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