Kentucky basketball notes: Is UK 'locked into' too many non-conference rivalries?

Coach says schedule is overcrowded with likes of Louisville, North Carolina

jtipton@herald-leader.comDecember 1, 2011 

A possible expansion of Southeastern Conference play could mean a noteworthy contraction of Kentucky's non-conference schedule, UK Coach John Calipari said Wednesday.

Calipari's comments echoed a posting on his Web site Sunday in which UK fans were asked to vote on which marquee early-season series they could live without: Indiana, Louisville or North Carolina.

"Those are learning experiences," Calipari said in supporting the value of such games. "And you can't learn against Popcorn State. You need those kind of games. You just don't need 12 of them."

Calipari mildly objected to the term "traditional" to describe Kentucky's annual games against Indiana, Louisville and North Carolina. "You call them traditional," he said when asked which had a greater priority: Games against IU, U of L and UNC or made-for-TV matchups such as Kentucky playing Kansas in Madison Square Garden last month or Thursday night's Big East-SEC Challenge game against St. John's.

Calipari noted that other top programs did not have many, if any, non-conference rivalries. "I bet you there's not a top-20 program locked into five (non-conference) games," he said. "... I'd be surprised if they're locked into three games every year."

With expansion bringing Texas A&M and Missouri into the league, the SEC is considering how to schedule in the future. A move from 16 to 18 league games seems one of the possibilities. Calipari predicted that Kentucky's reliance on so-called one-and-done players would continue into the foreseeable future, meaning more league games add to the weight freshmen must carry.

Hinting at the unmistakable thrill that comes with top competition, Calipari said, "My job is not to entertain. My job is to keep this program where it is, and not put it at risk."

Calipari also noted that games against top-drawer rivals necessitate return games in their arenas every other season. That means less so-called "guarantee" games in Rupp Arena against patsy opponents. That translates into less potential revenue at a time when SEC Commissioner Mike Slive has supported the idea of paying athletes the "full cost of attendance," which could mean as much as $2,000 per athlete per school year.

"It's not as easy as everyone (says)," Calipari said of scheduling decisions in the future. "(Some say) 'Play 'em all.' You can't play 'em all."

The SEC played 18-game schedules until its expansion from 10 to 12 teams in 1991-92. When UK reluctantly added Louisville to the schedule in 1983-84, the Cats annually played several marquee opponents. UK opened the 1983-84 schedule against Louisville, Indiana and at Kansas. Later opponents included Purdue, Illinois and Hakeem Olajuwon-led Houston.

Although not as dependent on freshmen, Kentucky annually played U of L, Indiana and Kansas through 1985-86, then sprinkled in such opponents as Syracuse, David Robinson-led Navy and North Carolina State.

In Rick Pitino's first two seasons as coach, Kentucky played Indiana, Louisville, Kansas and North Carolina.

Calipari cast doubt on whether such history has any influence on future schedules. When asked if the fans' vote on the Web site poll would have bearing on UK's scheduling decisions, Calipari said, "No."

'Scary game'

Although St. John's has a 4-3 record and is coming off a 14-point loss to Northeastern, Calipari said, "This is a scary game."

He noted that the Red Storm led then-No. 15 Arizona in the second half before losing 81-72.

"They're young, but athletic, and they're active," Calipari said of the Red Storm.

The UK coach noted how St. John's players hustle, dive for loose balls and take charges.

"These guys 'ball,'" Calipari said. "They play. It's a good challenge. Something you have to say, 'Are you going to let them beat you to every 50-50 ball?'"

Name game

St. John's could win a national championship in a name game.

Junior-college transfer God'sgift Achiuwa is the son of Christian ministers in Nigeria. His three brothers are named God'swill, Precious and Patience. His two sisters are named Grace and Peace.

Freshman Sir'Dominic Pointer has a twin sister named Miz'Unique.

Etc.

Dan Shulman, Dick Vitale and sideline reporter Shannon Spake will call the game for ESPN.

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