Cure Bowl press conference

Athletic Director Todd Stewart speaks during a Dec. 3 news conference at E.A. Diddle Arena. Stewart said Thursday that WKU is “talking to everybody” in hopes of building challenging nonconference men’s basketball schedules.

Todd Stewart wants Western Kentucky fans to get their money’s worth from buying season tickets.

Part of that comes from bringing nationally relevant programs to E.A. Diddle Arena.

Wisconsin and Saint Mary’s will travel to face the Hilltoppers in 2018-19. Arkansas and Belmont will come to Bowling Green the following season. Louisville is due for a visit during the 2021-22 campaign.

Stewart, WKU’s athletic director, told the Daily News on Thursday that building challenging nonconference slates with intriguing home games is a priority.

“I can truthfully say we’re talking to everybody,” Stewart said.

The Toppers’ 2017-18 nonconference schedule ranked as the 65th-toughest of 351 Division I programs, according to Ken Pomeroy efficiency metrics.

Battle 4 Atlantis games against eventual national champion Villanova and Purdue and a trip to Wisconsin were among the schedule’s highlights.

Belmont was the top nonconference opponent to visit Diddle Arena during the regular season. Boston College also came for a first-round National Invitation Tournament game.

This season, the Tops will host Wisconsin and Saint Mary’s, play at Arkansas and Belmont and take part in the Myrtle Beach Invitational – an eight-team tournament that includes Wake Forest and West Virginia, among others.

The matchups in Diddle Arena with Saint Mary’s (Dec. 1) and Wisconsin (Dec. 29) mark the return contests of two-game, home-and-home series.

The Hilltoppers dropped road games to the Gaels and Badgers in 2016-17 and 2017-18, respectively. WKU’s series with Wisconsin also includes a football matchup between the two schools that’ll take place Aug. 31 in Madison, Wis.

Wisconsin averaged a KenPom efficiency ranking of 27.2 the last five seasons. The Badgers went to the Final Four in 2013-14 and made it all the way to the national championship game in 2014-15.

“That’ll be an exciting night,” Stewart said of Dec. 29. “That’ll be the first time a Big Ten program has ever come into Diddle Arena.”

Saint Mary’s averaged a KenPom ranking of 42.6 the last five years. The Gaels were left out of the 2018 NCAA Tournament despite a 28-5 record.

“Saint Mary’s … is maybe a bit of an overlooked game right now,” Stewart said. “Saint Mary’s is a good program and to have them coming in too, those are two huge nonconference games.”

Arkansas and Belmont highlight nonconference teams known to be visiting Diddle Arena in 2019-20.

The Tops’ series with Arkansas spans both basketball and football. WKU will visit the Razorbacks in hoops this season and on the gridiron in 2019 before hosting the Southeastern Conference school in basketball in 2019-20.

Belmont and WKU completed a four-game series during the 2017-18 season. Stewart, Hilltopper coach Rick Stansbury and Bruins coach Rick Byrd agreed to extend the series for another four years.

Belmont will host the Toppers on Dec. 19 in Nashville, then will visit Bowling Green in 2019-20. WKU is 0-4 against Byrd’s Bruins the last four seasons, but Stewart likes the series because it pits two competitive basketball programs located an hour’s drive apart.

Belmont has finished in the top 100 of the KenPom rankings in all but two seasons since 2010-11.

“I give Rick Stansbury and Rick Byrd credit,” Stewart said. “Both of them wanted to do that, which is great. I love that series. We haven’t had a whole lot of luck in it. Hopefully the next four go different than the last four did. That’s a great series to play.”

The same season WKU hosts Arkansas and Belmont, it’ll be the declared home team in a neutral-site contest with Louisville. The Cardinals and Tops will meet in December 2019 at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.

That four-game series will include matchups in 2020-21 in Louisville, 2021-22 at Diddle Arena and 2022-23 back in Louisville.

UofL and WKU used that same Nashville-Louisville-Bowling Green-Louisville format for two consecutive four-year series that ran from 2008-16. The Toppers went 1-7 over those eight matchups.

Stewart, Stansbury and other WKU officials are working on other potential men’s basketball series. The Hilltoppers’ AD said he wants those to include games where prominent teams visit WKU’s home court.

“We’re talking to a number of SEC schools,” Stewart said. “ACC has not been very receptive to coming here. That’s why I think the NIT was so neat. Getting Boston College to come here, that’s not a game we would’ve gotten any other way. …

“We’d like to have Dayton and Xavier and Cincinnati and Butler. Those type of regional games would be great ones to have. We’re having conversations with all those people.”{&end}

– Follow Daily News sports reporter Brad Stephens on Twitter @BradBGDN or visit bgdailynews.com.

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Bowling Green Daily News sports reporter primarily covering Western Kentucky football and men's basketball.

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