This morning, Kentucky added five games to its 2019-20 schedule, including a date with Georgia Tech in Rupp Arena. A few hours later, word also leaked out that the Cats will take on Texas Tech in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge in January, making Kentucky’s non-conference schedule complete. The response from fans? Underwhelming, to say the least.
Since John Calipari took over in 2009, Kentucky’s scheduling philosophy has shifted dramatically, skewing away from home-and-home series vs. rival blue bloods in favor of neutral site series vs. elite programs and home-and-neutral site series vs. lesser Power Five teams or even mid-majors. Calipari has his reasons — he says he favors neutral site games over home-and-homes to prepare his team for the tournament — but it’s clear that ten years in, he’s got a recipe and he’s sticking to it.
Here’s how Kentucky’s non-conference schedule has evolved in the Calipari Era:
(Rankings are from the AP Poll at the time of the game)
- Stanford — Neutral (Cancun Challenge)
- No. 10 North Carolina — Home
- No. 14 UConn — Neutral (SEC/Big East Challenge, New York)
- Indiana — Away
- Louisville — Home
In his first season, Cal inherited the Cancun Challenge from Billy Gillispie, with its chandeliers and bars under the bleachers. Also on the schedule: the SEC/Big East Challenge and home-and-home series with North Carolina, Indiana, and Louisville.
- Oklahoma — Neutral (Maui Invitational)
- No. 13 Washington — Neutral (Maui Invitational)
- UConn — Neutral (Maui Invitational)
- North Carolina — Away
- No. 23 Notre Dame — Neutral (SEC/Big East Challenge, Louisville)
- Indiana — Home
- No. 22 Louisville — Away
Ahh, the Maui Invitational, how we miss thee. Calipari vowed never to play in the event again because he didn’t want to put his team through three games in three days, a sad moment for Big Blue fans looking for an excuse to take a trip to Hawaii.
- No. 12 Kansas — Neutral (Champions Classic, New York)
- Penn State — Neutral (Hall of Fame Tip Off, Connecticut)
- St. John’s — Home (SEC/Big East Challenge)
- No. 5 North Carolina — Home
- Indiana — Away
- No. 4 Louisville — Home
This is the year the Champions Classic was born, giving Calipari the perfect alternative to the Maui Invitational (in his mind). Kentucky also played in the Hall of Fame Tip Off at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, beginning the trend of random neutral site games. This year marked the end of the North Carolina and Indiana series, the latter dying the moment Christian Watford hit the shot to send Hoosiers fans trampling down to the court. Calipari has offered to do a neutral site series with Indiana — with both games in Indianapolis — but the Hoosiers still refuse.
- Maryland — Neutral (Barclays Center Classic, New York)
- No. 9 Duke — Neutral (Champions Classic, Atlanta)
- Notre Dame — Away (SEC/Big East Challenge)
- Baylor — Home
- No. 4 Louisville — Away
With no Indiana or North Carolina, Kentucky added Baylor to the home schedule and a game vs. Maryland in a five-team round-robin tournament to celebrate the opening of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
- No. 2 Michigan State — Neutral (Champions Classic, Chicago)
- Providence — Neutral (Barclays Center, New York)
- No. 20 Baylor — Neutral (Big 12/SEC Challenge, Dallas)
- Boise State — Home
- No. 18 North Carolina — Away
- Belmont — Home
- No. 6 Louisville — Home
This year started the trend of home-and-neutral site series with lower Power 5 teams, with Kentucky playing Providence in New York and Providence coming to Rupp the next season. The home-and-home series with North Carolina started up again in 2013, but with Louisville as the only marquee home game, Kentucky added games vs. Boise State and Belmont (yawn).
- No. 5 Kansas — Neutral (Champions Classic, Indianapolis)
- Providence — Home
- No. 6 Texas — Home (SEC/Big 12 Challenge)
- No. 21 North Carolina — Home
- UCLA — Neutral (CBS Sports Classic, Chicago)
- No. 4 Louisville — Away
UK beefed up its non-conference slate with the CBS Sports Classic in 2014. Having Texas and North Carolina at Rupp was big, but now that the Tar Heels were also participating in the CBS Sports Classic, there was no need to renew the home-and-home series moving forward. (See what Calipari did there?)
