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Neither Self nor Calipari a fan of timing of marquee KU-UK matchup

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Several Jayhawks defend against a shot from Kentucky forward PJ Washington (25) during the second half on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017 at United Center.

Several Jayhawks defend against a shot from Kentucky forward PJ Washington (25) during the second half on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017 at United Center. by Nick Krug

Even though a top-10 caliber basketball team should be better prepared to face an opponent of its ilk in late January than it would be nearly three months earlier, during the season’s opening week, it’s safe to say two of college basketball’s most recognizable and successful head coaches prefer their November battles over clashes that come during the heart of each team’s conference schedule.

Both Kentucky’s John Calipari and University of Kansas coach Bill Self on Thursday described the timing of this weekend’s marquee SEC/Big 12 Challenge matchup as less than ideal.

The Wildcats (15-3 overall, 5-1 SEC) enter the Saturday showdown at Rupp Arena (5 p.m. tipoff, ESPN) ranked No. 8 in the country, coming off back-to-back victories over top-25 teams from UK’s conference, Auburn and Mississippi State.

As much as college basketball fans look forward to this type of blue blood encounter between two of the nation’s elite programs, Calipari would prefer to keep grinding away in the SEC.

“This league, top to bottom, there are no games that we, Kentucky, or me as a coach, that we’ll walk into thinking, ‘All right. We won.’ And to play this at this time of the year, I’m not for it,” Calipari said during the SEC coaches teleconference of UK’s date with the No. 9 Jayhawks (16-3 overall, 5-2 Big 12).

The timing of the made-for-ESPN SEC/Big 12 Challenge, Calipari made clear, is suboptimal, because the league schedule already is tasking his team enough.

Kentucky is one of three SEC teams ranked in the top 17 according to KenPom.com, which has eight total teams from KU’s league ranked among the top 46 in the country and boasts the current No. 1 in the AP top 25, Tennessee.

Kentucky head coach John Calipari has words for an official during the first half on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017 at United Center.

Kentucky head coach John Calipari has words for an official during the first half on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017 at United Center. by Nick Krug

“We don’t need something in the middle of our league that takes us away from league play to prove how good we are and prove how good we’re not,” Calipari said.

During his past stops as a head coach, Calipari actually sought out such mid-season tests. At Memphis, he would break up the Tigers’ Conference USA schedule with games against programs such as Gonzaga or Tennessee. When he had UMass rolling in the mid-1990s, Calipari’s Minutemen would interrupt their Atlantic-10 dominance with nonconference games versus the likes of Pittsburgh or Louisville.

“I always played teams like this in the middle of our league play, because the league wasn’t giving us what we needed,” Calipari explained.

The Kentucky coach wasn’t so certain a midseason basketball exam against Kansas is what his current team needs at this exact time.

“But if it ends up being good for both leagues and it ends up being a good thing, then I’m fine. We’ll play the game — I’m not saying that,” Calipari went on. “But I’m just saying, this league is hard enough. We don’t need anything in the middle to say, ‘This will show how good we are or how good they are.’ I don’t agree with it.”

Much in the way UK doesn’t have one of its historic, nearly unstoppable teams, such as the years when superstars like Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Davis manned the paint, Self’s Jayhawks aren’t a Big 12 juggernaut this season, either.

If Kansas were in the midst of steamrolling the rest of the conference, a hiatus for a step up in competition would double as a welcome opportunity to see how the Jayhawks stacked up against another highly successful program.

When asked during his weekly press conference, though, about the positives and negatives of playing in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge right near the middle of the conference schedule, Self began his response by presenting the downside.

Kentucky head coach John Calipari and Kansas head coach Bill Self have a joint meeting with an official after a double technical foul during the first half, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kentucky head coach John Calipari and Kansas head coach Bill Self have a joint meeting with an official after a double technical foul during the first half, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

“The negatives are it comes at a bad time of the season. I mean, it’s not a great game. It’s not a great game for Kentucky. It’s not a great game for us. But,” Self quickly added after a pause, “it’s a great game because, to the kids, we get a chance to play Kentucky. And to their kids, they probably think the same thing about playing us.”

Similar to the Wildcats, the Jayhawks find themselves in a no-days-off type of conference (see: last-place West Virginia’s win over Kansas this past weekend). Arguably, the Big 12 is even more rigorous than the SEC, because of the 10-team league’s round-robin format and the fact that every Big 12 team — even relative outliers Oklahoma State and West Virginia — currently reside among the top 90 teams nationally, according to KenPom. Conversely, the 14-team SEC’s four worst teams — South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Georgia and Texas A&M — rank between 100 and 133.

