Mark Story

Let’s have a real talk about Kentucky basketball’s home schedule

In 1969-70, Dan Issel’s senior year, Kentucky’s non-conference basketball schedule included games with West Virginia, Kansas, Indiana and Duke in Lexington.

I thought about that idyllic non-league, home slate recently after some Wildcats fans aired their displeasure with a 2019-20 UK home schedule heavy on the likes of Evansville, Utah Valley, Mt. St. Mary’s, Lamar and Fairleigh Dickinson.

In any consumer activity, one wants maximum value for one’s money. I do not blame UK men’s basketball season-ticket holders for wanting more in Rupp Arena from their season-ticket dollars.

However, I was curious how Kentucky’s home, non-league scheduling compares to other programs of similar magnitude. Specifically, how UK stacked up against other men’s hoops titans in terms of home games against non-league teams from major conferences.

(For our purposes here, I am counting teams from the football Power Five conferences plus the Big East and Gonzaga as major opponents).

Kansas Coach Bill Self, left, greeted Kentucky head man John Calipari before UK’s 71-63 victory over the Jayhawks in Rupp Arena last season in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. Alex Slitz

Over the past five seasons (2014-15 through 2018-19), Michigan State played only three non-conference home games against major foes.

Duke played four such games, UCLA four, North Carolina six, Indiana six, Kansas eight and Louisville eight.

In the same time frame, Kentucky played 11 non-league games against major-conference foes in Rupp Arena.

UK played three major-conference, non-league foes (North Carolina, Providence and Texas) at home in 2014-15; and two each in 2015-16 (Arizona State, Louisville); 2016-17 (Kansas, UCLA); 2017-18 (Louisville, Virginia Tech); and last season (Kansas, Utah).

After playing only one home, non-league game against a major foe in 2012-13 (Baylor) and 2013-14 (Louisville), Kentucky has actually increased the number of such games in recent seasons.

With Georgia Tech and U of L coming to Rupp in 2019-20, that trend will continue this winter.

Louisville forward Jordan Nwora, right, will lead a Cardinals team expected to begin the 2019-20 season ranked in the nation’s top five into Rupp Arena to face Kentucky on Dec. 28. Alex Slitz

Why do some Kentucky men’s basketball season-ticket holders nevertheless feel as if they are not getting fair value from UK’s non-league scheduling?

Two related factors seem at play.

Kentucky has won or shared 48 Southeastern Conference regular-season titles and claimed 31 conference tournament crowns. But for Wildcats backers, the league games are mostly taken for granted.

When it comes to the games that animate the UK fan base, the Wildcats are actually in the Association of Historic Hoops Powers.

It is meetings against the ilk of Kansas and North Carolina, Duke and Louisville that UK fans circle on their schedules.

While Kentucky has not reduced the number of major-conference, non-league opponents it is playing at home, two historic UK rivals have fallen from the Rupp Arena rotation during the current coaching regime.

Five years ago, North Carolina joined UK among four teams (UCLA and Ohio State) in the CBS Sports Classic. The four teams play on a rotating basis on neutral courts every season.

As a result, the Tar Heels have not played in Lexington since 2014-15.

Meanwhile, Kentucky refused to play Indiana in Bloomington after the 2011-12 season. The Hoosiers declined to continue the series on neutral courts. Border rivals UK and IU have not met in regular-season play since Dec. 10, 2011.

The Hoosiers last visited Rupp Arena on Dec. 11, 2010.

What has been lost to Wildcats season-ticket holders in the current era are the chances they had before to see UNC and IU in Rupp.

Still, with all the attention currently on UK’s affinity for playing marquee games at neutral sites, the fact is Kentucky has been facing high-profile opponents in neutral venues for eons.

From 1960 through 1981, UK played Notre Dame in Freedom Hall every year.

In the 1970s, the Wildcats faced Indiana three times in Louisville, plus North Carolina twice and Kansas once. During the 1980s, UK played Kansas twice in Freedom Hall, and North Carolina and Purdue once each.

Even on the idyllic 1969-70 UK schedule, the Wildcats faced North Carolina in Charlotte and Notre Dame in Louisville.

What is different now is that Kentucky’s preferred neutral sites have gone national.

In addition to the CBS Sports Classic, Kentucky is also an annual participant in the Champions Classic with Duke, Kansas and Michigan State.

Mitch Barnhart
Kentucky’s athletics director, Mitch Barnhart, said UK’s participation in high-profile, neutral-court events such as the Champions Classic and the CBS Sports Classic is “a good thing.” Silas Walker

Being a part of those two Classics has allowed UK to play other blue-blood programs in recruit-rich locales such as New York City, Atlanta, Chicago and Indianapolis (Champions Classic) plus Brooklyn, Chicago (again), Las Vegas and New Orleans (CBS Sports Classic).

“There are going to be some really important neutral-site games that we will want to try to continue to pursue,” Mitch Barnhart, UK’s athletics director, said earlier this month. “They are important to us. They are important for recruiting, they are important for visibility.

“They are national exposures that our program has relished and enjoyed. And I don’t think that is a bad thing — that’s a good thing.”

Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.