Who is Kentucky basketball most likely to play when the ACC/SEC Challenge begins?
After a decade of basketball battles with the Big 12, there’s a new challenge ahead for the Kentucky Wildcats and their Southeastern Conference rivals.
This past weekend marked the end of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, which began with the 2013-14 season and officially concluded Saturday night when Kansas walked off the Rupp Arena floor with a 77-68 win over Kentucky.
Next up: the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The formation of the ACC/SEC Challenge — in conjunction with ESPN — was announced earlier this season and will begin with the 2023-24 campaign.
While only 10 of the SEC’s teams were able to participate in the most recent challenges with the Big 12 (which has only 10 members), all 14 SEC programs will be included, for the time being, in the competition with the ACC, which has 15 teams. One ACC squad will be left out over the first two seasons until 2025-26, when Oklahoma and Texas are scheduled to join the SEC. At that point, there will be a total of 15 challenge games per season, and one SEC team will sit out.
Kentucky, it’s safe to say, will always have a marquee matchup in the event.
UK Coach John Calipari has already started joking — with more than a hint of seriousness — that his Wildcats will end up getting paired with the toughest possible matchup each season, pointing to the frequency with which they faced Big 12 giant Kansas over the past decade.
The Cats and Jayhawks played five times in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, and the teams were paired up in the Champions Classic three times during the past decade, precluding a rematch from happening in the league challenge. So, of the seven seasons where it was possible to match Kentucky and Kansas in the inter-conference showcase, UK and KU played five of those times.
The Wildcats also played Baylor, Texas, Texas Tech and West Virginia once each, with another game scheduled against the Longhorns but canceled in the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19.
Kentucky went 5-4 in its SEC/Big 12 Challenge games.
A new showcase brings new possibilities, but it won’t take much guesswork to figure out what lies ahead for the Wildcats. Get ready for some blue-blood battles.
One team you can scratch off the list of possible UK matchups is Louisville, which already plays Kentucky in a home-and-home series each season.
It will also be tricky to schedule the two biggest names in the ACC — Duke and North Carolina — due to each team’s involvement in the Champions Classic and CBS Sports Classic, respectively, two showcase events that also include Kentucky. But the SEC/Big 12 Challenge proved that decision-makers will be looking to give UK a top opponent, and the frequency with which the Cats played Kansas tells us to expect many more Kentucky-Duke and Kentucky-UNC battles in the near future.
Here’s a look at five interesting ACC pairings for Kentucky, as well as the Cats’ history with each of the other teams in the league.
The Herald-Leader has obtained the contract for the next three years of the Champions Classic, and that agreement shows that UK will face Kansas on Nov. 14, 2023. So, the most likely scenario would be a Kentucky vs. Duke matchup in the first year of the ACC/SEC Challenge.
If that happens, the home-court nature of the event means a very big game indeed for one of those programs.
UK has not played at Cameron Indoor Stadium since Dec. 8, 1958, when the defending national champion Wildcats defeated the Blue Devils 78-64. (That was so long ago that the arena was actually known as Duke Indoor Stadium at the time).
Duke has not played a regular-season game on Kentucky’s home court since Dec. 20, 1969, when the Cats defeated the Blue Devils 98-76 in the championship game of the UKIT.
Kentucky and Duke have played once in Rupp Arena, however. The Blue Devils beat the Cats 55-54 in an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 game at UK’s home venue in 1980.
Other than that, all of the most recent meetings between the two college basketball blue-bloods have happened on neutral sites. Expect that to change soon.
Kentucky holds a 12-11 advantage in the series against Duke, though the Blue Devils have won five out of the last six matchups and nine of the past 11 meetings.
The Cats and the Tar Heels obviously have a long history of neutral-site games and home-and-home series. The CBS Sports Classic has ensured the teams would meet on a neutral court every three years or so in recent seasons, and the last iteration of the home-and-home agreement between UK and UNC ended in 2014.
If Kentucky does play Duke in year one of the ACC/SEC Challenge, expect the Cats and Heels to be matched up shortly thereafter.
UK is scheduled to play Duke in the Champions Classic in the 2024-25 season, so that could be an opportunity to pit Kentucky against North Carolina on someone’s home court, if the two teams aren’t slated to face each other in the CBS Sports Classic that season. (Future pairings for that event have not yet been released).
The Cats and Heels played a home-and-home series for 14 consecutive seasons between 2000 and 2014, before that agreement — coinciding with the creation of the CBS Sports Classic — ended. UNC leads the series with Kentucky 25-17, the best winning percentage, by far, of any college basketball program vs. the Wildcats.
If Kentucky is already scheduled to play Duke and North Carolina in the same season — or if the organizers behind the made-for-ESPN event just want to shake things up — a basketball border game pairing UK and Virginia would make a lot of sense.
The Cavaliers are no blue-blood, but they have a proud hoops history and have obviously enjoyed plenty of recent success with Tony Bennett as their head coach. Virginia is the most recent team from the ACC to win a national championship — that happened in 2019 — and Bennett has led the program to a winning record within the league in each of the past 11 seasons. Virginia is once again near the top of the ACC standings this season, and the consistency with which the Cavaliers have performed under Bennett would indicate they’ll be a potential matchup for Kentucky moving forward.
