Kentucky basketball: Non-Conference schedule studs, duds and Tubby’s return

John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski
John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski /

Bits and pieces of non-conference schedules are always known ahead of time, but when word started to seep out Monday morning that Kentucky basketball had a special announcement a smile had to come to every member of Big Blue Nation.

That news is that Tubby Smith will be returning to Rupp Arena for the first time since he left as coach following the 2006-07 season. It truly will be a home-coming celebration as Smith will bring his High Point Panthers to play Kentucky on New Year’s Eve.

Coach John Calipari was so ready to leave last season in the rearview mirror and focus on this season warning teams to be careful what they wish for because the Wildcats would be back. He’s bringing some old alums for this year and kick off the season with a bang.

Kentucky basketball welcomes Tubby Smith back along with Woods and Barbee

Now we know the schedule, as usual, is dotted with some stud games, Duke, Kansas, Ohio State, and Notre Dame highlight the slate and the cupcakes that will come to Rupp that drive fans nuts craving to watch the better competition step foot on the hardwood. There is also the rivalry game against Louisville that will be in Lexington this year.

Still, out of those 11 teams, three will feature former coaches that we have seen on the Kentucky sideline previously including Sean Woods, Tony Barbee, and Tubby.

One other thoroughbred game that won’t take place this year is Michigan about which UK released in a statement.

"“Due to scheduling challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic, the previously scheduled Kentucky men’s basketball game at Michigan will not take place this season. We are in conversations with Michigan to preserve the series at a future date.”"

Last year there were no exhibition games and a damper to the beginning, middle, and end of the year. Here is hoping the 2021-22 season fares far better.

Jumpstarting everything in just 47 days will be Big Blue Madness on October 15 in Rupp Arena and BBN will get to be there in person. One week later the Blue-White game will showcase what they have learned in a week of practice and then exhibitions return against Kentucky Wesleyan on Oct. 29 and Miles College on Nov. 5.

Then the bright lights of Madison Square Garden come to life on Tuesday night Nov. 9 in the Champions Classic as Kentucky hopes to send Duke and coach Mike Krzyzewski into retirement with a loss in the nightcap game. That follows the Kansas and Michigan State game.

Calipari and his team will return to Lexington for seven straight home games commencing with the Kentucky Classic on November 11. I’d still like it to go back to the old UKIT days as many fans would. I don’t think we get many “classic” games from Robert Morris, Mount Saint Marys, and Ohio.

Thanksgiving week brings Albany and North Florida to town and Wildcat fans will be too stuffed to watch this roasting of these teams.

Calipari will then welcome back Barbee and his Central Michigan team on November 29. Barbee coached under Cal for seven seasons.

Then on December 7 its Woods bringing his Southern squad to Rupp as part of the Unity Series. He told the Times Ledger how much he was looking forward to playing in Rupp.

"“It’s always nice to go back home and take your players to a place where you played at. I’ve always wanted my guys to have the same kind of experience I had as a student-athlete and what better place to take them than to one of the most historic places in college basketball, Rupp Arena. Looking forward to being competitive and having a chance to win too, but not only that to have a chance to play in front of family and friends and take my guys to a place where it all started for me.”"

Things get real after that as the Wildcats head to South Bend to face Notre Dame. Kentucky lost to the Irish 64-63 last year in Rupp, and the last time UK was in South Bend was the 2009 NIT where Notre Dame won 77-67.

Then it’s off to Las Vegas for the CBS Sports Classic on Dec. 18 for a matchup with Ohio State. The Wildcats fell to top-ranked Ohio State in 2019.

We will find out who has been naughty and nice with a Christmas week rivalry game with Louisville on Dec. 22. Louisville halted the Cats’ three-game win streak last year 62-59, but UK owns a 37-17 series advantage and an 11-3 edge under John Calipari (including 6-0 in Rupp Arena under Calipari).

Kentucky basketball
Tubby Smith of the University of Kentucky (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images) /

That sets the stage for the Tubby reunion. Something special is in the works and deservedly so but you best believe he will get the warmest of welcomes from fans packed into Rupp. He is already in the UK Athletics Hall of Fame but accepted that honor at Commonwealth Stadium.

He coached UK to the 1998 national title that went along with 10 SEC titles (five regular-season ones and five tournament ones) and left Kentucky with a 263-83 record.

The Southeastern Conference schedule gets underway then and only leaves one remaining out-of-conference matchup, at Kansas on Jan. 29 in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. It will mark the sixth straight season the two winningest college basketball programs will face one another. UK owns the series edge 23-10 but KU has won four of the last five matchups. Historically Kentucky has 2,329 wins to the Jayhawks 2,323.

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