The Marshall-Western Kentucky men’s basketball rivalry has narrowly swung the Hilltoppers’ way of late, but the Herd scored something WKU couldn’t on Tuesday.
Marshall is bound for Rupp Arena for a nonconference game with Kentucky on Dec. 29.
WKU tried to get the Wildcats on this coming season’s schedule, spokesmen for both programs said, but Kentucky elected to go with the Thundering Herd and UAB to fill its final two nonconference slots for 2020-21, the Cats announced Tuesday.
Twelve minutes after UK released its completed non-league slate on Twitter, WKU’s account composed an eyebrow-raising response.
“If you’re making the C-USA tour, give us a call back sometime!” the Toppers’ account quote-tweeted Kentucky’s. “We’re ready and right down the road.”
And a second message moments later: “Oh, and our previous offer for these dates still stands. Play us and we’ll give the full guarantee check to charity to help within our state.”
It is by now a bona fide observable phenomenon that Kentucky is less likely to meet WKU in men’s basketball than certain other in-state Division I schools.
Louisville is, of course, foremost among those opponents. The Cats and the Cards have met annually since 1983-84.
Makes sense for all parties, because Louisville is Kentucky’s peer — at least in terms of power-conference status — and their encounters draw national attention.
Not counting the Cards, the Cats have played 11 regular-season and exhibition games against in-state Division I opponents since the dawn of the new millennium.
The first was against Western Kentucky, on Nov. 15, 2001. The Toppers won that night, 64-52.
Since then, Kentucky has played Morehead State and Eastern Kentucky five times apiece in regular season or exhibition play.
The Cats won those affairs by an average of 25.0 points per game.
However, the last regular-season ledger entry for UK against WKU remains that 2001 loss.
Are any of the aforementioned facts related?
Zach Greenwell, WKU’s associate athletic director of communications and media relations, didn’t answer an emailed question asking whether the feeling in Bowling Green is that the Cats duck the Toppers, but he did say WKU initiated contact with Kentucky to try to find a way to revive the series.
“We reached out in May to Kentucky to pitch potentially playing a sort of ‘Team Kentucky’ game where we deferred any guarantee money to charities within our state and communities,” Greenwell said, “in addition to other initiatives and ways to give back around the game.”
Eric Lindsey, Kentucky’s director of athletics communications and public relations, confirmed that those talks took place.
But the Cats ultimately decided to pass on a date with WKU. Greenwell said the Toppers “fully understand (UK’s) thought process” and Lindsey said “we will continue to discuss scheduling opportunities with WKU for future seasons.”
The encounter, and its lack of fruit, illustrates where things stand between UK and WKU.
Kentucky, for all intents and purposes, has its pick of non-conference opponents, owing to its status as a sport-wide blue-blood that moves the needle across the country.
If the Cats don’t want to play any particular non-conference opponent, they don’t need to, and they won’t.
Adolph Rupp was known, according to bigbluehistory.net, to prefer not to play in-state competition because of the lack of upside for his team.
On paper, given where each program in the commonwealth stands, Kentucky would be a hands-down favorite to beat every other school except Louisville. And even so, UK leads that series, 37-16, including victories in 11 of its last 13 meetings with U of L.
But Western Kentucky (as well as Murray State, which UK has never played) is typically good enough to have, at worst, an outside shot at making the Cats’ lives miserable on a given night.
So, that line of thinking attributed to Rupp goes, why risk such a loss? Why should UK chance losing its status as undisputed top dog in the state?
WKU, meanwhile, stands no lower than third among all-sports programs in Kentucky. The Toppers own eight wins against Power Five-conference opponents in the last three seasons, but they need a shot at the Big Blue to have any chance to climb that ladder — one Kentucky has shown no interest in granting.
UK, however, has played Marshall twice since the last time it engaged WKU in the regular season, in addition to the 2020 date. And the Herd and the Toppers are on fairly even footing, having split their last 10 meetings down the middle.
One can infer here from Kentucky’s periodical willingness to play Marshall but not WKU that the Cats still adhere to the Rupp doctrine of viewing a non-league loss to any Kentucky team except U of L as damaging to its brand, more so than a setback to an opponent more similar in profile than geography.
(Never mind that Marshall is actually closer to Lexington than WKU is. An email to Marshall’s sports information department seeking comment on the matter was not returned by deadline.)
The Hilltoppers haven’t given up, though, and made that known publicly on Tuesday.
“Our main message was simply to our own fan base that we’re trying everything we can to be creative in finding quality games that are interesting to them,” Greenwell said. “Many ask every year whether or not we make overtures to try to play UK, and we obviously believe that would be a great opportunity against an elite, historical program.”
Reach ZACK KLEMME at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2658. Follow @zklemmeADI on Twitter.