Lexington. In his state of the city address, Gray talked about a vibrant downtown that included something akin to San Antonio's River Walk.

As real estate agents will tell you, location-location-location makes all the difference.

The Louisville Arena Authority had an eye toward attracting NCAA Tournament games or other college championship events.

"You can't get NCAA events, you can't get anything today if it doesn't have 'walkability,'" Host said.

The NCAA wants arenas with nearby shopping, eating and entertainment facilities.

"That's why Indianapolis, Nashville and Memphis are kind of rotating sites in the Midwest," Host said.

With the KFC Yum Center, Louisville made itself a viable option.

A.D. point of view

Arena owned by the local government. University dreaming of a new arena, but also considering a renovation. Financial questions hanging over any option.

In the late 1990s, Dave Hart faced roughly the same situation as UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart does now.

Hart, who once lived in Lexington, was then Florida State's athletics director. Ultimately, FSU and Tallahassee opted for the renovation.

Looking back, Hart has no regrets.

"We thought — in conjunction with our architects — that if we refurbished and did a significant renovation, we would have for all intents and purposes a new building," Hart said.

For $15.1 million, FSU transformed a multipurpose arena that lacked a collegiate feel into a building that gave the Seminoles a home court with a collegiate aura.

The financial considerations do not mirror what UK and Lexington face. In his state of the city speech, new mayor Jim Gray said Lexington would need to reduce its budget by as much as $16 million.

As for Tallahassee in the late 1990s, the city and FSU wanted to take advantage of a robust economy. "You didn't have to be (an economist) to know the times were not going to stay good," Hart said.

Yes, the "retrofitting" of the arena inconvenienced fans and teams. Hart recalled cold air blowing dust in the arena as Florida State played its home games.

Hart, who now works in Alabama's athletic department, saw the renovation as a success both economically and aesthetically.

By the way, Hart lived in Lexington and attended Morton Junior High in the mid-1960s when his father, also named Dave, was an assistant football coach at UK. His father later was A.D. at Louisville and Missouri, and worked in the Southern Conference office.

"To this day, the most painful move," was how Hart described the family leaving Lexington. "I just loved Lexington."

Neither rain nor snow ...

So far, Arkansas fans win the prize for braving the elements to watch their favorite team play.

A storm blanketed northwest Arkansas with between seven and 12 inches of snow early last week. Before the snow, ice already covered part of the landscape. Throw in temperatures that never got much higher than the teens and weather jeopardized the Razorbacks' game with visiting Georgia on Wednesday.

The University of Arkansas canceled classes beginning on Tuesday.

Weather and travel issues delayed Georgia's arrival until 1 p.m. the day of the game. (Has any SEC team in years faced more travel problems than Georgia? In January, a snowstorm forced the Dawgs to bus to a game at Vanderbilt, then stay in Nashville for two days before busing to the next game at Mississippi.)

Arkansas let students in free to the Georgia game. About 3,000 of the 7,000-plus crowd were students.

Georgia looked sluggish in the first half, and Arkansas probably felt it should have had a larger halftime lead than 25-22. Enhancing that feeling was the fact that fouls limited Georgia star Trey Thompkins to just four minutes in the first half. Georgia won 60-59.

Before the game, Arkansas Coach John Pelphrey went to the student section and thanked them for coming. He also spoke highly of the fans in his post-game news conference.

4.0

Assuming Brandon Knight achieved a 4.0 grade-point average in the fall semester, similar congratulations should go to fellow guard Jarrod Polson.

His father, George Polson, said the freshman from Jessamine County had a 4.0 in the fall. Polson is a finance major, but he also has an interest in psychology and may consider coaching as a career.

Closing remarks

In a Thursday morning speech before the Lexington Forum, UK trustees Chairman Britt Brockman not only opined that the new university president had to be someone who thoroughly understood college athletics, but also offered the observation that the basketball team "needs to learn to finish in the last 60 seconds."

Happy birthday

To UK Coach John Calipari. He turns 52 on Thursday.

Jerry Tipton covers UK basketball for the Herald-Leader. This article contains his opinions and observations. Reach him at jtipton@herald-leader.com.

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