UK basketball notebook: Weak home schedule, higher ticket prices not turning away Cats fans

Herald-Leader Staff WriterDecember 29, 2012 

UK Fans show their spirit at the UK v. Marshall game on Saturday, December 22nd, 2012 at Rupp Arena in Lexington, KY. Photo by Katie Decker.

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Higher prices. Poorer product.

That's a sales pitch sure to discourage customers. Yet despite mediocre competition this season, Kentucky still comes close to filling Rupp Arena for every home game.

"Because it's Kentucky basketball and it's in our genes," Ann Mitchell said from her lower arena seat the day UK routed (yawn) Lipscomb.

Mitchell, 81, should know. She said she's been watching basketball games since Wallace "Wah Wah" Jones played in the Sweet Sixteen. So she knows a so-called guarantee game when she sees one.

"The schedule is the pits," she said.

Kentucky's pre-conference home schedule ends (mercifully?) with a game Wednesday against Eastern Michigan. As of Friday, Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com gave Eastern Michigan a Ratings Percentage Index of No. 186. That makes the Eagles the third-best home opponent for UK in the pre-conference portion of the schedule.

Earlier, the Cats played Lafayette (No. 295), Morehead State (No. 190), LIU-Brooklyn (No. 245), Baylor (No. 43), Samford (No. 328), Portland (No. 206), Lipscomb (No. 148) and Marshall (No. 222).

Of course, UK fans are paying more for the privilege of watching what a smiling Mitchell called "financially supported practices."

UK raised prices by $5 per seat per game in the season-ticket package this season. Single-game ticket prices rose from $35 to $42 (upper arena) and from $40 to $50 (lower arena).

UK also raised the K Fund donation accompanying 6,689 of the 7,081 seats tied to such contributions. Increases ranged from $50 to $400 a seat.

Saying she'd reached the age when she no longer needed to be "politically correct," Mitchell said, "I think it's highway robbery."

Her friend in the next seat, Frances Saindon, went to UK to complain. Saindon, 85, is the daughter of L.J. Horlacher, a former associate dean of UK's school of agriculture. She wanted UK officials to know that higher prices — this season marked the second increase in the past three years — is a burden for senior citizens on a fixed income.

What response did she get from UK?

"I just felt it went in one ear and out the other," Saindon said.

UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart was not available for comment. In the past, he has reminded reporters that basketball revenue helps support all athletic teams. He's cited ever-rising costs for such staples as scholarships, travel and maintenance. He's noted how several Southeastern Conference athletic departments raise and spend much more money than Kentucky.

But surely the timing for a ticket price increase could have been better.

Not every fan feels short-changed by this season's non-conference home schedule. Of the seven fans approached before recent games, five accepted the combination of higher prices and weaker opponents as the way of the college athletics world.

Sharon Whitlock of Scott County noted UK Coach John Calipari as a factor. "When you have a coach as good as Cal, you have to expect to pay a little more," she said.

Travis Hollowell, a Florence native and student at Eastern Kentucky, cited Calipari's winning record and recruitment of standout players. "As far as a price increase, I don't think it matters," he said. "It's almost like coming here and watching the NBA. I think (fans) are willing to pay about anything to watch this."

Then, Hollowell added, "It would be nice to get more competition." He said he missed seeing UK play Indiana in Rupp Arena this season.

So did Ronald Stallins of Dawson Springs. But like Hollowell, he accepted the higher prices.

"You're No. 1," he said. "You have to pay No. 1 prices."

When reminded that Kentucky was not No. 1 nor even in the top 25, Stallins parried well, "They're still national champions," he said. "And we've got the No. 1 coach."

Many fans must agree. UK's average home attendance is 22,346. That's better than Syracuse (19,465), Louisville (20,416) or North Carolina (17,075) going into this weekend's games.

But why? Why do fans fill Rupp Arena to see humdrum basketball? And pay higher prices?

"Whatever the price is, they're going to pay," Stallins said. "It's like gas. They got to have it."

By Mitchell's reckoning, UK knows it has leverage in this exercise in supply and demand.

"It's intimidating," she said. "If you don't pay, you'll lose your ticket. It's blackmail."

Saindon, the senior citizen who went to UK to protest, admitted that she'll comply with future price increases,

"I'll probably pay," she said between licks of an ice cream cone, "but not happily."

Out of bounds?

Reader Dennis Hancock objected to UK Coach John Calipari joining a number of colleagues in publicly reacting to the mass murder in a Connecticut elementary school earlier this month. Calipari questioned the need for assault weapons and suggested there be a sober examination of why such shooting sprees happen in this country and how they can be stopped.

Hancock, a retired military officer, did not think coaches like Jim Boeheim (Syracuse), Pat Kelsey (Winthrop) and Calipari should leave the realm of basketball.

