Friday, December 2, 2011

Non-Conference Rivalries Getting Squeezed Out By Expansion?

(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
By Robbi Pickeral/ESPN

On his website, CoachCal.com, Kentucky’s John Calipari last weekend posed an eye-opening question to the Big Blue Nation: If the Wildcats had no other choice and had to eliminate or postpone one series, which should it be: North Carolina, Indiana or Louisville?

Officials at both UK and UNC this week said they’re hoping to extend the annual series between two of the top three all-time winningest programs, which will face off for the 12th straight season Saturday at Rupp Arena. The contract -- usually re-upped for two-year, home-and-home intervals -- expires this season.

But with SEC and ACC expansion on the way -- meaning amplified league schedules for both teams -- there is a concern over how much longer this kind of nonconference rivalry can last. With conference expansion, nonconference rivalries like North Carolina and Kentucky may be sacrificed.

“These are learning opportunities,” Calipari said Wednesday of his current nonconference slate this week. “And you can’t learn against Popcorn State. … You need these kind of games. You just don’t need 12 of them.”

And therein lies the rub.

Top-ranked Kentucky and No. 5 UNC both currently play 16-game conference schedules. But that’s expected to expand to 18 for the Wildcats next season, when the SEC adds Texas A&M and Missouri; and then to at least 18 for the Tar Heels when Syracuse and Pittsburgh join the ACC, likely in 2013.

Under NCAA rules, teams can only play 27 games, plus a multi-team tournament (such as the Las Vegas Invitational or the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament) during the regular season.

(Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Do the math: Eighteen-game league schedules mean programs would have only nine games of wiggle-room to schedule nonconference foes.

Subtract another game for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge or the SEC/Big East Challenge. Then take away another slot or two, if you want to take players back near their hometowns to play.

All of a sudden, you’re left with a conundrum: How many difficult nonconference teams do you really want to play, when you know you’re already facing some hefty league foes?

(Editor’s note: Freshman P.J. Hairston, North Carolina's leading 3-point shooter, announced via his Twitter account that he will not play against No. 1 Kentucky on Saturday due to a wrist injury he suffered Wednesday night. UNC confirmed that Hairston suffered a sprained left wrist and bone contusion in the game and declared him questionable for Saturday's game.)

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