Mark Story

In 2018-19, Calipari's Cats confront a challenge only one prior UK team has ever faced

Kentucky will face Roy Williams and the North Carolina Tar Heels on Dec. 22 in the CBS Sports Classic in Chicago.
Kentucky will face Roy Williams and the North Carolina Tar Heels on Dec. 22 in the CBS Sports Classic in Chicago. AP

The University of Kentucky has yet to release its full men's basketball schedule for 2018-19. Yet we already have enough information about the slate that John Calipari's Cats will face to know it will be historic.

It has already been announced that UK will play fellow hoops blue bloods Duke, North Carolina and Kansas in the coming season. In the entire history of Kentucky men's basketball, the Wildcats have only faced that trio of elite programs in the same year once before.

Coach K
Kentucky will open its 2018-19 men's basketball season against Duke and Coach Mike Krzyzewski Nov. 6 in the State Farm Champions Classic in Indianapolis. Nick Lisi Associated Press

In 2018-19, UK will open against Mike Krzyzewski's Blue Devils Nov. 6 in the State Farm Champions Classic in Indianapolis.

The Wildcats will square off with Roy Williams and the Tar Heels on Dec. 22 in the CBS Sports Classic in Chicago.

On Jan. 26, Bill Self will bring the Jayhawks to Rupp Arena for the 2019 SEC/Big 12 Challenge.

UK backers will hope playing Duke, UNC and KU in the same season turns out as well for the 2018-19 Wildcats as it did for Dan Issel, Mike Pratt and Adolph Rupp's 1969-70 Cats.

'Ol'Adolph didn't duck'

For the senior season of then-UK stars Issel and Pratt in 1969-70, Rupp assembled a non-league schedule stacked with college basketball's most royal names: Kansas, North Carolina, Indiana, Duke and Notre Dame were all on it.

"Ol' Adolph didn't duck much," said Pratt, the former Kentucky forward and current analyst on UK radio network men's hoops broadcasts.

After an opening victory over West Virginia, Kentucky welcomed Kansas to Lexington for the first meeting between Rupp's Wildcats and the coach's college alma mater since 1959.

"We were starting up with Kansas after a long off period (of not playing)," Pratt recalled. "It was a big deal."

It was a happy deal for the Cats, as UK ran KU out of Memorial Coliseum in a 115-85 rout. Kentucky's starting front line — center Issel (29 points, 12 rebounds) and forwards Pratt (18 and 14) and Larry Steele (17 and 11) — all posted what we would now call double-doubles.

Dan Issel in UK days
Dan Issel was Kentucky's star player the only other time (1969-70) that UK played fellow basketball blue bloods Duke, Kansas and North Carolina in the same season. Lexington Herald-Leader file photo

Only two days later, Rupp took the Wildcats to Charlotte to face North Carolina. The roster of Coach Dean Smith's 1969-70 Tar Heels was dotted with names that should be familiar to sports fans even now.

Current Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany was a reserve UNC guard. Former Vanderbilt and South Carolina coach Eddie Fogler started in the backcourt. Ex-ABA and NBA star Charlie Scott, the first black scholarship player at UNC, was the Tar Heels' best player.

In the old Charlotte Coliseum, Issel hung 41 points and 15 rebounds on UNC, while Pratt went for 27 and 10. That allowed UK to withstand a 29-point performance by Scott to win 94-87.

It snapped a four-game Cats losing skid vs. North Carolina.

UK's 1969-70 meeting with Duke came in the finals of the University of Kentucky Invitation Tournament.

The Wildcats' 98-76 victory over Coach Bucky Waters' Blue Devils was led by Pratt's 26 points and 11 rebounds and junior guard Bob McCowan's 25 points.

Issel had 20 points and seven rebounds, but was outshined by Duke center Randy Denton's 28 points and 21 boards.

"I played with 'Iss' a long time," said Pratt, who was also a teammate of Issel's with the ABA's Kentucky Colonels. "I watched him kick a lot of tails, in college and the pros. That night, was one of the few times where the other guy, Denton, got the better of him."

The post-script

Kentucky ended its 1969-70 season with a 26-2 record, falling one agonizing game short of the Final Four after a 106-100 loss to Artis Gilmore and Jacksonville in the NCAA Tournament round of eight.

Mike Pratt
Mike Pratt, right, current radio color analyst on University of Kentucky men's basketball broadcasts, was a star forward for the Wildcats the prior time (1969-70) that UK played Duke, Kansas and North Carolina in the same season. Charles Bertram

Not one from among Kansas, UNC and Duke joined UK in the 1970 NCAA Tournament.

In an era when only conference champions advanced to the NCAA tourney, the Jayhawks finished 17-9 and stayed home for March. North Carolina (18-9) and Duke (17-9) each lost in the first round of the NIT.

"If the (NCAA) tournament had been set up then like it is now (with 68 teams), all three of them would have played in it," says Pratt. "They were all good teams."

This year's challenge

The 2018-19 Wildcats will be facing the regal hoops trio of Duke, UNC and Kansas when all three are expected to be better than merely "good."

Bill Self
Bill Self will bring Kansas back to Rupp Arena for the second time in three seasons Jan. 26 to face Kentucky in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. Rich Sugg The Kansas City Star

If there is no unforeseen player attrition, UK, KU and Duke will likely begin the season as the three top-ranked teams in college hoops, with North Carolina in the Top 10, too.

"That schedule is going to be a huge test for Kentucky," says Pratt. "But it is going to be exciting for Kentucky fans to see the Cats play those other three blue bloods."

Mark Story: 859-231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory