John Clay

Hey Kentucky basketball, don’t forget about the Rupp Arena fans

The topic of the now dormant Kentucky-Indiana basketball series surprisingly popped up on the SEC basketball summer teleconference last week. Asked about the possibility of a UK-IU revival, John Calipari reported Kentucky offered a two-year neutral site series in Indianapolis. The Hoosiers declined. The Cats moved on.

Once a strong proponent of a Cats-Hoosiers rebirth, I will admit to have recently cooled on the subject. If it happens, great. If it doesn’t, oh well. Instead, I’ve adopted a different rallying cry when it comes to Kentucky’s basketball scheduling.

No more neutral-site games.

With Calipari’s Cats traveling far and wide to satisfy their participation requirements in a pair of made-for-TV classics, plus an annual game in Madison Square Garden in New York, and now a possible international contest in London on the UK agenda, Rupp Arena season-ticket holders are getting the short end of the non-conference stick.

The last time North Carolina played in Rupp Arena? Answer: Dec. 13, 2014, when the Cats held off the Tar Heels 84-70 to go 11-0 on the way to being 38-0 (and then 38-1). UK has played Roy Williams three times since — twice in the CBS Sports Classic and once in the NCAA Tournament.

The last time Michigan State played in Rupp Arena? Answer: Dec. 14, 2002, when UK lost 71-67. The Cats and Spartans have met three times since — once in the NCAA Tournament and twice in the Champions Classic.

The last time Notre Dame played in Rupp Arena? Answer: Jan. 18, 2003, when Kentucky triumphed 88-73. They’ve met five times since — once in Louisville, three times in South Bend (one was an NIT game) and once in the NCAA Tournament. Remember when the Cats and Irish were a Freedom Hall staple.

The last time Indiana played in Rupp Arena? Answer: Dec. 11, 2010. The border rivals have played three times since — the return game in Bloomington, plus twice in the NCAA Tournament.

To be fair, thanks to the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, Kansas has been a recent Rupp regular visitor. After not playing in Lexington since 2005, the Jayhawks have paid visits in 2017 and 2019, splitting the decisions. KU won 79-73 on Jan. 28, 2017. UK won 71-63 on Jan. 26, 2019.

And, for the most part, the Calipari era has been filled with at least one non-conference opponent of name value not named Louisville. That list includes Arizona State, Baylor, Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina, Providence, St. John’s, Texas, UCLA, Utah and Virginia Tech.

Now here’s the list of teams the Cats have played on neutral floors over the last 10 seasons: Arizona State, Cleveland State, Connecticut, Duke, Hofstra, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan State, Monmouth, North Carolina, Old Dominion, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Penn State, Providence, Seton Hall, Stanford, Washington and UCLA.

I’m not quibbling with Kentucky’s strength of schedule, either. According to Jeff Sagarin’s computer rankings, UK’s 2018-19 schedule was the 18th-toughest in the country. Ken Pomeroy ranked the Cats 19th in strength of schedule. Much of that has to do with the strong fields in the Champions Classic and CBS Sports Classic, the annual Louisville rivalry and the recent improvement of SEC programs. Pomeroy’s final 2019 rankings included five SEC teams among his top 21.

What I am doing is sticking up for the UK season-ticket holder, a group too often taken for granted. Last season showed the day might be gone when Kentucky fans fill Rupp to watch the Cats play even Little Sisters of the Poor. North Dakota at Kentucky drew just 18,555. Monmouth at Kentucky drew just 18,680. Just 20,496 tickets were sold for the home SEC game against South Carolina.

I’m not for UK bailing from either the Champions Classic or the CBS Sports Classic. I’m OK with playing a game in London. And I’d be happy with a return of the Kentucky-Indiana border war. But not if it doesn’t include Rupp. Kentucky has enough neutral-site games already.

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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