Last week's Champions Classic doubleheader in Madison Square Garden prompted a logical question: Which is the pre-eminent program? To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, which is the shining program upon the college basketball hill?
Before every Kentucky home game, public address announcer Patrick Whitmer proclaims UK as "the greatest program in the history of college basketball." But is it?
Certainly, Kentucky basketball's standard is pre-eminence. Winning games, even a national championship, serve merely as validation. So while UK fans must submit to simple math: UCLA's run of championships (10 between 1964 and 1975) exceeds anything any other program has done, a fuzzier concept like pre-eminence permits Kentucky to proclaim its superiority over the Bruins. ... and everyone else.
So here's the question proposed last week to four longtime observers of college basketball: Since the John Wooden-led UCLA dynasty ended in 1975, which program sets the standard for excellence? (Ahem, none said Kentucky.)
Seth Davis, Sports Illustrated: He said NCAA Tournament championships are the measuring stick. By that standard, he suggested Duke and North Carolina as co-No. 1s when it comes to pre-eminent programs.
Duke and UNC have each won four national championships since 1975. Kentucky and Indiana each won three.
Davis suggested the standard should not be an unthinking look at what program wins the most national championships.
"Whether those championships were aberrations amidst a bunch of losing seasons, or, somehow, those programs were sullied by NCAA sanctions," he said in setting mitigating circumstances. "Obviously, neither applies here."
Jay Bilas, ESPN: He noted the value of national championships, plus a consistency of winning. All the traditional powers have had at least one losing record since 1975. Of course, UK's came in 1988-89. UNC had one, Kansas two and Duke four.
In his email, Bilas mentioned Duke, UNC, Kentucky, Kansas, Arizona, UConn, Michigan State and Syracuse in the elite category.
Bilas also cited Gonzaga and Butler as overachievers despite more limited resources, and worthy of consideration as top programs.
"At the Olympics, they hand out a gold, silver and bronze," Bilas wrote in downplaying resources as a major factor. "You don't get brownie points for coming from a small country."
Robyn Norwood, former reporter for the Los Angeles Times and past president of the United States Basketball Writers Association: More championship game appearances (nine to Kentucky's four) led her to make Duke the pre-eminent program. She also noted Duke's avoidance of NCAA problems.
"It's about as clean and admirable as college basketball gets," she said.
Norwood suggested that ESPN might give Duke a boost atop the college basketball hill.
"Kentucky and UCLA were the original bluebloods," she said. "But chances are that, thanks in part to ESPN, more people nationally know about 'Coach K' and Cameron Indoor Stadium now than know much about John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Rupp Arena or Pauley Pavilion."
Blair Kerkhoff, Kansas City Star: Because the NCAA Tournament expanded more than once since Wooden's UCLA dynasty, he likened getting to the Final Four as the standard to determine the best program. By that standard, Duke and UNC led the way. UK and Kansas aren't far behind.
"And they all did it with multiple coaches, which, to me, is another sign of program greatness," Kerkhoff wrote in an email. "I look at programs like Connecticut and Arizona as one-coach wonders. Indiana, also, if you measure the Hoosiers in the post-Wooden era."
Kerkhoff's order of top programs was: 1. UNC, 2. Duke, 3. Kentucky, 4. Kansas.
MSG and NYC
Six members of Lexington Mayor Jim Gray's arena district task force toured Madison Square Garden on Tuesday. What they saw convinced one member, builder Ray Ball, and perhaps others that a reinvention of Rupp Arena makes the most sense as UK basketball's future home.
Joel Fisher, Madison Square Garden's vice president for sports and arena transformation, explained what the task force members saw. Maybe most compelling was how MSG's transformation included tearing down an outside wall to a concourse and replacing it with glass. This brings a view of New York City to patrons as they walk down concourses that, in some cases, are three times wider than before the transformation. The change more closely incorporates the Garden to the city.
"We felt it was important to bring light and happiness and an 'up' feeling to the building," Fisher said in a telephone interview. "... A lot of the goal was to bring the energy of New York City (and) to have that all relate to Madison Square Garden, which is a major part of the city. Now, you've got the energy coming through the windows."
On several occasions Gray has noted how glass walls can tie together separate parts of the arts and entertainment district he envisions for downtown Lexington.
Like Lexington, Madison Square Garden planners considered building a new arena. Ultimately, the decision was made to transform the Garden. Not because of financial considerations, Fisher said.
