WKU wins 76-64 against Tennessee Tech

Western Kentucky coach Rick Stansbury claps as his players gather for a timeout during WKU’s 76-64 win over Tennessee Tech on Nov. 5 at E. A. Diddle Arena.

There’s a blessing and a curse that comes with wins against signature programs, and Western Kentucky is experiencing both when it comes to scheduling its nonconference men’s basketball opponents.

The good? The Hilltoppers are good enough to consistently win against schools from Power Five conferences.

The bad? Teams from those conferences don’t want to play WKU anymore.

That’s the current issue WKU’s athletic administration is facing: an issue filling future schedules with quality opponents. WKU could certainly schedule lower-tier opponents and score a few extra wins, but facing quality opponents is the true measure of success.

And in the current climate the university faces with continuing budget cuts, the athletic department is in need of another school to pay for a men’s basketball game next season. In an interview with the Daily News, athletic director Todd Stewart said his staff have reached out to multiple schools looking for a team to buy for one game next season, but the offer is rescinded when WKU is on the other line.

“As of now, we need to be bought by somebody next year,” Stewart said. “We need to play an away guarantee game. We’ve reached out to over 60 teams who say they need a buy-game, and yet when we reach out, they say they aren’t interested. … We had 13 Power Five programs list a date they need a game to buy somebody and then when we call them, they say we don’t want to buy you.”

A few schools Stewart specifically mentioned had rejected a request to play were Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Cincinnati. He said WKU has even tried to offer a two-for-one set up 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.

The payout for one men’s basketball travel game to a Power Five opponent ranges from $90,000-$95,000, which is around what the program earned for each game at Washington in 2018 and Missouri in 2016.

A unique trend the last few years has been to schedule a series that bundles football and men’s basketball. WKU is currently in a football-men’s basketball series with Louisville and just cashed in $1.5 million from Arkansas for two basketball games and a football game in Fayetteville, Ark. in November – the Hilltoppers won all three events.

Wisconsin paid $1.35 million for a similar series in 2018 and 2019, and the Hilltoppers picked up a win over the Badgers at Diddle Arena as a result.

Stewart has requested to amend already-signed contracts with six future football opponents to include men’s basketball. But the teams on that list – Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, LSU, Ohio State and Michigan State – have turned down the offer to amend a deal for less money.

Over the last two seasons, WKU is 7-3 against teams from either the Southeastern Conference, Big 10, Big 12, Atlantic Coast Conference or the Pac-12. The rest of C-USA was 6-49 in that span. Against AP Top 25 teams in that two-year stretch, WKU is 3-4 when they were 1-12 against ranked opponents from the 2010-11 season up until 2016.

“Our fans need to know we’re trying everything we can to play guarantee games that make sense and play series that make sense,” Stewart said. “We’re trying really hard. … Some of those things are hard to figure out, but certainly we’ll keep pressing and we’ll do everything we can.”

Even beyond scheduling Power 5 opponents, Stewart said the program is having trouble scheduling common opponents that make sense for fan travel and competition. Conference USA stepped in last offseason and partnered with the Atlantic 10 for a few matchups, which helped create a home-and-home series between WKU and Rhode Island.

But the AD said Dayton, an A10 team currently ranked fifth in the NCAA’s NET rankings, hasn’t been interested in a series.

The most common question Stewart fields is about a series with Murray State, which just had its biggest run as a program to the NCAA Tournament’s second round behind Ja Morant, who was the second-overall pick in the NBA draft.

That goes into Stewart’s desire to build series that make sense by bringing regional interest among fan bases that also provides quality matchups for opponents. WKU would rather schedule Murray State or local, quality opponents than NAIA Campbellsville as a regular season game or schedule DII Kentucky Wesleyan as a December exhibition.

WKU still keeps some Ohio Valley Conferences rivalries alive as both an homage to decades past and to keep local interest. WKU still plays Eastern Kentucky, even if the Colonels have won just once since 1987.

Stewart wants Murray on the schedule, but the two haven’t played since 2014.

“The reason we don’t play Murray is Murray chooses not to play us,” Stewart said. “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.”

WKU has even offered a football game to Murray as part of a series with men’s basketball, but MSU hasn’t found it equally beneficial.

In an email to the Daily News, Murray State athletic director Kevin Saal said, “Murray State University is actively engaged with many peers in regards to both football and basketball scheduling initiatives. When we are able to determine a mutually beneficial scenario, we are open to advancing discussions.”

Stewart pointed to the nonconference schedule of both opponents and believes both would benefit from playing the other. WKU played four OVC teams this season (Tennessee Tech, Austin Peay, Eastern Kentucky, Belmont), but TTU and EKU rank beyond 300 in the NET rankings. Austin Peay (14-7) has turned in a good season and ranks No. 147 in the NET and Belmont is 116th.

WKU just renewed a four-year series with the Bruins, even if it hasn’t beaten Belmont in seven-straight games. WKU ranks 119th in the NET and Murray State is 145th. WKU and Murray State’s rivalry goes back to 1932 with the Hilltoppers holding a 98-54 advantage in 152 meetings.

“If you look at Murray’s nonconference schedule, to me, adding Western Kentucky to their home nonconference schedule would be an improvement when I look at the teams they play at home,” Stewart said. “As of now, they see it a different way and that’s their prerogative. That’s another one that hasn’t happened that makes sense. We’ll keep working it and have a breakthrough at some point.”{&end}

– Follow WKU athletics beat writer Elliott Pratt on Twitter @EPrattBGDN or visit bgdailynews.com.

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