Every season there is a lot of talk about the Kentucky Basketball schedule. Why don’t we play Indiana? Why can’t we play a road or neutral site game with an in-state team? Why are there so many cupcakes on the schedule? Why don’t we play good teams in Rupp Arena?
Our very own Ryan Lemond probably leads the charge on Kentucky Sports Radio referring to many of the teams Kentucky plays as “poop-state.” There obviously are plenty of “easy” games on the schedule each season, but UK plays more quality opponents year-in and year-out than essentially every other blue-blood program in the country.
Let’s dive into why Kentucky’s basketball schedule is perfectly fine as is. I’ll start by explaining the scheduling process a little, then we’ll take a look at how Kentucky’s non-conference strength of schedule ranks nationally in the John Calipari era, and finish with examining how some of those “easy” games turn out to be not so easy every year.
How Scheduling Works
First off, I’ll state the obvious. I am not in the UK Basketball offices nor do I have any inside knowledge on the inner workings of the Kentucky Basketball scheduling process. However, from my past life as a college basketball coach, I have worked on a college basketball schedule.
The first thing to note is that it is not always easy for really good teams like Kentucky to find games. That is the reason why the “buy games” against low-major programs exist. For those who may not know, when high-major programs play low-major teams they pay tens, or even hundreds of thousands, of dollars for that team to come play. Those so-called cupcake games are not just charity. The money is used to entice a team to come play a game that they all but know will be a loss.
So, let’s just pick a random Power Five conference team for an example. I just saw Clemson on my television screen so let’s go with them. It is almost impossible for Kentucky to schedule a team like Clemson unless there is some pre-existing relationship or it is a part of a television or sponsorship deal (think CBS Classic, SEC/BIG 12 Challenge, etc). Clemson doesn’t want to play Kentucky because they lose enough in the ACC conference season. That is why you see those lower or mid-tier Power Five programs generally play the WORST non-conference schedules. Since they don’t want to take a loss, Kentucky would have to pay them. For starters, Clemson doesn’t really need the money so they might literally turn down any amount. However, let’s say they would take $100,000. Kentucky would be better off paying Miami (OH) $300,000 “knowing” it will be a win as opposed to paying a team from a power conference that may win one out of ten games. It simply isn’t worth it.
Let’s give a quick look at last season’s schedule. Kentucky opened with Michigan State as part of the Champions Classic. That is obviously a very good game every year and one that Kentucky gets compensated for. Eastern Kentucky was up next. This is the type of game that does lean a little bit towards charity so they chose an in-state program with a native Kentuckian Head Coach.
Next, you had the University of Evansville, which was a game based on the fact that Walter McCarty was the Aces head coach. You then play the BBN Showcase, which is probably the fan’s biggest point of contention. However, it begins with the relationship to former Utah Valley head coach Mark Pope, who I’m sure helped schedule this game despite him leaving after the 2018-2019 season. Since the BBN Showcase is a round-robin event, you have to schedule teams that the other teams are willing to play so you can’t have another blue-chip program in there, or else the other two teams wouldn’t show up. The last “random” game on the schedule was the Fairleigh Dickson game, but when you know the backstory it isn’t random either. Coach Calipari knows their head coach from way back in their Five Star Basketball Camp days and the two spent a lot of time coaching on the east coast. This is a game similar to Evansville in that it is helping out a friend with a big “buy” game.
The other games, Utah, Georgia Tech, Ohio State, and Louisville are certainly good games that nobody has a problem with. I know that was a lot of words, but it just goes to show that there is only so much wiggle room in the schedule. Also, when you consider the number of quality opponents Kentucky already has scheduled due to their spots in the Champions Classic, CBS Sports Classic, and the Louisville game, it simply isn’t realistic that the schedule gets stacked with more Top 25 times. Literally no program does that.
As for the games against low-majors, as I explained, that is essentially the way it has to be. Now you can argue that you would rather only ever play in-state teams (I’m not from Kentucky so that doesn’t matter to me) but a lot of times those games are all that Kentucky would be able to get.
Scheduling is a negotiation and most teams are not knocking down the doors for the right to go get whipped at Rupp Arena. Therefore, you either have to pay them to come or give them a return home game, and in most cases that simply isn’t worth it for the University.
Non-Conference Strength of Schedule
Enough nerding-out about how scheduling works. Let’s just look at some numbers. During the John Calipari era, where does Kentucky rank in terms of non-conference strength of schedule? Over at teamrankings.com, they have that data, but it gets a little hairy going back to Coach Cal’s first two seasons. Both non-conference slates were very strong though, especially in 2010-2011 when the ‘Cats went to the Maui Invitational.
Beginning with the 2011-2012 college basketball season, the first where Team Rankings has complete data, Kentucky finished 2nd, 23rd, 1st, 3rd, 6th, 1st, 16th, 10th, and 16th in the following seasons in terms of non-conference strength of schedule. So, objectively, that is pretty darn good. That primarily serves to show that UK’s non-conference is as strong, or even stronger than most teams in the country every season.
I understand that for fans sometimes it is more fun to watch marquee games every week, but especially with routinely young teams at Kentucky, those “tune-up” games play a very important role in getting the team to peak in March.
Upsets and Close Calls at Kentucky
We can complain about the teams that come to Rupp Arena every season, but the truth is out of the five or six low-major teams that are on the schedule, generally one at the very least gives the ‘Cats everything they can handle.
Remember back in Coach Cal’s first season when John Wall had to hit a shot at the end to beat Miami Ohio in just the second game of the season? That UK squad also had a one week stretch in non-conference play of hosting North Carolina, playing UConn in New York, and then playing at Indiana
In 2010-2011 the ‘Cats avoided any non-conference upsets but did take losses to UConn and North Carolina. The National Championship team the next season was trailing late in the second half to Old Dominion. That Kentucky team also trailed in the second half to Arkansas Little Rock and famously lost at Indiana. So, even the national championship team was in trouble in the second half of two different games against teams that some fans choose to complain about.
In 2013, the NIT year, Kentucky struggled with Morehead State before earning a victory in the second half. They also lost to Notre Dame, Baylor, and Louisville. The following season featured struggles with Cleveland State, Providence, and Belmont and a second consecutive loss to Baylor.
Most seasons, admittedly, Kentucky doesn’t actually lose to a “bad” non-conference opponent. However, as you can see by just looking at that first handful of seasons from the Coach Cal era, there were several close calls. Then, as well all know far too well, Evansville knocked us off last season at Rupp Arena in one of the most embarrassing home defeats ever. The very next game the Wildcats struggled with Utah Valley and took a while to get going against Mount St. Mary.
In college basketball, there really isn’t such a thing as an easy win. There are generally four or five openings on Kentucky’s schedule each season that are reserved for games against low-major programs that are expected to be victories. When you pair that with the four or five games against high-major, top 25, marquee competition I truly do not understand the frustration with the schedule. Especially as the Southeastern Conference continues to bring in some of the best talent in the country in recent years, those games at the beginning of the season serve an important role.
I understand from a fan’s perspective why it can be frustrating that the non-conference home games at Rupp Arena generally aren’t against big-time programs. Hopefully, my scheduling explanation gave you a little bit of insight into why it isn’t as easy as picking up the phone and schedule all the best teams in the country. Also, when looking at the numbers you can see that the UK schedule stacks up with the very best in the nation.
I’d love some feedback as to what YOU would like to see change in the coming years with the schedule. Drop your comments below or tweet me @BRamseyKSR.