I recently read this article from The Athletic about non-conference scheduling in college basketball and that mid-majors are starting to find scheduling games with the Power schools more difficult because of the pandemic and less profitable as budgets are tightening and the financial guarantees these schools get from schools like Kentucky. Additionally, the mid-major schools are especially in need of extra funds so they are more willing to do one-off games, rather than asking for the 2 for 1 deals that are often struck.
And in the case of Kentucky, those kinds of deals have limited Kentucky’s ability to schedule some of our in-state schools, namely Murray State and Western Kentucky. And while the fans certainly have no knowledge of what it takes to run an athletic department and how difficult it can be to make a college basketball schedule, there is no doubt that almost no fans approve of the way the schedule has shifted under John Calipari. Rarely do the Cats have a marquee non-conference home game and when they do it is either Louisville or a forced SEC-Big 12 game. UK no longer plays North Carolina, Indiana, Notre Dame, or any other regular opponent of the 2000’s and before. But a secondary complaint has been the games that have been scheduled at Rupp have been less than stellar too. No opponents that would interest the average fan. Richmond? No thanks. A slew of opponents from the MAC, Big South, and all conference in between have left season holders begging for more.
Well, Corona Virus has given us an opening. Here’s why:
(1) Teams are going to be hesitant to travel long distances for quite some time. Utah Valley and Saint Mary’s are not coming here any time soon. You know who would not have to travel far? The other Division-1 schools in Kentucky. Murray State (266 miles), Western Kentucky (153 miles), Northern Kentucky (82 miles), Louisville (77 miles), Morehead St. (64 miles), and Eastern Kentucky (28 miles) all are easy driving distance from Lexington. No crossing of state lines. Almost all fans from the state. From a health perspective, this would be best.
(2) These schools need funds so badly right now. Their budgets are going to be in dire straights for some time. So there might be some flexibility on the standard 2 for 1 deals. What if Kentucky agrees to go home and home with Louisville every year like we already do, then rotate one road game a year for 5 years with WKU, EKU, Murray, Morehead, and Northern with the other four coming to Rupp? So a 5-year series with each of those schools, with one home game guaranteed for each. Can you imagine the excitement in Richmond, Morehead, and NKU if the Cats are coming to town? Don’t you think it wouldn’t be the end of the UK program to throw those schools a bone once in 5 years?
(3) Fans are going to be hesitant to come to an arena anyway for a few years possibly. Doesn’t the school owe it to us to try and put the most interesting home schedule possible together? Trust me, I don’t care how bad the in-state schools are, the fans would show up to watch those games over Siena, Detroit, Alabama A&M, Radford, etc. Every single time. It’s a win win. Fans get a better product. School gets larger crowds.
And it doesn’t have to stop there. I think many fans in the northern parts of the state have long clamored for a series with Cincinnati. What about Xavier? They are a top tier program, and again, if you don’t think so, I think they are better than Tennessee Tech, don’t you? The folks in the eastern part of the state would love to see a rivalry with West Virginia. And of course there is Indiana. Now would be a perfect time to reignite that series as well. Again, short travel distances for fans (no flights needed), a built in interest from fans, and an improvement from many of the games on the schedule.
So I know the non-conference schedule for this year is set but what if a non-conference schedule for 2021-22 looked like this:
Duke (Champions Classic, New York)
North Carolina (CBS Sports Classic, Las Vegas)
Morehead State (Rupp)
Northern Kentucky (Rupp)
Western Kentucky (Rupp)
Eastern Kentucky (Rupp)
West Virginia (Rupp)
Xavier (at Xavier)
Kansas (Big 12 Challenge, at Kansas)
Murray State (at Murray)
That schedule right there is comprised of 13 non-conference games. There are 3 neutral site games (Indiana, Duke and North Carolina). There are seven home games and 3 true road games (Murray State, Xavier, and Kansas). Not enough home games? Kentucky plays 8 or 9 home games during a normal non-conference season. We are throwing the in-state schools a favor and that cuts back one game. But when you consider the 9 home games last season were EKU, Evansville, Utah Valley, Mount St. Marys, Lamar, UAB, Farleigh Dickinson, Georgia Tech, and Louisville. I’m sorry, but I am willing to take one less home game if all of the home games are of interest.
I am well aware that it isn’t as easy as just saying here are the 13 opponents we want and make it happen. But travel is going to be a concern for schools and fans alike in the coming years. I understand the 13 games above are not going to happen. But I think making it a priority to schedule the in-state schools moving forward should be a must. The home schedule has become an embarrassment in my opinion. Not because the overall quality of opponent is that poor. But because the home fans experience has been completely trashed. There is hardly ever an opponent worth watching at Rupp, unless Louisville or the Big 12 opponent comes in.
Bring in 4 of the 5 in-state schools every year, Louisville and Indiana every other year, I think fans will be more than content with that schedule. The pandemic has opened this door. Let’s try and walk through it Mitch.