UK Men's Basketball

UK basketball notebook: Bottom line threatens traditional rivalries

Jerry Tipton
Jerry Tipton

Thoughtful sweetheart John Calipari serves his wife breakfast in bed on her birthday. He supports many charitable endeavors. He reads inspirational books and recommends presidential biographies. After reading David Herbert Donald's Lincoln (a New York Times best-seller), the Kentucky coach recently tweeted about how his respect for Abraham Lincoln "went through the roof."

But when it comes to scheduling, Calipari is well-grounded. He's a hard-headed realist. He thinks with his brain, if not his spleen, but certainly not with his heart.

Sentiment has nothing to do with it.

So Calipari dismisses the widely held notion that Kentucky should continue to play its traditional non-conference opponents Indiana, Louisville and North Carolina. He objects to the term "traditional" even though UK has played Indiana every season since 1970 and Louisville every season since 1983. There would be more than 30 UK-UNC games since 1960 if the Cats hadn't twice begged out of the series.

With the Southeastern Conference perhaps expanding from 16 to 18 games, and UK likely to have a freshman-dependent team every season, Calipari says he wants greater flexibility to tailor each schedule for his personnel.

He'll schedule good opponents, Calipari promised. He just does not want to be committed to those three particular opponents every season.

"Does it really matter?" Calipari asked Friday. "It doesn't matter."

Alas, it probably doesn't matter nowadays in a college sports landscape dominated by revenue-hungry administrators and ratings-craving television networks. If rivalries like Texas-Texas A&M and Kansas-Missouri can be dismissed, why can't Kentucky-Indiana, Kentucky-Louisville or Kentucky-North Carolina?

The bottom line is the bottom line.

"Some of the old rivalries are going to change," ex-Cat Scott Padgett said with a tone of resignation. "New rivalries are going to be with different teams. Rivalries are going to be along the lines of the conference you're in."

Padgett, now an assistant coach on Steve Masiello's staff at Manhattan, said that one rivalry is too delicious to be discontinued: Kentucky-Louisville.

With Bob Knight long gone, Kentucky-Indiana does not extend quite so deeply into the soul. "Look, it's not personal for me," Calipari said, "and I know it's not for him (IU Coach Tom Crean)."

As a Sports Illustrated story last season showed, it is personal with Louisville and U of L Coach Rick Pitino. End the UK-U of L series? "That would be a big mistake," Padgett said.

Dick Vitale, an old sentimentalist disguised as a bullhorn, sees Kentucky games with IU, U of L and UNC as continuing chapters in a basketball bible.

"When you think of basketball, you think of Kentucky," he said. "You think of Indiana. You think of location. You think of proximity (and) incredible tradition. I think those two are just made for Kentucky."

Except for the proximity, you think of North Carolina, too.

Calipari has implied that made-for-TV matchups on neutral sites can replace history and tradition. Maybe they can. These games can make about the same amount of money and carry less risk of defeat (the kind of defeat that riles fans and drains faith in a coach).

"Rivalries are a lot different in the last decade or so," said Jim O'Connell, longtime college basketball editor for The Associated Press. "People don't look for history in a rivalry anymore. It's the quality of the game."

It seems ironic that Calipari, like several of his predecessors, calls himself a temporary caretaker. The program means more than any coach. Yet, he talks about doing away with opponents that helped produce memories that transcend any particular coach.

Of Kentucky dropping either Indiana, Louisville or North Carolina, ESPN analyst and former IU player Dan Dakich said, "It's the way of modern college basketball. I think it'd be a real shame."

'Create dialogue'

John Calipari tweeted that he asked fans to vote on which traditional series to drop as a means to "create dialogue." That sounded like the Kardashians seeking more publicity.

ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, a friend of Calipari's since 1978, explained.

"From the outside looking in, he's done a lot of remarkable things," Fraschilla said of Calipari. "But he has allowed the fan base, the Big Blue Nation, to probably feel as much a part of the program as maybe any coach ever has at Kentucky. ... Just putting that out there is going to draw interest in the program."

Does UK basketball need more interest?

Fraschilla suggested the fan vote was more public relations than scheduling ploy.

"The guy is a marketing genius," the ESPN analyst said. "If he dropped one of them (IU, U of L or UNC), I'd be surprised. But the fact he's got the entire commonwealth talking about it is more Big Blue Nation talk."

When asked about made-for-TV games versus traditional rivals, Fraschilla noted that IU, U of L and UNC represent some of the best made-for-TV opponents.

"My gut tells me it's also a shot aimed in the direction of the team a couple hours west."

The driving time is a bit off, but that would be Louisville.

'Totally B.S.'

An early-season loss in football can kill a team's national championship hopes. Not true in basketball.

In noting how Kentucky fans need not fret about losing an early-season game to Indiana, Louisville or North Carolina, Dick Vitale said, "They don't want to see Cupcake City. This is not the B.C.S., which is totally B.S."

