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Fan offers ideas for enlivening UK’s non-conference schedule

Kentucky fan Tony Thomas, center, with Tyler Herro, left, and Quade Green, right, traveled to the Bahamas to watch the Cats play in 2018.

Kentucky fan Tony Thomas, center, with Tyler Herro, left, and Quade Green, right, traveled to the Bahamas to watch the Cats play in 2018.

Photo provided

John Calipari has called the ho-hum non-conference opponents that come to Rupp Arena early each season necessary punching bags in the staging of “tune-up games.” For some Kentucky fans, a better label might be turn-off games.

Tony Thomas, a 1988 UK graduate (degree in architecture) and self-described second-generation UK basketball fan, took this a step further. Rather than merely grumble, I have recently proposed — via email — a 2022-23 schedule for Kentucky.

“Something needs to be done about creating a schedule that respects the monumental icon that is Rupp Arena as well as creates value and interest for the season ticket-holders,” he wrote. He added that his schedule was “meant to be a fun exercise and semi-humorous.”

Thomas would have Kentucky open next season on Nov. 8 against Bellarmine. “OK, enough talking about it. Just do it!” he wrote.

Three days later, Kentucky would play Navy on Nov. 11. “It’s Veterans Day,” he wrote.

Citing the need for revenue from television, Thomas made room for neutral-site games. The first on his schedule would be against Michigan State in Indianapolis on Nov. 15. “UK needs to take care of salaries,” he wrote, “and help the non-revenue UK sports and then more salaries.”

Thomas, 58, is an architect for a Lexington-based company. Maybe a penchant for design helped him think of what he called an Even-it-up Tournament. Opponents must have a winning record against Kentucky. “WE CAN’T HAVE THAT!” he wrote in capital letters.

The tournament would begin with a game against either DePauw (3-1 against UK) or Middle Tennessee (1-0). In its second game, Kentucky could then try to even its record against Gardner-Webb (1-0).

Thomas would have Kentucky play Duke in Rupp Arena on Dec. 17. “And YES, that means we go to Cameron the next year,” he wrote. “IT’S OK! Isn’t that great for sports and college basketball?!”

Kentucky would play at Louisville on Dec. 24. It would be Kentucky’s first game on Christmas Eve since a memorable 56-54 victory at Illinois in 1983. It was so cold the assigned referees could not make it to the game. So, three high school referees were brought out of the stands to officiate. The UK team plane froze on the runway, which led to a bus ride home.

Three days later in Thomas’ 2022-23 schedule, Kentucky would play the Georgetown Hoyas (2-0) in a home game that he said could be moved to a future Even-it-up Tournament.

Thomas was skeptical of the Kentucky-Michigan game actually scheduled in London on Dec. 4 drawing much local interest. “I doubt many Londoners will set down their tea to watch the ‘telly’ because the Kentucky Fried Chicken Wildcats are playing,” he wrote.

The Thomas non-conference schedule has home games against Notre Dame, Saint Peter’s and either Kansas or Texas in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge.

Of course, Kentucky lost to Saint Peter’s in the first round of this year’s NCAA Tournament.

Of Kentucky playing the Peacocks, he wrote, “Hey, why not?! Lots of interest here!”

As with Georgetown, Saint Peter’s could play in a future Even-it-Up Tournament, Thomas wrote.

Money’s worth?

Prices of Kentucky season tickets in the lower arena last season ranged from $1,500 with a $5,000 donation to the K Fund per seat to $1,400 with a $1,000 donation.

The range for upper arena seats was $1,400 with a $1,000 donation to $850 with no donation.

Single-game ticket prices for the games against Robert Morris, Ohio and North Florida ranged from $40 to $65 per seat. Games against Mount St. Mary’s, Albany, Central Michigan and Southern had a price range of $30 to $55 per seat.

The High Point game, which included a ceremony honoring Tubby Smithhad the same price range as Missouri, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, LSU and Ole Miss: $50 to $80 per seat.