"We felt this building and this location were the absolute best in the world for any facility of this nature," he said. "We're on top of the busiest transportation hub in the world (Penn Station)."
The MSG transformation is done in phases over three off-seasons. This allows the New York Knicks and Rangers to continue playing in the building. This was "crucial" to any plan. Fisher said.
"We never ever considered a plan that would put our teams elsewhere," he said.
Of course, UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart has expressed his hope that Kentucky need not find an interim home if the choice becomes a renovation of Rupp Arena.
Counting its theater, MSG plays host to more than 400 events per year. The building went completely dark during Phase One of the transformation, and will do so for Phases Two and Three.
This meant off-season work on a 24/7 basis, Fisher said. "That's how we were able to accomplish it."
MSG sets standard
The Madison Square Garden transformation is planned to cost just less than $1 billion.
MSG Vice President Joel Fisher said planners did not model the transformation off another facility renovation.
"We believe Madison Square Garden is unique, the best building in the world," he said. "All we were doing was bringing it into the modern age by enhancing it and making it better."
Another public forum to consider opinion about the proposed arts and entertainment district in downtown Lexington has been scheduled for 6-8 p.m. Nov. 30 at the Lexington Children's Theatre, 418 West Short Street.
UK's games this weekend in the Mohegan Sun Arena were part of a tournament designed to raise funds for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
The eight-team event is expected to raise a six-figure total for the Hall, said John Doleva, president and chief executive officer of the Hall.
The fund-raiser has been held, off and on, since the inaugural event in 1979 pitted Kentucky against Duke. "We've come full circle," Doleva said of UK's appearances.
In the early years, the event had "exempt" status, meaning it didn't count as a game in the NCAA limit on schedules. So it was attractive to teams. The gate for the single game in Springfield, Mass., brought the Hall a five-figure check, Doleva said.
Then the NCAA removed exempt status in the 1990s, causing the event to go dark.
After a tentative revival last year, it returned this year as an eight-team event that included four games Saturday and four games Sunday at the Mohegan Sun, a partner with the Hall.
Only one of a team's four games in the event count toward the NCAA limit on schedules, said Doleva, who voiced appreciation for Kentucky's willingness to participate.
Builder Ray Ball came away from a tour of Madison Square Garden convinced that a reinvention of Rupp Arena makes more sense than the building of a new arena.
"It's the best downtown location we've got," he said. "That along with the fact we're starting to learn we can update Rupp."
Penn State revisited
Leftovers from a look at Penn State in the aftermath of the school's child sex-abuse scandal:
■ Penn State professor Mike Poorman teaches a class called "Joe Paterno, Communications & The Media." Paterno's 46-year tenure as Penn State coach makes him a reference point in the changing nature of such areas as branding, marketing, news conferences and access to reporters.
"The continuity of before and after is Joe Paterno," Poorman said.
Paterno's wife, Sue, and son, Jay, have spoken to the class.
■ Two of the lead reporters on the scandal story have been Sarah Gannon of the Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot-News and Mark Viera of The New York Times. Both are Penn State graduates, Poorman noted.
■ Reporter Todd Jones of The Columbus Dispatch spent several days in State College, Pa., since the scandal broke. One night he drove by the home of Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant coach who has been charged with multiple sex crimes involving boys.
Sandusky lives practically next to a middle school. A sign reading "Watch for Children" was near the home. "It just creeped me out," Jones said.
To former Eastern Kentucky Coach Max Good. He led Loyola Marymount to a victory over UCLA on Nov. 11.
"I felt very good for our players," Good said. "It was a game people thought, 'Bring a team from across town (for UCLA to beat).' "
Good joked of the spoils of this victory, "At least our guys got apple pies to go with their McDonald's hamburgers."
Loyola Marymount is due good fortune. Good noted how injuries prevented his team from living up to expectations. Picked to finish second in the West Coast Conference, the Lions finished last. Injuries cost the team a cumulative 66 games. "No one can absorb 66 games," Good said.
Loyola still awaits the return of forward Drew Viney from a broken toe.
Two nights after beating UCLA, Loyola Marymount lost to Middle Tennessee 58-51. That loss didn't look bad when Middle Tennessee then beat UCLA 86-66.
To former UK player Bret Bearup. He turned 50 on Thursday. ... To former Tennessee coach Jerry Green. He turns 68 today. ... To former UK player Tom Payne. He turned 61 on Saturday. ... To Rupp Runt Louie Dampier. He turns 67 today.