Journey to the Tourney: UK’s March Madness history
Abilene Christian has a Kentucky connection. First-year athletic director Allen Ward came from Murray State, where he was AD for 13 years.
Ward kind of acknowledged there’s an irony in Abilene Christian playing UK in its first NCAA Tournament game. Murray State was believed to have wanted to play UK in a regular-season game.
When asked about Murray State seeking such a game, Ward took the route of neither confirming nor denying.
“My coaches handle their scheduling,” he said Monday. “There’s a lot of rumors out there. I said, one, I’m not sure we want to play Kentucky. And, two, I’m not sure Kentucky and (John) Calipari want to play us depending on what kind of year we’re having. I’m not sure who gains and loses the most there.”
Ward, 51, said he always believed the NCAA Tournament would be the place that brought about a Kentucky-Murray State game. That hasn’t happened yet nor have the schools ever played in men’s basketball despite success on their separate levels.
“So I guess the mystique for both programs continues,” Ward said. “All the what-ifs that the fans can talk about can continue as well. I’m sure they have a lot of fun with it.”
Ward gushed about the time he spent at Murray State. His actions included hiring Billy Kennedy, then Steve Prohm and then Matt MaMahon as basketball coaches.
“It was outstanding,” he said of his 13 years at Murray. “I loved every minute of it.”
During Ward’s time at Murray State, the Racers’ teams won 39 Ohio Valley Conference championships.
And Ward expects a return visit to Murray State next year when his son, Nathan, graduates.
Meanwhile, Selection Sunday and the Kentucky-Abilene Christian first-round game in Jacksonville renewed Ward’s ties to Murray State. Friends from Murray got in touch.
“A bunch of them, in fact,” Ward said. “Some of them are Murray State and also Kentucky fans. They were talking about tickets.”
Ward had a pre-condition.
“Look, if you don’t own anything purple, you don’t get any tickets,” he said he told friends from Murray.
Abilene Christian, which shares with UK the nickname of Wildcats, sports purple and white as its colors. By the way, the school sold out its allotment of 450 tickets for the games in Jacksonville.
Although UK also had an allotment of 450 tickets, Ward said he expected the Big Blue Nation to drown out Abilene Christian fans. He said he was fine with that as long as Abilene Christian fans filled his school’s seats.
Abilene Christian’s season produced a compelling storyline. Before a Feb. 23 game against Southeastern Louisiana, Coach Joe Golding dismissed from the team starters Jalone Friday (13.1 ppg) and B.J. Maxwell (9.2 ppg, 40.5-percent three-point shooting) for what was termed a violation of university policy.
“Some people say our two best players . . . ,” Ward said. “They came together, became a better team.
“What an amazing story it is. This group of young men to win the (Southland Conference) tournament through all the adversity.”
Without Friday and Maxwell, Abilene Christian lost to Southeastern Louisiana 75-66. But the Wildcats have won six straight games since then.
To say the least, Kentucky represents a step up in competition for Abilene Christian.
“UK is just an incredible program,” Ward said. “So much respect for them and Mitch (Barnhart) and all that they’re doing. We certainly have a very tall order to play them in the tournament. But we’re excited to be there for our first ever (NCAA Tournament) and hopefully we get a good showing out of it on national TV.”
Abilene Christian, a private school with an enrollment of 4,500, is in its sixth year in Division I. It was a Division II power, winning 57 national championships at that level, Ward said.
Ward, a native of Rolla, Mo., has set a long-range Division I goal for the Abilene Christian.
“I think we have a really great opportunity to become in a few years a household name in the mid-majors,” he said. “That’s really what I’m working toward. When people think of good mid-major programs, they talk about ACU.”
UK’s NCAA Tournament opener
No. 2 seed Kentucky vs. No. 15 seed Abilene Christian
What: NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional
When: 7:10 p.m. Thursday
Where: Jacksonville, Fla.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 27-6, Abilene Christian 27-6
Series: First meeting