Kentucky, UNC series may end

Wildcats reconsidering scheduling marquee non conference opponents, including UNC.

acarter@newsobserver.comDecember 3, 2011 

Roy Williams spoke Friday like a man who appreciates the history of North Carolina's rivalry with Kentucky but who also wonders how long the series between the Tar Heels and Wildcats can be sustained.

No. 5 North Carolina and No. 1 Kentucky will meet again today at noon at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., and Williams thought back to a time when games between the Tar Heels and Wildcats represented something deeper, more meaningful, than it might today.

"It is one of the great series and one of the great games and for so many years it was CBS' first game - first college basketball game of the year," Williams said. "And now nobody knows what's (on) CBS, what's (on) ESPN, what's (on) FOX.

"You just turn the channels and see what's going on."

This will be the 35th meeting between North Carolina - the third-most victorious program in college basketball history - and Kentucky, which has won more games than any other school. And just like in Williams' memories, the Tar Heels and Wildcats will once again play in front of a national audience on CBS.

But beyond today, the UNC-Kentucky series is in doubt. The teams have played one another in every regular season since December 2000, but there is no contract in place for the Tar Heels and Wildcats to continue.

Earlier this week, Kentucky coach John Calipari wrote on his website about the perils of scheduling marquee non-conference opponents. He referenced the Wildcats' participation in challenging regular-season tournaments and events, and the possibility that the SEC could adopt an 18-game conference schedule.

"This program is too important to over-schedule based on the roster turnover that I believe will continue to happen," wrote Calipari, who has built Kentucky on the strength of a revolving roster of players who often leave after one year for the NBA.

Calipari posted a poll and asked Kentucky fans to vote on the non-conference series they'd most want to discontinue, if it came to that. The choices: Louisville, Indiana and North Carolina. Williams, the Tar Heels coach, was familiar with the poll.

"You know, the good thing is we get to vote, too," he said. "They're not the only one that gets to say yes or no."

Still, Williams, like Calipari, acknowledged the difficulty of playing a difficult non-conference schedule amid increasing demands. Williams said he has felt pressure from television networks that, he said, want the ACC to expand its 16-game regular-season conference schedule.

"The TV people are always trying to push you ... to play more conference games," Williams said. "And I made the statement, I said, 'Would you rather have the number one team in the conference versus number 12? Or would you rather have North Carolina versus Kentucky?' Because you can't necessarily have both."

After today, UNC and Kentucky might be forced to continue their rivalry in the postseason only. The teams last met in the NCAA tournament last March - a 76-69 Kentucky victory in the East Regional final in Newark, N.J.

The Wildcats' victory avenged the 2-point loss they'd suffered against North Carolina last December. Since then, some Tar Heels, including junior forward John Henson, have pointed to today's rematch as an opportunity for redemption.

Henson said he hasn't watched film of UNC's NCAA tournament loss to Kentucky.

"I don't want to look at it," he said. "... It was a rough game. It just gives me motivation this year."

Not that such a thing would be lacking. North Carolina has already played one top-10 opponent this week, and it emerged the victor in a 60-57 home win against No. 9 Wisconsin.

Now comes top-ranked Kentucky, on the road, in what could be the final regular-season meeting between the teams. At least for a while.

"That's why you come to school here," Henson said.

Carter: 919-829-8944

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