While KU currently can claim first place in the Big 12 standings, the 14-time defending league champion currently shares that spot with Kansas State, with three other teams within a game of the co-leaders.

What’s more, eight of the Big 12’s teams currently rank among the top 45 in the country, per KenPom. So, from Self’s perspective, a nonconference game at Kentucky doesn’t seem quite so consequential, given where it falls on the schedule.

“It’s not as important as playing at Texas,” Self said, comparing the KU-UK confrontation to KU’s upcoming trip to play the Longhorns on Tuesday. “But in the moment it’s as big as any game that we’ll have. And to our players, they’ll feel that same way, too.”

KU’s 16th-year head coach figured most of his peers, as Calipari’s comments seemed to confirm, aren’t fans of fragmenting the league schedule.

“But it’s great exposure for our league, it’s great exposure for the SEC,” Self acknowledged. “And for one day on game day, we’ll actually be hearing about the Big 12 and all the schools in it, which is great for our league.”

8 SEC and 8 Big 12 teams ranked in KenPom top 50

(Rankings entering Thursday)

No. 5: Tennessee

No. 9: Kentucky

No. 12: Kansas

No. 13: Iowa State

No. 15: Texas Tech

No. 17: Auburn

No. 22: TCU

No. 24: Oklahoma

No. 26: LSU

No. 27: Florida

No. 28: Mississippi State

No. 29: Texas

No. 36: Kansas State

No. 37: Mississippi

No. 45: Baylor

No. 46: Alabama

6 SEC and 2 Big 12 teams ranked outside KenPom top 50

No. 65: Arkansas

No. 74: Oklahoma State

No. 79: Missouri

No. 88: West Virginia

No. 100: South Carolina

No. 101: Vanderbilt

No. 115: Georgia

No. 133: Texas A&M

2019 SEC/Big 12 Challenge Schedule

(Rankings from AP)

No. 24 Iowa State (14-5) at No. 20 Ole Miss (14-4) — ESPN, 11 a.m. 

Alabama (12-6) at Baylor (12-6) — ESPNU, 11 a.m. 

Florida (11-7) at TCU (14-4) — ESPN2, 11 a.m. 

Kansas State (15-4) at Texas A&M (7-10) — ESPN, 1 p.m. 

South Carolina (10-8) at Oklahoma State (8-11) — ESPNU, 1 p.m. 

Texas (11-8) at Georgia (9-9) — ESPN2, 1 p.m. 

West Virginia (9-10) at No. 1 Tennessee (17-1) — ESPN, 3 p.m. 

Vanderbilt (9-9) at Oklahoma (14-5) — ESPN2, 3 p.m. 

No. 9 Kansas (16-3) at No. 8 Kentucky (15-3) — ESPN, 5 p.m. 

Arkansas (11-7) at No. 14 Texas Tech (15-4) — ESPN2, 5 p.m.

Comments

Bryce Landon 1 year, 4 months ago

As I understand, the reason we're playing this game now is because, previously, the SEC-Big 12 Challenge was overshadowed by conference title games and bowl games in football. Both conferences are, of course, football-first conferences. The Challenge was moved to now so that more fans of teams from these leagues would watch.

Dane Pratt 1 year, 4 months ago

Except for West Virginia at Tennessee the matchups are not bad. And of course poor mizoo for the fourth consecutive year was not invited.

Keep in mind the Big 12 is already 6 – 2 against the SEC this year.

Bryce Landon 1 year, 4 months ago

Since the SEC has 14 teams, how do they decide which 4 teams don't get to participate?

Brad Farha 1 year, 4 months ago

Something to do with the prior year SEC standings, or an average of prior years. They were not in the bottom 4 last year, but they were dead last the 3 years before that. .

Jay Scott 1 year, 4 months ago

It's the SEC - Big12 CHALLENGE. M'Zoo presents no challenge to any Big12 team.

Mike Bennett 1 year, 4 months ago

Another week gone and still no Silvio. Like I've said all along, the NCAA is not their for the athletes. They will sit on this and not make a decision until after the season ends hoping that Silvio declares for NBA or signs with team in NBDL, Europe..., then they can say its moot and not have to make a decision. No way this is in the best interest of the player.

Bee Bee 1 year, 4 months ago

National Communists Against Athletes.

