Before every home game, including Saturday’s against Kansas, public address announcer Patrick Whitmer will remind the Rupp Arena crowd — in a full-throated way — that Kentucky has “the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball!!!”
Those same words are posted high on the wall behind where UK Coach John Calipari stands during the regular day-before-the-game news conferences.
But vainglorious pronouncements aside, would it be more accurate to say Kentucky has the second-greatest tradition? Or, maybe more accurately still, say Kentucky is among the few elite programs with greater tradition than anyone else?
Kansas could make an argument that it has the greatest tradition or at least is Kentucky’s peer. After all, James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, was KU’s first coach. According to the media guide, Kentucky’s first coach was “unnamed.”
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Another Jayhawks coach, Dr. F.C. “Phog” Allen, was known as the “Father of College basketball.”
Among those who played for Allen were Adolph Rupp and Dean Smith, later to become the iconic coaches at Kentucky and North Carolina, respectively.
“Kansas people would tell you Adolph Rupp was a Jayhawk,” said Bob Davis, longtime radio play-by-play man for Kansas until retiring last year. “Just like Dean Smith was a Jayhawk.
“There is a Kansas influence at Kentucky and North Carolina and all these places. I don’t know if you can say that makes it more prominent. But they’re certainly on the same level and in the same conversation.”
Earlier this month, Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes put Kentucky and Kansas in a category unto themselves.
“At a level beyond most everybody else,” he said. “There are a lot of places that are rabid. But in terms of a big building and selling out every game, I don’t know anybody better than those two programs.”
Jerry Waugh, who played for Allen and later was an assistant coach for Kansas, conceded that with a greater number of victories (2,222 to 2,204) and more national championships (eight to three) Kentucky “may out-rank” Kansas.
“People in Lawrence will probably run me out of town if they knew I was saying that,” said Waugh, who turns 90 on Feb. 12.
When asked which program had the greatest tradition, ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg declined to answer. But he did respond by saying, “Oh man, that’s a no-win question.”
In terms of a home court capturing the essence of the program’s tradition, Allen Fieldhouse gets the nod over Rupp Arena. Allen Fieldhouse was ranked by Athlon Sports in 2014 as the No. 1 college basketball venue.
Calipari began his coaching career at Kansas. A misty, nostalgic expression appeared on his face as he recalled seeing an Allen Fieldhouse shower that must have been 50 years old. “I was thinking, Phog Allen showered in this shower,” he said. “So they had a good shower and this old one. I always went in the old one.”
For Greenberg, Rupp Arena and Allen Fieldhouse are the Affirmed and Alydar of home courts. “As good as Rupp is, and as loud as it’s going to be tomorrow . . . , there’s something about Phog Allen that is pretty special,” he said.
The wooden bleachers, the relative lack of modernity and the on-campus location make a telling difference. “It reeks from tradition,” Greenberg said.
UK’s star freshman point guard, De’Aaron Fox, had to choose between Kentucky and Kansas during the recruiting process. He found much to like at KU as well as UK.
The question about which program truly had the greatest tradition made Fox give up his metaphorical dribble. “Do I have to answer that?” he said with a smile.
Similarly, ESPN college basketball analyst Sean Farnham took a diplomatic position. He said Kentucky and Kansas could each make a credible case of having the greatest tradition.
“It’s really hard to decipher and say this one’s tradition is so much better than that one’s tradition,” Farnham said. “I think they’re both at such an elite level that it would be something that could be debated.”
Then with a nod toward ESPN’s award-winning sports documentary series, Farnham said of a UK-KU debate, “It’s a ‘30 For 30.’”
No. 2 Kansas at No. 4 Kentucky
When: 6:15 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kansas 18-2 (7-1 Big 12), Kentucky 17-3 (7-1 SEC)
Series: Kentucky leads 22-7
Last meeting: Kansas won 90-84 in overtime on Jan. 30, 2016, at Lawrence, Kan.