The ACC/SEC Challenge is upon us, and your University of Kentucky Wildcats are the headlining act on the first night of ESPN’s inaugural two-night event. Hosting the Miami Hurricanes at Rupp Arena, Kentucky is one of seven Southeastern Conference teams in action against the Atlantic Coast Conference on Tuesday, but the Wildcats play the only game that matters to us.
Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on ESPN.
More than a top-15 matchup for the new ACC/SEC showcase, Kentucky-Miami is one of the biggest games on the Wildcats’ entire 2023-24 schedule. The defending ACC champ Hurricanes are potentially the most formidable opponent Kentucky will play on its home floor, considering Jim Larranaga returned nearly everyone from last year’s Final Four run, the first in school history.
Additionally, the teams play comparable styles of basketball with high-scoring, fast-paced offenses. So, win or lose, we should be in for a fun night in Rupp Arena. A game like this rarely comes to Lexington in the non-conference.
Here are five storylines before it tips off.
Youth vs. Experience
Kentucky’s freshmen will be tested tonight by the veterans on Miami’s roster. Everyone in Miami’s starting lineup is either a junior or a senior, while Kentucky features six freshmen, a sophomore, and two senior starters. Kentucky is the seventh youngest team in the country. Both sides are guard-heavy.
Only two players from Miami’s Final Four run are gone. So far, the returning core of Norchad Omier, Nijel Pack and Wooga Poplar are averaging a combined 50 points per game. New Hurricane Matthew Cleveland, a junior transfer from Florida State, chips in with 16 a game of his own. They’re veterans with a lot of success, from ACC champs to the school’s first Final Four, so they’ve played and won a lot of games.
Kentucky and Miami play fun, uptempo styles of basketball with a lot of three-point shooting. A LOT. In fact, Miami is the best in the country at making three-pointers with a team percentage of 45.76%. The Canes have hit 54 of 118 tries. Yikes.
But as you know, the Wildcats let it fly from deep, too. Kentucky is ranked eighth nationally in three-point attempts with TWENTY-NINE tries per game. Did you ever think you’d see the day a John Calipari team would take that many threes? And they hit a bunch. Kentucky is sixth in makes with more than 12 per game.
Shots are going up tonight.
Kentucky Needs A Marquee Win
Let’s face it: Kentucky needs to win this game. It’s not a must-win by any means, but it is a Quad 1 game for the resume against a top-10 team in the country on the Wildcats’ home floor. Kentucky is a seven-point favorite, playing in one of the hardest venues in college basketball. The Wildcats need a win tonight for their resume, to protect home court, and to get this group it’s first signature win of the season. It’s right in front of them. Take it.
Even bigger, the fan base needs it. Kentucky is 6-17 against top-25 teams since the start of the nine-win season in 2020, and the Wildcats lost the only home SEC/Big 12 Challenge game in that span.
Big opportunity at home tonight. Capitalize.
Revenge Game For Kentucky
If you’re one of the many Kentucky fans who completely erased the Billy Gillispie era from your memory, you may not know that these teams played in Rupp Arena in 2008.
It was an early December game. Kentucky wore the white shorts that nearly swept the floor because they were so long. Michael Porter wore a headband that day for some reason, and Jack McClinton scored 23 points in a 73-67 Miami win. NFL tight end Jimmy Graham also played for Miami in that game. He fouled out in 17 minutes. Patrick Patterson and DeAndre Liggins did their best with 19 and 18 points each. Miami led by 20 at halftime.
Kentucky entered that game in similar circumstances, too. Back then, Kentucky needed to capitalize on an opportunity against a top-25 team at home (Miami was #21) after suffering a loss to the No. 1 team, North Carolina, in November.
This year’s Kentucky also has a loss to No. 1 already, while welcoming a ranked Miami into Lexington. One MAJOR difference: the 2008 team had already lost to VMI in the third game of the year.
Still, it is critical to beat a ranked team at home and to avenge what Frank Haith’s Canes did to us 15 years ago, if you even remember it. Hopefully, you don’t.
Tickets Still Available, So Get In There
Gone are the days of doing whatever it takes, even harming a loved one, for a top row bleacher seat in Rupp Arena for a game of this magnitude. Now you can get in for cheaper than 18 holes of municipal golf.
The game is not a sell-out and the resell market has some for below face value, so you should consider going if you’re able. Even if it’s not completely full, I expect a rowdy environment in downtown Lexington for #12 hosting #8 in the inaugural ACC/SEC Challenge on ESPN.