"There is no doubt Coach Cal is liberal — he supported Obama for re-election," Hancock wrote in an email. "He is big friends with the liberal A list ... OK, that is his personal choice. But he needs to keep his choices and opinions to himself. If you think his liberalism goes unnoticed, you are woefully wrong. Our coach has to be one of us, and we are not liberals. ...

"His opinion will not sway a single person for the gun control movement or other political issues, and hearing them will just alienate basketball fans. ...

"We cherish our Second Amendment rights even more than national championships, so Cal does not need to be talking about a ban on assault rifles."

On the other hand ...

Syndicated columnist Donald Kaul addressed gun control last week. He did not mention the reaction of coaches, but he offered full-throated support for the idea of limiting access to guns.

"Our main concern is not offending the NRA's sensibilities," Kaul wrote. "That's obscene. Here, then is my 'madder-than-hell-and-I'm-not-going-to-take-it-anymore' program for ending gun violence in America:

"Repeal the Second Amendment, the part about guns anyway. It's badly written, confusing and more trouble than it's worth. It offers an absolute right to gun ownership, but it puts it in the context of the need for a 'well regulated militia.' We don't make our militia bring their own guns to battles. And surely the Founders couldn't have envisioned weapons like those used in the Newtown shooting when they guaranteed gun rights. Owning a gun should be a privilege, not a right.

"Declare the NRA a terrorist organization and make membership illegal. Hey! We did it to the Communist Party and the NRA has led to the deaths of more of us than American Commies ever did. (I would also raze the organization's headquarters, clear the rubble, and salt the earth, but that's optional.) Make ownership of unlicensed assault rifles a felony. If some people refuse to give up their guns, that 'prying the guns from their cold, dead hands' thing works for me."

Big games

With Kentucky playing at Louisville at the end of last week, here's a few thoughts former UK players shared about being in big games:

■ Rupp Runt Larry Conley noted how big games affected each player differently.

"I always enjoyed playing good clubs," he said. "It was the challenge. I didn't like playing teams we'd beat by 25 or 30 points."

It wasn't the chance to beat a rival that excited Conley as much as the battle of wits.

"These guys are good at this and this, and we have to do this and this to stop them," he said of the big game appeal. "I was more analytical about the game than (caught up in) the passion of the game."

■ The magnitude of the big game can drown out the coach's instruction.

"The moment you walk out of the (timeout) huddle, you forget everything he said," Conley said.

The exception: the coaching mantra to play defense and rebound.

Kyle Macy noted how he enjoys watching big games to see how players react to big games. Some players can become passive.

How does a coach "fix" a passive player?

"You sit him down for about two minutes," Macy said with a laugh.

To watch UK-U of L, Macy had to record the game. He was working the Presbyterian-South Carolina game Saturday as a TV commentator.

Hair today

Nerlens Noel and his brothers sport distinctive haircuts.

His high-top fade serves as Noel's trademark and makes him easy to spot in a gym full of players.

Louisville wing Wayne Blackshear recalled playing against Noel on the AAU circuit.

"(Noel) wasn't on the national scene like he is now back then," Blackshear said. "But he kind of blossomed into a great player."

Did Noel have the same haircut then?

"Actually, he did," Blackshear said while laughing.

Older brothers Jim and Rodman Noel also make their mark in terms of hair styles.

Jim, a defensive back at Boston College, has a mohawk. Or as Rodman said, "He's always rockin' the mohawk."

Speaking of distinctive haircuts, Rodman is named after former NBA free spirit Dennis Rodman.

But Rodman Noel wears his hair in a more conventional style. "I think I'm a regular guy at the end of the day," he said.

Fear

Charlotte Bobcats Coach Mike Dunlap agreed with John Calipari's recent comment about fear of failure motivating athletes. Calipari had cited Bobcats rookie (and ex-Cat) Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as an example.

"He comes in early every day and puts up extra shots and watches film," Dunlap said of MKG in an interview with The Charlotte Observer. "He's great in the locker room, and that's not something'' the public sees.

Kidd-Gilchrist, 19, is the youngest player in the NBA this season. Dunlap said he's particularly impressed with MKG's "unbelievable discipline."

Winning streaks

The loss to Baylor snapped Kentucky's home winning streak at 55 games, which had been the nation's longest active streak.

Heading into this weekend, Syracuse claimed the longest active streak, having won 29 straight going into Saturday's game against Alcorn State.

Kansas had the second-longest streak: 28, going into Saturday's game against American U.

Happy birthday

To Eloy Vargas. He turns 24 Sunday. ... To Irving Thomas. He turns 47 on Wednesday. ... To Travis Ford. He turned 43 on Saturday. ... To Aminu Timberlake. He turns 40 on New Year's Day. ... To Kansas Coach Bill Self. He turned 50 on Thursday. ... To former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson. He turned 71 on Thursday.

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Email: jtipton@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com

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