Adam James 1 year, 4 months ago

I'm frustrated that Self and Cal think the timing is bad. Come on guys. They both need to hear the Dan Hawkins speech. "It's Division 1 football, It's the Big 12" Come on guys. This is the highest level of college sports. This is why kids come to Kansas and UK and what the fans love as well. My wife always gives me a hard time that I am so committed to watching every single KU game and its because each season there are not many games. Heck, even HS and AAU circuit these kids play more games. I understand that the level of intensity is much higher at college as I was a D1 college athlete myself, but there is also a great deal of rest time. With the exception of tournaments, teams play a max of twice a week. Come on guys! You could make the argument you want to play and easy team to get guys playing time and experience, but those games are a mirage. What does it tell you about a player that plays well against a weak team? I need to see you against good competition to see if you are ready. This is another game on the schedule. Another opportunity to compete, to develop in a tough environment, to learn something about ourselves, to face some adversity. As self says "don't be so soft". Let's embrace this and go get those Cats! RCJH!!

Jay Scott 1 year, 4 months ago

This guy!! More comments from Adam James please!

Gary McCullough 1 year, 4 months ago

I concur with Adam's arguments. Since Mizzou left the Big XII, what team has taken the mantel of our greatest rival in basketball? There isn't a single conference team we get up for like we did the Mizzou games. And no school has maintained a high level of performance over time. Kentucky is really our greatest rival. They are #1 in wins and we follow by a mere 14 games. AND, the gap has narrowed significantly over the past few years. What more do we need to get our juices flowing for this game?

Andy Godwin 1 year, 4 months ago

West Virginia versus Tennessee will be a beat down. Rick Barnes and Tennessee are legitimate national contenders. Hopefully David and Mitch can provide some valuable minutes on Saturday. Kentucky will undoubtedly pound KU inside and although Dedric puts up great numbers offensively (will need a 30/15 effort to have a chance) he is not very good guarding the opponents’ bigger centers. Games like this is when Udoka will be missed the most. Need a ruling on De Sousa, so KU and their fans can move forward. NCAA Purgatory is the worst!

Edward Daub 1 year, 4 months ago

Self and Calipari are paid millions of dollars per year, but they are not big fans of the timing of this game? Wake Up Self and Calipari!

The KU-UK Game is for the fans of both teams and without fans, your millions of dollars would evaporate. And the players receive very little compensation. Shame!

Aaron Paisley 1 year, 4 months ago

This match up is exciting for the fans and all ofnl college basketball will have their eyes on Rupp because it's Kansas and Kentucky, but I get where Self and Calipari are coming from in not liking the timing of this game.

KU has been struggling recently against lesser B12 teams and the streak is in jeopardy this season. Now Self has to focus on a game that in the big picture is pretty meaningless to the season. KU will be in the tournament and will be a high seed in the tournament, same as Kentucky. After KU, 3 of Kentucky's next 5 are against the other 3 teams in the top 4 of the SEC.

Neither side wants an injury in a nonconference game in the middle of conference play to derail each team's hopes of winning their conference.

Chad Smith 1 year, 4 months ago

From a coaching standpoint, sure I understand what self and Calipari are saying. But the grind is the only complaint you should truly have. Otherwise, this game singlehandedly brings in more revenue, recruits, interest and spotlight than almost every other game all season (besides a tournament game perhaps). Do you think Self or Calipari are ever going to say "Nope, we're not playing them this year, too much of a grind." Since we can't destroy Misery every year now, beating Kentucky and catching them in the all time wins column is super intriguing and worthwhile.

On top of this, you've known your schedule since what, last summer? You have had plenty of time to prepare to get your kids into routines and the grind of a season.

Saying the season is a grind is akin to saying "you have to play well to win games."

Well, thanks captain obvious.

Self and Calipari need to realize this means almost everything to the fans, supporters and alumni of their respective programs.

ROCK CHALK, beat UK!

Bill Kackley 1 year, 4 months ago

I, personally, as a fan, wish we were not playing this game now. I feel we need all of our attention aimed at winning thr Big 12 again. Could care less about UK game.

Jim Chastain 1 year, 4 months ago

Calipari and Self are simply employing the age old practice of "coach talk." Basically what they're saying is if we lose this game it didn't mean that much so they're downplaying it as much as possible. I guarantee you that both want to win this game really bad and the competitive juices will be flowing. They will/should have their teams ready. These guys don't really like each other all that much and whoever wins will be singing a different tune about the importance of this game.

Marius Rowlanski 1 year, 4 months ago

We've already lost to West Virginia and Oklahoma State seems to have her number at least once every year. Cannot afford to lose to these teams at home and on the road.

Robert Brock 1 year, 4 months ago

This game is not important. Why not play the following guys 30+ minutes or more?

5 - McCormack 4 - Lightfoot 3 - Agbaji 2 - Grimes 1 - Moore

So what if we lose by 25-30 points? Big deal...

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