UK Men's Basketball

Calipari gets a shot at No. 1 to start season. How has he fared in such games so far?

A rare treat awaits college basketball fans on this season’s opening night.

The Champions Classic matchup between No. 1 Michigan State and No. 2 Kentucky late Tuesday night in Madison Square Garden will mark just the fourth meeting between the nation’s two top-ranked teams in the past decade, and it’ll be the latest game in a series of interesting contests linking UK and the No. 1 ranking.

This will be just the third time since 1982 that Kentucky is involved in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup, and Wildcats Coach John Calipari played a part in both of those two most recent games.

Five years ago, it was No. 2 Michigan State that ended all of the 40-0 talk surrounding No. 1 Kentucky early, defeating the Wildcats 78-74 at the Champions Classic in Chicago. (That UK team would go on to play in the national championship game).

Back in 1996, Calipari was on the losing end of No. 1 vs. No. 2 again. That time, it was his Massachusetts Minutemen who fell 81-74 to second-ranked Kentucky in the Final Four, two days before UK captured its first national championship in 18 years.

Tuesday night’s matchup will actually be the third time that the Champions Classic has hosted No. 1 vs. No. 2 — following top-ranked Duke’s victory over Michigan State two years ago and the 2014 game between UK and the Spartans. The only other meeting between No. 1 and No. 2 over the past 10 years happened in 2016, when top-ranked Kansas beat Oklahoma, 109-106, in triple overtime.

In all, this will be the 43rd matchup between the nation’s two top-ranked teams since the Associated Press poll was created in 1948. It will be Kentucky’s ninth appearance in such a game, more than any other school. (The Wildcats are 5-3 in previous 1-2 matchups).

This will also be just the fifth time during the Calipari era that Kentucky faces the No. 1 in the country, and a victory Tuesday night would almost certainly vault the Wildcats into the top spot in the AP poll, a ranking they — somewhat surprisingly — haven’t held in nearly three years.

Kentucky has played 76 games as the nation’s No. 1-ranked team in 10 total seasons under Calipari, but the Cats haven’t been in that position since a loss to UCLA in Rupp Arena on Dec. 3, 2016.

The path back to No. 1 runs through the Spartans on Tuesday night. Here’s how Calipari and the Wildcats have fared in their previous four meetings with the nation’s top-ranked team.

No. 5 Kentucky 86, No. 1 Tennessee 69

Feb. 16, 2019, in Lexington: This one should be fresh in the memory of Kentucky fans, who watched with glee as the Wildcats dismantled their conference rivals to the south, scoring the first 14 points of the second half to open up a 20-point lead on the Volunteers, who came into Rupp Arena with a 23-1 record, having claimed the No. 1 ranking nationally a few weeks earlier for the first time in more than a decade. PJ Washington had 23 points that night for the Cats, who were the victims of revenge two weeks later in Knoxville, where No. 7 Tennessee defeated No. 4 UK, 71-52.

No. 1 Florida 61, Kentucky 60

March 16, 2014, in Atlanta: The Gators had won 25 straight games — and were a perfect 20-0 against Southeastern Conference opponents — before Kentucky nearly knocked them off in the championship game of the conference tournament. This meeting came shortly after Calipari publicized that he had added a “tweak” to his insanely hyped UK team that started the season awash in 40-0 talk but struggled throughout, losing four of its last seven games in the regular season. Kentucky built on the near-upset of No. 1 Florida to make a magical run through the NCAA Tournament, finishing one victory short of a national title.

Kentucky guard Andrew Harrison (5) was consoled by Jarrod Polson (3) and Dominique Hawkins, as Florida beat Kentucky 61-60 in the SEC championship game in 2014. Mark Cornelison Herald-Leader

No. 1 Florida 84, No. 25 Kentucky 65

March 8, 2014, in Gainesville, Fla.: Eight days before their SEC Tournament title game meeting, Florida and Kentucky closed the regular season in Gainesville. It wasn’t a pretty day for the Wildcats, who trailed by 21 points at halftime and allowed the top-ranked Gators to shoot 60% from the field. UK came to town barely clinging to a spot in the top 25 after starting the season ranked No. 1. A week earlier, the Cats had lost back-to-back games to Arkansas and South Carolina. The Arkansas game was an embarrassing defeat to an unranked team in Rupp Arena. The South Carolina game saw Calipari get tossed in the second half, his frustration clearly coming to a boil as UK struggled against a Gamecocks team with a 3-12 league record.

No. 11 Kentucky 62, No. 1 Ohio State 60

March 25, 2011, in Newark, N.J.: One of the most memorable games in the Calipari era, the Wildcats (26-9 at the time with a 10-6 SEC record that season) were seen as little more than a bump in the road for the mighty Buckeyes, who rolled through the regular season, earned the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, and entered this game as national title favorites with a 34-2 record. The image of Josh Harrellson saving a possession by pegging OSU star Jared Sullinger in the chest with an overhand fastball won’t soon be forgotten, and Brandon Knight’s jumper with five seconds left was the clincher in this emotional upset. Two days later, UK defeated North Carolina to earn its first Final Four berth in 13 years.

Kentucky’s Brandon Knight (12) reacted after making the game-winning shot against Ohio State in the 2011 NCAA Tournament. Julio Cortez AP


This will be Calipari’s 20th game overall at Kentucky against a team ranked in the top five nationally. The Wildcats are 9-10 in previous games of that distinction over the past 10 seasons, with a 2-2 record vs. No. 1; a 1-2 record vs. No. 2; an 0-2 record vs. No. 3; a 2-4 record vs. No. 4; and a 4-0 record vs. No. 5.

Ten of Calipari’s 19 games against top-five teams have come when Kentucky was also ranked in the top five nationally. Kentucky is 6-4 in those games.

Top-five matchups in Calipari era

Feb. 16, 2019No. 5 Kentucky 86, No. 1 Tennessee 69Lexington
Nov. 6, 2018No. 4 Duke 118, No. 2 Kentucky 74Indianapolis*
Jan. 28, 2017No. 2 Kansas 79, No. 4 Kentucky 73Lexington
Nov. 17, 2015No. 2 Kentucky 74, No. 5 Duke 63Chicago*
April 4, 2015No. 3 Wisconsin 71, No. 1 Kentucky 64Indianapolis
Dec. 27, 2014No. 1 Kentucky 58, No. 4 Louisville 50Louisville
Nov. 18, 2014No. 1 Kentucky 72, No. 5 Kansas 40Indianapolis*
Nov. 12, 2013No. 2 Michigan State 78, No. 1 Kentucky 74Chicago*
Dec. 31, 2011No. 3 Kentucky 69, No. 4 Louisville 62Lexington
Dec. 3, 2011No. 1 Kentucky 73, No. 5 UNC 72Lexington

*-Champions Classic games

Season opener

No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 1 Michigan State

What: Champions Classic

When: 9:30 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Madison Square Garden in New York


Ben Roberts covers UK basketball, football and other sports for the Lexington Herald-Leader and has specialized in UK basketball recruiting for the past several years. He also maintains the Next Cats recruiting blog, which features the latest news on the Wildcats’ recruiting efforts.
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