Western Kentucky doesn’t often get an opportunity to face off with Kentucky, but several factors led to a late schedule change and a matchup between the two in-state foes.

The Hilltoppers and No. 20 Wildcats will meet Wednesday at 5 p.m. CT at Rupp Arena in Lexington in the seventh game ever between the two programs and first in the regular season since 2001. The game will be televised on ESPN.

“We know what a challenge it is,” WKU head coach Rick Stansbury said. “You don’t have to say much, how good they are when you just look at one score – beat North Carolina by 30 points.

“Any basketball player and particularly guys from our state – we’ve got three or four guys on our team and three starters from this state – they understand the rich tradition of Kentucky. They understand what the program’s about. Again, we’re playing not just a rich tradition program – we’re playing a really good team. If the team wasn’t very good, the tradition wouldn’t matter much. Traditionally they’re one of the best teams in the country year in and year out, but they’ve got a really good team right now.”

Kentucky (8-2) was originally slated to play at home against Louisville – which WKU (8-4) beat Saturday in its last game – but the Wildcats’ game against the Cardinals was called off due to COVID-19 issues within in the Louisville program. The Hilltoppers were supposed to play its final nonconference game at Austin Peay, but were able to get the game pushed back to the 2022-23 season to create an opening for Wednesday.

It meant a chance for two in-state teams to play after tornadoes devastated western Kentucky on Dec. 11. UK athletics is working on a charitable component from the game that will provide support for those who were affected.

“Give Cal and University of Kentucky a lot of credit for stepping up and playing a game,” Stansbury said. “I know it means a lot to our university, but more importantly, it means a lot to the state and this community right now. We all understand that Kentucky didn’t have to play the game, but give them a lot of credit for doing it, for stepping up and being willing to play us and willing to give back to the community.”

Despite the proximity of the two programs to one another, they haven’t played much – just six times ever, and only three times in the regular season. The Hilltoppers won the last regular-season meeting – in 2001 – by upsetting fourth-ranked Kentucky 64-52 at Rupp Arena. Kentucky won the last meeting 81-66 in the 2012 NCAA Tournament. The top-ranked Wildcats went on to win the national championship that season.

The two programs are among the most storied in college basketball history. Kentucky and WKU have combined to win 94 regular-season conference titles – the Wildcats’ 51 are second-most in NCAA history, while the Hilltoppers’ 43 are third-most. The two have combined for 111 20-win seasons and 4,179 wins total.

“With Western, the history of their program in our state, the respect they get within our state and even nationally – people still remember Western Kentucky and coach Diddle and the red towel and all the stuff,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “You talk about a top program and what they’re doing now is they’ve got a good team. They beat Mississippi good. They beat Louisville good, and Louisville made some 3s to make it close. This is a team with the leading shot blocker, shooters, they’re well-coached – Rick does a great job, always has.

“This is a dangerous – I don’t want to call it a no-win, because it’s a win, playing the game is a win. We’re playing basketball. The other thing that’s a win, let’s really bring light and honor to western Kentucky and do it in a way where the country’s watching.”

Stansbury doesn’t believe it will become an annual matchup, however, despite the excitement from both fan bases for Wednesday’s game.

“I’ve said this many times – I don’t dodge this – people want us to play Kentucky every year and we’d love to, but in Kentucky’s eyes, they don’t have much to gain by playing us,” Stansbury said. “They’re supposed to beat us, so I get it – not wanting to play us, not going to play us – I get all that. I just look at it as respect.”

While both programs historically are good, both teams have been good this year.

Kentucky’s only two losses were to Duke in the Champions Classic and at Notre Dame, but the Wildcats bounced back with a big 98-69 win over North Carolina on Saturday at the CBS Sports Classic in Las Vegas.

WKU has won seven of its last eight games, which includes a three-game winning streak entering Wednesday with Power Five wins over Ole Miss and Louisville.

“The first thing you know about them is very few people go to Rupp Arena and win. Just remember that. That’s the first thing,” Stansbury said. “Number two, it’s always one of the best basketball environments in the country year in and year out. I have said many a time, it’s not the crowd that beats you, it’s the good basketball team they have between those lines most times. You add that with the crowd, so it makes it very difficult to beat.”

Kentucky has the 16th-best scoring offense in the nation and is led by Oscar Tshiebwe, who averages 16.3 points and 14.2 rebounds – the top rebounding mark in the country, while his 5.9 offensive rebounds a night are also first. The 5-foot-9, 255-pound West Virginia transfer had five points and seven rebounds when the Mountaineers beat WKU 70-64 early last season in the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Tshiebwe is one of five Wildcats averaging double-figure scoring. TyTy Washington (13.3 points per game), Keion Brooks (11.6), Sahvir Wheeler (11.5) and Kellan Grady (10) are the others.

Jairus Hamilton leads WKU with 16.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, while point guard Dayvion McKnight adds 14.1 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. Camron Justice and Josh Anderson each add double-figure scoring with 13.2 and 11 points per game, respectively, while 7-foot-5 center Jamarion Sharp is adding 8.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 4.8 blocks per game, and posted big outings against the last two high major teams WKU has played.

Wednesday’s game will be the final for the Hilltoppers before it opens Conference USA play with a road swing to Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech on Dec. 30 and Jan. 1.

“We’re just looking to continue getting better,” Stansbury said. “Anytime we can get better against the best competition – it just happens to be an in-state school and one of the better programs in the history of college basketball, and it happens to be the last game before Christmas on a big stage – all those things are pluses. End of the day, it counts as one win and one loss.”{&end}

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