The range for games against Georgia, Tennessee, Florida and Alabama was $80 to $110.

Single-game tickets for the scheduled game against Louisville cost $110 to $140.

Question: Is giving fans their money’s worth a factor in scheduling?

The person who helps make UK schedules, associate athletics director Kevin Sergentsaid via email that finding opponents that appeal to fans is part of the process.

Fan Tony Thomas buys seven season tickets (two lower, five upper), so he is literally as well as figuratively invested in Kentucky’s schedule.

“If the pre-conference home schedule is any indication, I do not see that the UK puts a priority on making the home schedule interesting, nor season tickets valuable,” he wrote in an email. “I used to circle the date with excitement and anticipation of the Name-Brand games that I knew were coming to Rupp. I have become much less interested in these non-conference home games.

“I used to have friends and relatives call me in advance to go to the games or buy tickets from me. No one ever asks me to go to the games or buy my tickets anymore. I have difficulty GIVING tickets away sometimes.”

Not so easy

ESPN basketball analyst Jay Bilas said that because fans are a “target audience,” college programs should seek to schedule appealing opponents.

But that is not an easy task, Bilas said. “It’s not like you can just call up Kansas and say, hey, do you want to come play in November? … While Kentucky is looking for what’s best for their schedule, so is everyone else. And nobody wants to schedule a loss.”

Factors affecting UK’s schedule making include potential opponents’ schedules and availability of Rupp Arena, Kevin Sergent wrote. Sergent said he meets regularly with John Calipari about scheduling. The UK coach approves all opponents.

Players want challenge

Jay Bilas said that fans are not the only group of people who want college teams to play challenging schedules.

“Some coaches miss this point because they talk about how many games they need to win,” Bilas said. “I get it. But players don’t want to play these cream puff games, either. Because the best players don’t get to play as much. You beat somebody by 30, and you’re only playing 25 minutes in the game. Sometimes that’s good. Sometimes it’s not.”

Kentucky usually meets the objective of a balanced schedule with challenging opponents and cream puffs.

“If you’re a fan, you want to see those great games every game,” Bilas said. “That’s not always feasible.”

Duke, too

Kentucky fans are not alone in wanting more marquee opponents in home games.

“Duke hears the same thing Kentucky does,” said Jay Bilas, who played for Duke and later worked for the Blue Devils as an assistant coach. “It’s no different. Their fans complain about the same things. Why are we playing this team? Or I don’t want to see this. How come we’re not playing on the road at these places? The complaints are the same everywhere.”

Kentucky played in eight Quad 4 games this past season. So did Duke, which advanced to the Final Four.

The other three Final Four teams (Kansas, North Carolina and Villanova) played in a total of 13 Quad 4 games.

Besides Kentucky, the only other SEC teams to play in eight or more Quad 4 games were Texas A&M (9-0) and Florida (7-1).

According to Ken Pomeroy‘s ratings, Kentucky’s non-conference strength of schedule was 242. UK’s overall strength of schedule was 30.

Duke’s non-conference strength of schedule was 288. The Blue Devils’ overall strength of schedule was 42.

happy birthday

To Larry Steele. I have turned 73 on Thursday. … To former UK president Lee Todd. I have turned 76 on Friday. … To Jacob toppin. He turns 22 on Sunday. … To Heshimu Evans. He turns 47 on Sunday. … To J. P. Blevins. He turns 43 on Sunday. … To Jarrod Polson. He turns 31 on Sunday. … To former UConn guard (and UK nemesis in 2010-11) kemba walker. He turns 32 on Sunday. … To Jon Hood. He turns 31 on Monday. … To former UConn coach Jim Calhoun. He turns 80 on Tuesday.

This story was originally published May 7, 2022 6:00 AM.

Jerry Tipton has covered Kentucky basketball beginning with the 1981-82 season to the present. He is a member of the United States Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame.
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