Two weeks ago, I wrote a column providing five theories on why University of Kentucky men’s basketball attendance was down through the first two regular-season home games.
We’re now through six UK home games in Rupp Arena, and the Wildcats have averaged 20,092 fans so far in 2017-18. That is down 2,533 fans from the average attendance through six home games (22,625) last season.
A consistent complaint I heard from Kentucky fans who replied to the original column was the perceived lack of quality opponents on Kentucky’s home non-conference schedule.
That interested me because, from my perspective, UK’s home, non-SEC slate is not that bad.
Kentucky plays its archrival, Louisville, in Rupp this year, as well as another ACC team, Virginia Tech, that made the NCAA Tournament last season.
Saturday’s foe in Rupp Arena, Harvard, has made four NCAA tourney appearances since 2012 under Coach Tommy Amaker. Vermont, which threw a major scare into UK on Nov. 12 before succumbing, is one of the best “mid-major” teams in the country this season.
Yet after I waded through emails and tweets from Cats fans complaining about “directional schools” and “cream puffs,” I had an epiphany.
There are only eight schools that consistently matter in shaping the perception of the Kentucky Wildcats’ men’s basketball home schedule.
How many games UK is playing in Rupp Arena in any year against Duke (which has played UK only once in Rupp), North Carolina, Louisville, Indiana, Kansas, UCLA, Michigan State and Notre Dame essentially forms the fan view of the worthiness of the home slate.
This may surprise you, but since John Calipari became Kentucky head coach in 2009-10, UK has met its historic average in terms of how many home games it has played against its eight main rivals.
Under Calipari, UK has played an average of 1.2 games a year in Rupp against those eight schools. Over the 42 seasons Rupp Arena has been open, Kentucky’s average number of home games against those eight is 1.1 a season.
Since Rupp opened, Kentucky has always played a high percentage of its marquee non-league matchups at neutral venues.
When Joe B. Hall was coaching in Rupp (1976-85), Kentucky played only eight home games in nine years against its eight peer-level foes (that does not count facing Duke in Rupp Arena in the 1980 NCAA Tournament because it’s not a game UK scheduled).
At the time, UK played Notre Dame annually in Freedom Hall and also played games against Indiana, North Carolina and Kansas in Louisville.
Under Eddie Sutton, Kentucky played four home games in four years against the eight peer programs. Part of the reason there were so few was UK joined Indiana, Louisville and Notre Dame in the Big Four Classic, an annual Kentucky schools vs. Indiana schools one-day event, which was played in Indianapolis.
During Rick Pitino’s eight years on the UK bench, Kentucky played eight peer rivalry games in Rupp.
After the Big Four Classic ceased in 1991-92, Kentucky and Indiana commenced playing on neutral courts in Indianapolis and Louisville, a practice that lasted until 2006-07.
The heyday for marquee games against UK’s eight peer-level rivals in Rupp came in the first decade of the 21st century.
Counting this year’s Louisville contest (Dec. 29), UK will have played 11 games in Rupp against the eight peer schools in the nine seasons since Calipari became Kentucky coach.
One reason UK fans may feel like they are getting fewer such games now is that Calipari ended the home-and-home series with Indiana after the 2011-12 season.
The start of the Champions Classic (with Kansas, Michigan State and Duke) in 2011-12 and the CBS Sports Classic (with UCLA, Ohio State and North Carolina) in 2014-15 also locks in some of UK’s marquee matchups outside Lexington.
Only time will tell, of course, if last year was a scheduling aberration.
What we can say is that, perceptions aside, Kentucky in this current era has so far met its historic standard in the number of games it plays in Rupp Arena against the only eight teams that consistently move the needle among UK fans.
The most recent time Kentucky’s eight main non-conference rivals have played the Wildcats in Rupp Arena
1979-80 — Duke 55, Kentucky 54 (1980 NCAA Tournament round of 16)
2002-03 — Michigan St. 71, Kentucky 67
2003-04 — Kentucky 88, Notre Dame 73
2010-11 — Kentucky 81, Indiana 62
2014-15 — Kentucky 84, North Carolina 70
2015-16 — Kentucky 75, Louisville 73
2016-17 — UCLA 97, Kentucky 92
2016-17 — Kansas 79, Kentucky 73