Players' perspective

Coaches schedule cautiously. Yes, they're scared. Right down to their socks.

As for the players' perspective, former UK forward Scott Padgett said, "I would have played everybody. As a player you want to play the best and beat the best. You want the challenge."

The mind drifts to then-UK Coach Rick Pitino recoiling from the suggestion that Arkansas, new to the SEC, gave Kentucky a new rival. UK didn't want any more rivals, Pitino said.

Padgett noted how his 1998 national championship team played Arizona, Missouri, Clemson, Purdue and Indiana in five straight games. Later in the season, UK also played Georgia Tech, Louisville and at Villanova.

"They can't take anything away from us because we played everybody," Padgett said.

Padgett noted how coaches must be wary of over-scheduling; then he added, "I'd still lean toward playing tough teams because you're definitely going to be ready for March."

Play tough teams

Reader Erik Maikkula wrote to say he disagrees with the notion that Kentucky drop either Indiana, Louisville or North Carolina.

"If anything, I have always thought that we should play more of the tougher teams ..." he wrote. "Louisville should definitely be played. There is no more fun than the talk amongst friends and co-workers over the result of this game. Then, rotate schedules every other year to include the elite/better teams in the Big 12, ACC, Pac 12, Big Ten and Big East.

"I understand the recruitment aspect of playing in certain areas, but that has to be balanced with knowing who we are and what is expected of the winningest program of all time."

Maikkula wrote that Kentucky should sprinkle its schedules with games against Duke, UNC, UConn, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Cincinnati, Indiana, Michigan State, Ohio State, Oklahoma State, Texas, Kansas, UCLA and Arizona.

"Obviously, scheduling requires a balancing act, but if we are going to give up any annual matches, it should be replaced with a marquee matchup of some type," he wrote.

Calipari has suggested just such a change: Drop IU, U of L or UNC. Replace with a "name" opponent.

"If we really want to get crazy, we could always make sure Gardner-Webb gets scheduled once in a while, too, just for fun," Maikkula wrote.

Maikkula, 43, works as a LexTran supervisor. He was born in Pittsburgh, then moved to Lexington as an infant. He now lives in Richmond.

Calipari fatigue

Reader Tom Atkinson suffers from Calipari fatigue.

"I'm so damn tired of hearing about (John) Calipari," he wrote.

Atkinson, 65, grew up in Paris and graduated from Morehead State. His father played football for UK. He's been a season-ticket holder since Rupp Arena opened in 1976.

"Fondly remember the Joe B. era," he wrote. "and it being about 'Kentucky Basketball' instead of the coaches."

Gentleman Joe

Kentucky's first-round NCAA Tournament victory over Ohio University in 1983 might seem forgettable. But one man's footnote can be a significant moment for Fran Fraschilla.

Fraschilla was an assistant on Danny Nee's Ohio U staff.

"The thing I remember most about that game, and I mean this sincerely, is Coach (Joe B.) Hall came down to our bench before the game and he shook everybody's hand," Fraschilla said. "And he said, 'Good luck, Fran.' And he had no idea who I was. But he probably looked at the game program and figured out who the assistant coaches were. That made my day."

Hall's gesture made a lasting impression.

"Every single time before a game, I'd always go down to the other bench and shake the assistant coaches' hands," Fraschilla said of his subsequent head coaching tenure. "Whether he knew me or not, he treated me like a million bucks, and I'll never forget."

Grand entrance

One memorable moment in the Kentucky-Indiana series used to be the anticipation of Bob Knight's belated entrance onto the court. The iconic IU coach seemed to want to signal his status as heavyweight champion. He would be the last to enter the ring.

Not true, former IU player Dan Dakich said.

Dakich, later a head coach himself, explained the entrance onto the court moments before tip-off.

"You don't want anything to make you mad," he said. "Watching the team warm up, you might see two guys laughing. That used to make me crazy as a player when my teammates were doing that."

So the longer Knight stayed in the locker room, the less potential irritation.

"I'm going to limit myself to making myself as least annoyed by external things," Dakich said. "I totally get that as a coach."

'The Block party'

Fan Tom Cooksey called to offer what he saw as a good nickname for this season's UK team: "The Block Party." He cited the end to the North Carolina game as inspiration.

"It's such an appropriate nickname," he said.

Cooksey, a retired air traffic controller living in Ashland, noted that the public will ultimately decide what, if any, nickname should be bestowed.

Happy birthday

To Rupp Runt Thad Jaracz. He turns 65 on Thursday. ... To former UK player and administrator Terry Mobley. He turned 68 on Friday. ... To perhaps UK's most productive walk-on, Cameron Mills. He turned 36 on Saturday. ... To Hall of Famer Cliff Hagan. He turned 80 on Thursday. ... To ex-Cat Eric Bledsoe. He turned 22 on Friday.

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