John Clay: UK, UNC need to keep thriving series alive

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 13, 2013 

Don't go messing around with the North Carolina game.

Kentucky fans have already lost the Indiana game, a historic basketball border war that bit the dust because one side or the other didn't want to play in one venue or the other.

Plus, we live in the sports age of greed, in which historic rivalries have given way to the lure of greenbacks, where more teams join bigger conferences in hopes of cashing bigger paychecks.

Oklahoma doesn't play Nebraska in football anymore. West Virginia doesn't play Pittsburgh. Kansas doesn't play Missouri.

Even the Notre Dame-Michigan football game, which earned college football's fifth-highest television audience this season, goes on hiatus in 2014.

Heaven forbid they do that with the Kentucky-North Carolina basketball series.

After a one-year hiatus of its own, two of the top three college basketball programs with the most wins — UK is No. 1, Kansas No. 2 and North Carolina No. 3 — thankfully take to the floor Saturday at the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill.

The two schools will then play next season in Rupp Arena in the final game of a two-year deal.

After that? Well, as seems to be his preference, Kentucky Coach John Calipari wants to at least add a neutral-site component to the matchup.

Though its finalization has not been formally announced, Calipari has said he's working on another "Champions Classic" that would co-exist with the current setup that includes Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State.

Cal's Classic would include Kentucky, Ohio State, UCLA and North Carolina. Reportedly, UK-UNC would be a home-and-home series except for the years in which the two played in Cal's Classic, which has its eyes on rotating among Brooklyn, Indianapolis and Las Vegas as venues.

That beats eliminating the series altogether, but it would take another marquee opponent off the Rupp Arena season-ticket package, or at least cut back on the number of UNC visits to Lexington.

When asked Friday whether he needed to do anything special to prepare his young team for its first true road game, Calipari emphasized the matchup's royal, historic nature.

"This is Carolina-Kentucky. What do I got to do? I need a Knute Rockne speech?" said the coach. "Think about the players that have gone through there and the players who have gone through here. Think about Frank McGuire and Dean Smith on, from Adolph Rupp on.

"It's craziness. This is why you coach and this why you play, to play in games like this."

Question of Calipari: Can you see playing North Carolina every year as long as you're here?

"Yeah," he said. "It's a good deal. I think both coaches are pretty good with it."

As to who will be best Saturday: North Carolina has two embarrassing losses (Belmont and UAB) and two big wins (Louisville and Michigan State). Kentucky has no embarrassing losses, but no big wins.

In what Calipari called an "unfair game" before the two teams even hit the floor, the young Cats got off to a bad start and lost to Michigan State in Chicago. Then last week, before rows of empty seats at AT&T Stadium, in the midst of a Dallas ice storm, Kentucky folded down the stretch and lost to Baylor.

While disappointing, both defeats were hardly shocking if you had the good sense to tune out the ridiculous hype and focus instead on Kentucky's early-season shortcomings — youth and the fortitude to battle teams that match the Cats' own size and length.

North Carolina is one of those teams that can match the Cats in size and length, if not talent, plus the Heels will be playing at home in front a crowd surely jacked up for (a) a ceremony to honor Dean Smith's Presidential Medal of Freedom and (b) the opponent.

"They're going to be physical" Calipari said. "Guess what? We need it."

Guess what? The fans need it, too. They need Kentucky-North Carolina. We all do.

Keep it going.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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