John Calipari and his Kentucky Wildcats will travel to Philadelphia this weekend, but they’ll be skipping a game at one of college basketball’s most revered venues.
UK’s matchup with the Penn Quakers on Saturday will take place at Wells Fargo Center, the home of the 76ers. Located a little more than 5 miles north of that arena sits The Palestra, known as “The Cathedral of College Basketball” and Penn’s home court for nearly a century.
A landmark of the sport, The Palestra was home to the very first NCAA Tournament games — back in 1939, more than 13 years after it opened — and has hosted some of basketball’s best players and coaches in the decades since.
On his weekly radio show Monday night, a caller asked Calipari if he had considered playing Saturday’s game there.
“Yeah,” Calipari responded. “For about two seconds.”
The UK coach then let loose a stream-of-consciousness retelling of his impressions of the arena.
“I’ve coached in The Palestra,” Calipari said, warming up. “Matter of fact, my teams — I’m not sure we’ve ever lost in The Palestra. We lost one game. And we got robbed. Absolutely robbed!”
He lost two games there, in fact. His first, an 87-83 defeat to Saint Joseph’s in the first round of the 1989 Atlantic-10 Tournament. And another — an 84-83 overtime loss to George Washington — in the league tourney two years later. Calipari got a technical foul in the latter. That’s when the alleged robbery occurred.
Calipari said after the loss to George Washington that day that the official who called the technical on him — veteran A-10 ref Murph Shapiro — still had hard feelings from a game a couple weeks earlier, when Calipari tried to chase Shapiro off the court after a loss to Temple.
“I could get myself into some trouble by saying some things, but I won’t,” Calipari said to start off that Palestra press conference. He went on to criticize the officiating anyway.
From there, Calipari’s UMass teams won eight straight games in the building, which used to host the opening rounds of the A-10 Tournament before the league finals were played on a campus site. Calipari’s overall record in The Palestra was 10-2.
The UK coach continued his stroll down memory lane.
“You go to the locker room, and they’ve got a chalkboard, right? … It’s so old, it doesn’t hold chalk!” he said.
And out on the court?
“Those rims in that building are like sewers,” Calipari said. “All you gotta do is throw it up and they go in. You have knees in your back. No! And they’re not your people. You sit down, and the row behind you — you got knees in your back.”
The Palestra has a capacity of about 9,000 — “You’ll walk in and say, ‘There’s no way 9,000 people can sit in here.’ Yes, sir,” Calipari said — while Wells Fargo Center, which opened in 1996, holds about 21,000, roughly the same number as Rupp Arena.
Calipari went on to say that his Kentucky team would get to practice in the 76ers arena before Saturday’s game. He’s also looking forward to seeing former UK guard Tyrese Maxey, who is now starring for the Sixers and will be in town as part of the team’s current home stand.
Current UK guard Justin Edwards is from Philadelphia, and fellow freshmen Aaron Bradshaw and D.J. Wagner are from right across the river in New Jersey. Kentucky’s coach is also anticipating a tough game against Penn.
“Love the school. Love Philadelphia,” Calipari said. “... But no Palestra! C’mon!”
He finally did acknowledge the history and the uniqueness of the building — “Oh, it’s great,” Calipari conceded — before saying it’s not the place you want to send a young team like his.
“When you walk in with like eight freshmen, you probably want the environment to be a little — not The Palestra. Even though the rest of their lives they’d say, ‘We played a game in The Palestra.’ I knew that. But I also said, ‘Eh, too young. Too young.’”
Kentucky’s program does have some history in the building.
The Wildcats have played there six times and compiled a 5-1 record — coincidentally, the same winning percentage as Calipari in the venue — but a UK team hasn’t set foot on the court in nearly 50 years. The Cats defeated Princeton 72-58 in the opening round of the 1977 NCAA Tournament, their last visit to The Palestra. They also played Temple there four times between 1956 and 1962 — winning three of those — and beat the Quakers on their home court in 1968.
Calipari left an impression during one of his stops there as UMass coach.
In an article in The Daily Pennsylvanian from 20 years ago, Dan Harrell, the longtime caretaker of The Palestra, retold a story of butting heads with a young Calipari in the early 1990s.
The coach apparently kept walking out to the 3-point line and scuffing the floor during the game. Harrell told a referee to tell Calipari to stay off the floor, and the UMass coach — according to Harrell — responded by demanding that the court’s caretaker be thrown out of the building.
“You’ll be outta here before I’ll be outta here,” Harrell hollered at him.
According to the story, “Calipari shut up.”
Kentucky vs. Penn
The Penn Quakers come into Saturday’s game with a 6-4 record, though two of the team’s victories have come against NCAA Division III competition. The Quakers do have a win over Villanova, which beat Maryland, Texas Tech, North Carolina and Memphis in consecutive games immediately after its loss to Penn but has suffered three straight defeats since then.
Steve Donahue is in his eighth season as head coach of the Quakers, who have been to one NCAA Tournament in his tenure. Donahue also has experience facing off against youthful Kentucky teams. He was previously the head coach at Cornell, which played Calipari’s first UK squad — the one led by one-and-done freshmen John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe — in the Sweet 16 of the 2010 NCAA Tournament. That’s the matchup that produced the famous Cousins quote — “It’s not a spelling bee.” — before the game. UK won 62-45.
This Penn team has shown some offensive ability. The Quakers came out of Wednesday night’s win ranked No. 39 nationally in scoring with 83.1 points per game. They’ve also shot 41.5% from 3-point range — sixth nationally — and are averaging 10.2 made 3s per game, which is 14th in the country. UK is fifth and seventh nationally in those two stats, respectively, so this one could be a shootout. Penn went 21-of-34 on 3-pointers in a 111-57 win over FDU Florham on Wednesday.
Senior guard Clark Slajchert leads the Quakers with 19.3 points per game, while shooting 44.3% from 3-point range and making nearly three 3-pointers per contest.
Both teams have had defensive problems.
Kentucky goes into the weekend ranked No. 61 in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com, a lower-than-usual rating for a Calipari team. Penn is much worse. The Quakers exited Wednesday’s game at No. 303 nationally in that category. KenPom rates Penn as the country’s 192nd-best team, and that site is predicting an 86-72 victory for UK, as of Thursday.
Kentucky leads the all-time series with Penn 5-0, and none of the previous games have been closer than 15 points. The Cats won the last meeting 86-62 on Jan. 3, 2011.