Mark Story

Mark Story: If Kentucky-Duke women fill Rupp, is it time for UK Hoops to play more games there?

Bria Goss (13) scored on a baseline drive as Kentucky played DePaul at Rupp Arena last December. The Cats drew 18,488 that game, the largest Lexington attendance for the program.
Bria Goss (13) scored on a baseline drive as Kentucky played DePaul at Rupp Arena last December. The Cats drew 18,488 that game, the largest Lexington attendance for the program. Herald-Leader

Regardless of the outcome of No. 5 Kentucky's meeting with No. 2 Duke, Matthew Mitchell is predicting that history will be made Sunday in Rupp Arena.

The Wildcats women's basketball coach predicted Thursday that the UK-Duke game will be a complete sellout. "We are very, very close," Mitchell said.

If it happens, it will be the first time in history that Rupp Arena's 23,000-plus capacity has been filled for a UK women's basketball game. The largest crowd to see a Kentucky women's game in Lexington was the 18,488 who watched the Cats paste DePaul in Rupp last season.

A sold-out Rupp Arena on Sunday would mean Duke-UK breaks the record for largest crowd ever to see a college women's hoops game in the commonwealth — that mark is 22,152 for the first Kentucky-Louisville game played in the KFC Yum Center Dec. 5, 2010.

If the UK women draw more than 23,000 in Rupp, they also will have done something the Wildcats men have yet to do this season in their first seven home games.

"Incredibly exciting," Mitchell said of the prospect of selling out Rupp.

All of which raises a question: If Kentucky can fill Rupp Arena for a marquee women's basketball matchup, is it time for the university to return more of UK Hoops' games to the downtown arena in order to continue to "grow the program?"

"A legitimate question to ask and certainly something we have to think about," Mitchell said Thursday.

Currently, the UK women play all but one home game a season in Memorial Coliseum, the venerable on-campus building where the Kentucky's men's team played from 1950-76. Capacity in "The House That Rupp Built" is some 7,900.

In Mitchell's first year (2007-08) as Kentucky head man, UK played five times in Rupp Arena. The games drew OK — two crowds of more than 7,800; an average of 6,329 — but the Cats went 1-4 in those contests and Mitchell felt his team had no "home-court advantage."

"When we got here, we were playing five or six at Rupp (a season), getting very nice crowds for women's basketball, but it was not a real good atmosphere," Mitchell said. "I just thought (Memorial Coliseum) is really special. It's a perfect size for us."

Starting in 2008-09, Mitchell made Memorial the full-time home for UK Hoops. The average attendance that first year was 4,423.

Of course, it was 2009-10 when Mitchell installed the frenetic, full-court defensive system that has altered the trajectory of what had long been a lagging Kentucky women's program.

Starting in that '09-10 season, UK has made four straight NCAA Tournaments, played in three Elite Eights and become a familiar Top 10 team.

In that time, the Cats' home record is 69-3 — 67-3 in Memorial, 2-0 in Rupp (where the Cats resumed playing one contest a season in 2011-12).

During this period of program uptick, UK's home attendance reached an average of 6,364 (2010-11). However, it has since declined to 6,282 (2011-12) and 6,144 (2012-13).

A crowd of 6,000 looks big in the Coliseum; it would be swallowed up in Rupp.

"I don't know how much sense it really makes for us to play all of our games or a majority of our games at Rupp Arena until every game in Memorial Coliseum is sold out," Mitchell said. "And that there is some indication that there is double that (number) that wants to get in the door."

UK would need some sign that it could average 15,000, 16,000 fans every game for a full-time move to Rupp Arena to make economic sense, Mitchell said. Tennessee, which led the nation in women's basketball attendance last season, averaged 11,390 a game.

As I've argued in the debate about Kentucky's plans to shrink the capacity of Commonwealth Stadium as part of a planned $110 million renovation, bigger is not always better for an athletics program. As the on-the-court record over these past five seasons suggests, Kentucky women's basketball has been well-served by playing in Memorial Coliseum.

Still, with the University of Kentucky in the midst of a dormitory construction boom that has affected on-campus parking, I wonder if the time is now right for Mitchell and UK to move a couple more high-profile games each season back to Rupp Arena.

It might take a S.W.A.T. team to get the coach to ever make the move out of Memorial Coliseum full-time.

"You might possibly add a conference game (in Rupp) and play two (games each season)," Mitchell said. "(But) it's gonna take my bosses to tell me to leave Memorial Coliseum. Memorial is an awesome place to play. We've had great success there."


No. 2 Duke at No. 5 Kentucky

When: 3 p.m. TV: FS South