The two sides played eight games at home sites from 1914 to 1966 — four games at each school — but have met on the court just once since then: a Virginia victory over Kentucky in the 2002 Maui Invitational. UK leads the all-time series 6-3.
Outside of teams currently or formerly in the SEC, the Wildcats have played no program as much as Notre Dame, so a rekindling of that rivalry would also make sense for the new league challenge.
The two teams met for the first time in 1929, and the Cats and the Irish have shared the court more often than not in each season since then. In all, Kentucky and Notre Dame have played 64 games against each other, with UK holding a 43-21 advantage in the series.
Many of the previous meetings have been neutral-site games in Louisville, but the two sides did play a total of nine home-and-home games from 1992 through 2004, plus another home-and-home series in 2020 and 2021 (with UK losing both of those games). They also played twice in the short-lived SEC–Big East Challenge early in the Calipari era.
Of course, Notre Dame will be looking for a new coach for next season. Mike Brey announced recently that he’ll be stepping down after 23 years as the Irish head coach. Brey had a 4-6 record against Kentucky in that time.
Another big name in college basketball, Syracuse has been to six Final Fours, five of them under Coach Jim Boeheim, who is currently in his 47th season leading the Orange. The Cuse has also had staying power, going to at least one Final Four in the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s, 2000s and 2010s.
And there’s some previous history with Kentucky, too.
UK and Syracuse have played 11 times in the past — the Cats lead the series 8-3 — with each team taking one game of a home-and-home series in the heart of Rick Pitino’s coaching tenure in Lexington. Of course, the Cats and the Orange also met in the 1996 NCAA championship game, with Pitino’s UK team — led by Tony Delk and his seven three-pointers — defeating Syracuse to hang the program’s first national title banner in 18 years.
There’s also the home venue angle. Before the capacity for Rupp Arena was lowered prior to the 2018-19 season, Syracuse — with the giant Carrier Dome — was typically the Wildcats’ only real competition for the national attendance record each year. (UK still earned that honor in 20 of 23 seasons from 1995 through 2018).
Kentucky vs. the ACC
It’s also possible that another ACC program could rise to the top of college basketball in the coming years and warrant a matchup with Kentucky for the new conference challenge. Here’s a brief look at UK’s history with every other team in the league (keeping in mind that the Cats won’t play Louisville as part of this event for as long as the two sides have an annual series).
Boston College: Kentucky has never faced BC in a basketball game, and the Eagles have not been to the NCAA Tournament since 2009.
Clemson: UK holds a 12-4 advantage in its all-time series with the Tigers, who last played in Lexington as part of the 1979 NIT. The Cats have not played at Clemson since 1933. (Going into this week, the Tigers are actually at the top of the ACC standings
Florida State: Kentucky has a 6-2 lead in its series with FSU, and the two sides haven’t met since the Cats beat the Seminoles to punch a ticket to the Final Four in 1993. Florida State hasn’t played at UK since facing the Wildcats in Memorial Coliseum in 1962, and Kentucky has never played in Tallahassee. The Noles are coached by former UK assistant Leonard Hamilton.
Georgia Tech: The only ACC team that has played Kentucky more often than Notre Dame is Georgia Tech, which was a member of the SEC from 1932 to 1964. The Cats and Yellow Jackets also played six times in the 1990s and four additional times since 2000, most recently in Atlanta in 2020. UK leads the all-time series 57-16. Former Calipari assistant Josh Pastner is the head coach at Georgia Tech, which went to the Final Four in 2004 but has won only two NCAA Tournament games since then.
Miami: Kentucky and Miami have played just four times, with UK holding a 3-1 series advantage. The last time they played, the Hurricanes beat the Wildcats in Rupp Arena in 2008, the second and final season of the Billy Gillispie era.
North Carolina State: NC State has two national titles — in 1974 and 1983 — but not as much recent success. Kentucky has played the Wolfpack only four times and holds a 3-1 lead in the series. The two sides did play a home-and-home series in 1985 and 1986, their last meeting.
Pittsburgh: Kentucky has a 4-2 series advantage on Pitt, though the Panthers have won the two most recent matchups — upset wins in the 1991 preseason NIT and the 1998 Puerto Rico Shootout. Pitt had success under coaches Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon in the 2000s, but the Panthers haven’t been past the first week of the NCAA Tournament since 2009, and their only Final Four came in 1941. This could be an intriguing matchup for as long as Calipari is the coach at Kentucky, however. He is from the Pittsburgh area, never passes on an opportunity to talk about his western Pennsylvania roots and landed his first full assistant coach job at Pitt in 1985. He spent three seasons there before becoming head coach at UMass.
Virginia Tech: UK hosted the Hokies in Rupp during the 2017-18 season and beat Virginia Tech in the NCAA Tournament on the way to the 1996 title. Other than that, the two sides haven’t played since 1962. Kentucky leads the series 4-1. The Hokies have made it past the first round of the NCAA Tournament only four times in program history.
Wake Forest: Kentucky has won all five of its matchups with Wake Forest, including eliminating the Demon Deacons from the NCAA Tournament in 1993, 1996 and 2010. The ’96 game featured the soon-to-be national champion Wildcats defeating a Tim Duncan-led Wake team by 20 points in the Elite Eight. The Deacons haven’t advanced that far in March Madness since.