UK Men's Basketball

Kentucky basketball is on March Madness menu as a delicious appetizer

Photo slideshow: No. 6 Kentucky defeats Florida 66-57

The No. 6 Kentucky men's basketball team defeated Florida 66-57 on Senior Day on Saturday in Rupp Arena in Lexington.
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The No. 6 Kentucky men's basketball team defeated Florida 66-57 on Senior Day on Saturday in Rupp Arena in Lexington.

It’s no coincidence that Kentucky will finish the 2019-20 season with a game against Florida. The game in Gainesville on March 7 will mark the eighth time in John Calipari’s 11 seasons as coach that UK plays the Gators on the final weekend, and the 18th time in the last 21 seasons that is the case.

“I love those statistics,” said Dan Weinberg, who is the executive vice president for programming for CBS Sports.

Weinberg’s love is also not a coincidence since CBS will continue televising all those Kentucky-Florida games. UK-Florida fits the network’s desire to offer viewers a compelling game just when college basketball is about to enter the peak period of viewer interest … aka March Madness.

“Both of these schools have been on extended, extraordinary high-level runs,” Weinberg said in a telephone conversation. “They are both high-caliber national brands in terms of their appeal across the country, and not just within the SEC.

“And it has become a really strong rivalry between these two teams. So when you add it all up, it makes a lot of sense to put that game in that window at that time of year.”

Weinberg laughed when asked if the conclusion to be drawn is that Florida’s basketball program is on par with Kentucky.

“I’ll let Florida partisans make that conclusion,” he said.

For at least 21 years, CBS televised a Kentucky game on the final weekend of the regular season. The opponents other than Florida in that time were Texas A&M in 2017, LSU in 2016 and Tennessee in 2011.

Yes, Weinberg said, these games can be seen as appetizers for CBS’s coverage of the NCAA Tournament.

“When you get to that part of the schedule, every game is a great appetizer for selection weekend and March Madness,” he said. “The thirst around the country for good college basketball and exciting college basketball is at its highest point. … So, yes, that game fits that description. But lots of games fit that description. And we’re thrilled to do that game in the years we put that in that window. It’s a great performer for us.”

Of course, Kentucky is Kentucky. “It’s no secret they’re one of the strongest brands in all of college basketball,” Weinberg said of UK’s program.

In the last 20 seasons, Kentucky has a good but less-than-dominating 28-18 record against Florida. Hence, CBS views UK-Florida as a rivalry game.

And rivalry games “are really strong in terms of viewership and are matchups we gravitate towards as we’re looking to plan the season,” Weinberg said. “Likewise, those rivalry games typically work best the later they are in the college season.”

UK and Bucknell

Graduate transfer Nate Sestina is not the only tie that binds UK and Bucknell. In the spring of 2013, the schools had something of a role reversal. Bucknell opened NCAA Tournament in Rupp Arena. And with its homecourt booked, UK had to play its first-round NIT game at Robert Morris, which is a four-hour drive from Bucknell.

“We were watching that game at the hotel with a bunch of Kentucky fans who were not very pleased with the outcome,” said Jon Terry, Bucknell’s associate director of athletics and athletics communications. Robert Morris defeated UK 59-57.

Two days later, Bucknell lost 68-56 to Brad Stevens-coached Butler.

Bucknell’s coach that season, Dave Paulsen, recalled it being a noon game on the first day of the NCAA Tournament. “You were back home by eight at night,” he said. To be home watching the late games on the first night made the experience of playing in the NCAA Tournament “anti-climatic,” said Paulson, now the coach at George Mason.

Ties to UK

Dane Fischer was an assistant coach at Bucknell in 2013. Now, he is the head coach at William & Mary. He was among those in the Bucknell party that watched UK play Robert Morris.

His ties to UK extend far beyond the NCAA and NIT tournaments of that year.

“My wife is a Kentucky graduate,” he said, “and played for Matthew Mitchell.”

Fischer is married to Chelsea Chowning, who played for UK’s women’s team in the 2007-08 season. She averaged 5.9 points while also averaging a 4.0 in the classroom at the College of Pharmacy.

“So I have two little kids at home,” Fischer said. “Of course, they’ve grown up in, like, Kentucky Wildcat gear.”

‘A good opportunity’

Bucknell assistant coach Joe Meehan coached Brad Calipari on Global Sports Academy teams that toured Europe in recent summers. So no surprise that Meehan contributed to Calipari’s look into a possible transfer from UK.

“The whole purpose of it was to find a place where he could make an impact on a team and get on the floor,” Meehan said. “And so I was doing a lot of legwork on the east coast.”

Meehan said that he checked with teams in the Northeast and America East conferences. He also checked in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, which he said was “one of the best Division II conferences in the nation.” Coincidentally, Clarion, the alma mater of UK Coach John Calipari, is in the PSAC.

As Meehan saw it, Detroit Mercy gives the younger Calipari a good chance of achieving an on-court role. The Titans see Calipari’s shooting as a way to spread defenses and prevent double- and triple-teaming of star point guard Antoine Davis.

“I think there will be a good opportunity for him there to make an impact,” Meehan said of Calipari. “He does have a skill of shooting the ball, which will translate to any level. And he’s been playing against Kentucky players in practice for the last three years. That definitely helped him improve.”

Dorian aftermath

Having traveled to Nassau three times in the last five years for games (a series of exhibitions in August of 2014 and 2018, plus a regular-season blowout of Arizona State in 2016-17), Kentucky basketball and its fans are familiar with the Bahamas.

UK’s home away from home on each occasion was the Atlantis, Paradise Island resort. Lea Miller-Tooley, the CEO of Complete Sports Management, helped in the planning of those trips. Here’s her report on the impact of Hurricane Dorian.

“The Atlantis is totally fine, but there is devastation in the Abacos and Grand Bahamas,” she wrote in an email.

Those wishing to help the relief effort can do so at AtlantisBahamas.com, she wrote. “On the landing page there is a link to their Go Fund Me site where you can donate $$ to the relief for The Bahamas,” she wrote.

Belated happy birthday

To Nazr Mohammed. He turned 42 on Sept. 5. … To John Wall. He turned 29 on Sept. 6. … To Alex Poythress. He turned 26 on Sept. 6. … To Dale Brown (the former UK guard). He turned 51 on Sept. 6. … To former Ole Miss Coach Rob Evans. He turned 73 on Sept. 7. … To Oak Hill Academy Coach (and Asbury University grad) Steve Smith. He turned 64 on Sept. 7. … To referee John Clougherty. He turned 76 on Sept. 10. … To Mark Pope. He turned 47 on Sept. 11.

Happy birthday

To EJ Montgomery. He turned 20 on Thursday. … To Billy Evans. He turned 87 on Friday. … To Marcus Lee. He turned 25 on Saturday. …To Todd Svoboda. He turned 48 on Saturday. … To former Kansas (and other places) Coach Larry Brown. He turned 79 on Saturday. … To Reggie Warford. He turns 65 on Sunday (today). … To Marquis Estill. He turns 38 on Sunday (today). … To former LSU Coach John Brady. He turns 65 on Tuesday. … To Dickey Beal. He turns 57 on Wednesday. … To former UK Coach Rick Pitino. He turns 67 on Wednesday.

Jerry Tipton has covered Kentucky basketball beginning with the 1981-82 season to the present. He is a member of the United States Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame.
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