Hilltoppers arrive in Frisco ready to clear bad memories

Western Kentucky athletic director Todd Stewart (left) talks to men’s basketball coach Rick Stansbury on March 10 at The Star in Frisco, Texas.

The Kentucky men’s basketball team announced two nonconference games for the 2020-21 season Tuesday via Twitter.

Those game are against UAB on Dec. 6 and Marshall on Dec. 29 – both schools in Conference USA with Western Kentucky.

The WKU Hilltopper Basketball Twitter account’s response drew interest from basketball fans across the state.

“If you’re making the C-USA tour, give us a call back sometime! We’re ready and right down the road,” the quote-tweeted response sent at 9:14 a.m. said.

It was followed 15 minutes later by: “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.”

The two teams had been in discussions since the end of April and beginning of May, and talks developed into mid-May with WKU eventually pitching to play a game at Rupp Arena for a guaranteed check, according to WKU associate athletic director for communications and media relations Zach Greenwell. The pitch, however, involved the guaranteed money being donated to charity, while also trying to tie in other fundraising aspects to increase the donation amount. There were also other items pitched, according to Greenwell, like bringing in essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic to honor at the game.

“One thing I really want to stress is Kentucky could not have been more gracious in terms of talking through that with us, both on the administrative side and on the coaching staff side,” Greenwell said in a phone interview with the Daily News. “They just ultimately deemed that it wasn’t the right fit for them which, again, I stress is well within their rights and there’s no ill will there.

“Really, the main message we want to get across is to our own fans, that we are trying to make games like this happen and that we have interest and certainly don’t want our fan base to see them scheduling two Conference USA schools for the dates that we discussed and think that we’re not trying to reach out with interest on our own. It was tongue in cheek and playful, but it certainly wasn’t meant to put anything back on Kentucky.”

Kentucky director of athletics communications and public relations for men’s basketball Eric Lindsey confirmed that the two schools have been in communications about scheduling. Kentucky’s 2020-21 nonconference schedule is now full.

“We can confirm that we have been in conversations with Western Kentucky about a game,” Lindsey said in an email to the Daily News. “Our nonconference schedule is complete for this upcoming season but we will continue to discuss scheduling opportunities with WKU for future seasons.”

The two programs haven’t met since the opening round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament, when the Wildcats won 81-66 on the way to the national title. The two have met six times, with Kentucky winning four of the matchups – one WKU win was vacated due to NCAA sanctions.

Before 2012, the two programs hadn’t met since 2001, when WKU won 64-52 in the NABC Classic. It was another meeting a long time coming, as the two hadn’t played before that since 1992.

“Obviously Kentucky is one of the elite programs in the country – as decorated as anybody – so we thought it would be a great opportunity for us, but we also thought that if there was a year that maybe it made sense with the things we could tie in and try to give back, that this might be that case,” Greenwell said. “Again, well within their rights not wanting to play. Us having intentions of wanting to make a game happen does not mean the other person is obligated to play it. We run into that with our scheduling as well. I’m sure there are people that would like to play us that we decline to play and that’s obviously their right, and they were great talking to us.”

There were also talks of playing a preseason charity exhibition, but Greenwell said “the logistics of that are much more difficult” due to the number of exhibitions allowed, and the “regular-season game would have been the cleanest, easiest way to do it.”

The Hilltoppers are slated to play Wichita State in a guaranteed money game this season. Because of WKU’s success against quality opponents – the Hilltoppers are 8-4 against Power Five teams the last three seasons – scheduling isn’t always easy. WKU athletic director Todd Stewart told the Daily News in a February interview, before the Wichita State game was finalized and WKU still needed an away guarantee game, Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Cincinnati were among the schools that rejected a request to play. All three are regionally located, and he said in the interview WKU tried to offer a two-for-one setup where WKU makes two visits to the opposing school in return for one home game at E.A. Diddle Arena. Stewart said they bargained for Tennessee to play a home-and-home and one game at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, an area where both universities have a large alumni base.

“I feel in a lot of ways we’ve tried to humble ourselves to make something happen, not just with Kentucky, but with other people – other attractive, quality opponents,” Greenwell said. “We were trying to play a game with no return and no financial incentive with us deferring the money to charity. I hope that’s the message to our fans, that we’re open to whatever we can do to give them quality games that they’re interested in.”

The Hilltoppers already have two in-state schools on the regular-season schedule with Louisville and Eastern Kentucky. WKU will face Louisville on the road to open the season and play the Colonels at E.A. Diddle Arena. The nonconference schedule also includes home games against Rhode Island, Belmont and Wright State, as well as road games at Austin Peay and Tennessee Tech, plus a neutral site tournament at the Cayman Islands Classic, which features Kansas State, Miami, Ole Miss, Oregon State, La Salle, Nevada and Northern Iowa.

Last season saw the return of the series between both Louisville and Eastern Kentucky. The Hilltoppers have faced the Cardinals 80 times and the Colonels 158 times.

“The reason we don’t play Murray is Murray chooses not to play us,” Stewart said in the interview. “We’ve made it abundantly clear to Murray and their coaches and their administration that we will play them any time and we’ll start the series there. That offer remains on the table. That’s something I think would be great for fans of both teams. I know our fans would like for us to play Murray and I know Murray fans, from what I hear, would like for them to play us.”

Greenwell said discussions with other in-state Division I programs haven’t gone too in depth, but it’s something WKU is open to looking into. WKU played two other in-state schools last season – NAIA Campbellsville in a regular-season game and Division II Kentucky Wesleyan in a December exhibition. WKU hasn’t played Morehead State since 1985 and has never played Northern Kentucky, which was granted active status as a Division I institution by the NCAA in August 2016. WKU has also never played Bellarmine, which moved from Division II to Division I at the start of July.

“We’ve had some conversations and it’s probably something we’ll continue to look at more, especially with some of our financial restrictions. I think a lot of people are looking at trying to do regional scheduling, but sometimes things just don’t work out and again, that’s why I understand where Kentucky is coming from,” Greenwell said. “That’s something we’re always going to be open to looking into.”

– Follow sports reporter Jared MacDonald on Twitter @JMacDonaldSport or visit bgdailynews.com.

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