WKU defeats Austin Peay 97-75

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers guard Taveion Hollingsworth (11) jogs onto the court after being announced before WKU's 97-75 win over Austin Peay on Saturday, November 9, 2019, at E. A. Diddle Arena. (Austin Anthony/photo@bgdailynews.com)

Western Kentucky’s desire to play Kentucky in basketball was on full display July 7, after the Wildcats announced via Twitter they would play Conference USA’s UAB and Marshall in nonconference games in the 2020-21 season.

The WKU Hilltopper Basketball Twitter account quote-tweeted Kentucky’s announcement with “If you’re making the C-USA tour, give us a call back sometime! We’re ready and right down the road,” and “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.”

Both schools confirmed to the Daily News discussions of a possible game, and WKU athletic director Todd Stewart echoed the Hilltoppers’ desire to play Kentucky on Thursday in a Zoom conference with reporters.

“This is not meant to come across as a challenge, any kind of a bring-it-on challenge whatsoever, but we would play Kentucky any year they want to play in Rupp Arena. If we aren’t playing in basketball, it’s not because we don’t want to,” Stewart said. “We would play them under probably, virtually any scenario that they would come up with.”

WKU told the Daily News on July 7 the two teams had been in discussions since the end of April and beginning of May, with talks developing into mid-May and with WKU eventually pitching to play a game at Rupp Arena for a guaranteed check. 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, like bringing in essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic to honor at the game.

Stewart said he believes “UK is the best basketball program in the nation” and said he understood the Wildcats’ decision not to play, citing scheduling dynamics that come with that. He also credited Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart for a four-game football series the two programs had from 2010-13 as WKU was transitioning to the FBS level.

“There was really no reason for him to do that or Kentucky to do that, but he did and in doing so, obviously it was great for us, but I think it was great for fans in the state of Kentucky as well,” Stewart said. “I think it was great for college football in the state of Kentucky, because while it was exciting for us to play UK, I think, if you ask their fans, they would rather them play us than another school in Conference USA or the Sun Belt or the MAC, and I feel the same way in basketball. I think if you talk to UK fans, they would probably rather them play us than schools in those other conferences.”

The potential 2020-21 meeting that was discussed was a one-game deal, but Stewart said WKU would do “whatever UK wanted to do.” The dates being discussed included Dec. 6 and Dec. 29 – the days Kentucky is now scheduled to play UAB and Marshall, respectively.

“We would love for Kentucky to come to Diddle Arena,” Stewart said. “I think we need to be honest with each other – I think that’s probably not likely to occur. Again, I understand that. They have very unusual dynamics and obligations with their scheduling.”

The two programs have met just six times, with Kentucky winning four of the matchups – one WKU win was vacated due to NCAA sanctions. The two have never played in Bowling Green.

Of the six meetings, three – one in 1971, one in 1986 and one in 2012 – were in the NCAA Tournament. The 2012 game came in the opening round, when the Wildcats won 81-66 on the way to the national title.

The last time WKU and Kentucky met in the regular season was Nov. 15, 2001, when the Hilltoppers beat the Wildcats 64-52 in the NABC Classic. The other two regular-season meetings came in 1990 and 1992.

The two are among the top programs in college basketball history. WKU and Kentucky were among only five programs in NCAA history – North Carolina, Kansas and UCLA being the others – in the top 10 in both winning percentage and conference championships entering the 2019-20 season, which saw the cancellation of conference tournaments and the NCAA Tournament amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The stature of their program – you want to be measured against the very best, and that’s a big reason why we would play them, but also if you look at it historically, these are two of the best basketball programs of all time,” Stewart said.

“ ... I just think that’s unfortunate for basketball fans in the state of Kentucky. When you have two top programs like that basically two and a half hours apart, it just seems like they ought to play more than three times in the regular season. Hopefully that’s something that we can get done in the near future.”{&end}

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

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