- No. 5 Duke — Neutral (Champions Classic, Chicago)
- UCLA — Away
- Arizona State — Home
- Ohio State — Neutral (CBS Sports Classic, New York)
- No. 16 Louisville — Home
- No. 4 Kansas — Away (SEC/Big 12 Challenge)
With the two-year series vs. Providence over, UK brought in Arizona State for its next home-and-neutral site series. The Sun Devils came to Rupp, and instead of Kentucky returning the favor and going to Tempe, they agreed to play next year’s game in the Bahamas. The Cats also participated in the HoopHall Miami Invitational to add games vs. Boston University and Orlando Antigua’s South Florida. However, Kentucky did add a home-and-home series with UCLA to give fans the chance to check out historic Pauley Pavilion.
- No. 13 Michigan State — Neutral (Champions Classic, New York)
- Arizona State — Neutral (Atlantis Showcase, Bahamas)
- No. 11 UCLA — Home
- Hofstra — Neutral (Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festival, New York)
- No. 7 North Carolina — Neutral (CBS Sports Classic, Las Vegas)
- No. 10 Louisville — Away
- No. 2 Kansas — Home (SEC/Big 12 Challenge)
Home games vs. UCLA and Kansas helped offset four neutral-site games, one of which was vs. Hofstra in the Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festival, which might as well have been called the “Calipari Wants A Weekend In New York” Classic.
- No. 4 Kansas — Neutral (Champions Classic, Chicago)
- Harvard — Home
- Monmouth — Neutral (Citi Hoops Classic, New York)
- Virginia Tech — Home
- UCLA — Neutral (CBS Sports Classic, New Orleans)
- Louisville — Home
- No. 7 West Virginia — Away (SEC/Big 12 Challenge)
The “Calipari Wants A Weekend In New York” Classic was renamed the Citi Hoops Classic in 2017. Kentucky also added home games vs. Harvard and Virginia Tech.
- No. 4 Duke — Neutral (Champions Classic, Indianapolis)
- Seton Hall — Neutral (Citi Hoops Classic, New York)
- Utah — Home
- No. 9 North Carolina — Neutral (CBS Sports Classic, Chicago)
- Louisville — Away
- No. 9 Kansas — Home (SEC/Big 12 Challenge)
UK took on Seton Hall in the “Calipari Wants A Weekend In New York” Classic and Utah in the start of a two-year home-and-neutral site series.
- No. 1 Michigan State — Neutral (Champions Classic, New York)
- Georgia Tech — Home
- Utah — Neutral (Las Vegas)
- No. 12 Ohio State – Neutral (CBS Sports Classic, Las Vegas)
- No. 5 Louisville — Home
- No. 11 Texas Tech — Away (SEC/Big 12 Challenge)
(Since we don’t have any official preseason polls yet, I used Jeff Borzello’s “Way Too Early” Top 25.)
Kentucky drew preseason No. 1 Michigan State in this year’s Champions Classic, and Ohio State is expected to be legit; however, the only marquee home games at Rupp are the annual clash with Louisville, a preseason top five squad, and Georgia Tech, who finished last season No. 127 in the NCAA’s NET rankings. The Cats may be taking on four preseason top 15 teams in the non-conference slate, but the lack of quality home games will keep fans grumbling.
Cal’s recipe for a non-conference slate
- Champions Classic (neutral site)
- CBS Sports Classic (neutral site)
- SEC/Big 12 Challenge (home-and-home)
- Louisville (home-and-home)
- Two home-and-neutral-site series vs. mid-level Power 5 teams
- Round Robin tournaments at Rupp vs. crappy teams (Keightley Classic, Bluegrass Showcase, Adolph Rupp Classic, BBN Showcase, etc.)
In ten years, Kentucky’s gone from home-and-home series with three rivals (Indiana, North Carolina, and Louisville), destination tournaments, and the SEC/Big East Challenge to two major neutral site games, the Louisville series, and various home-and-neutral-site series vs. underwhelming opponents. SEC Basketball has improved a lot over the past few years, which helps keep Kentucky’s strength of schedule high, but there’s no denying that the non-conference home schedule is not what it once was.
With annual games against top five/top ten teams in the Champions Classic, the CBS Sports Classic, and the SEC/Big 12 Challenge and the league only getting tougher, you can see why Calipari’s taken this approach, but I doubt many of you are happy about it.