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You know who deserves an apology? Kentucky basketball’s much-maligned Rupp Arena fans

In the run-up to Saturday’s SEC showdown between No. 17 Kentucky and No. 13 Alabama, I overheard a sportswriter on hand to cover the Crimson Tide saying it would be his first game at Rupp Arena.

“I hear the atmosphere isn’t that great,” he said.

What followed, of course, was one of the more electric game environments one will ever experience as the host Wildcats ran the SEC-leading Crimson Tide out of the arena with a 117-95 demolition in which the game, as they say, wasn’t as close as the final score suggested.

“The building was unbelievable today,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said afterward of the game atmosphere. “The fans were like — it was crazy. That’s what makes this what it is.”

Kentucky fans have consistently created robust game environments for UK home games at Rupp Arena over the past month. Silas Walker/swalker@herald-leader.com
Kentucky fans have consistently created robust game environments for UK home games at Rupp Arena over the past month. Silas Walker/swalker@herald-leader.com

Here’s the rub. A segment of the UK fan base has done so much (mostly) online complaining about Kentucky’s supposedly lackluster game environments inside Rupp Arena that a perception has taken hold of Rupp as a bland contest site.

At least for the important games, that perception is nowhere close to reality. The fact is, there’s no better big-game environment than what UK backers consistently create at Rupp Arena.

That actuality has been on emphatic display over the past month. The electric atmosphere for UK-Alabama was just a continuation of the robust game environments that existed at Rupp for Kentucky home games with Florida (Jan. 31), Tennessee (Feb. 3) and Gonzaga (Feb. 10).

UK lost all three of those games, making some unwanted Rupp Arena history in the process, but the reason for the defeats was not because there was a lack of fan-created home-court advantage.

“I want to tell our fans how much I appreciate what they are doing for this team — or what they are trying to do,” Calipari said after the Gonzaga loss. “They are here. They are loud. When we needed them, they stood up.”

Heck, Rupp was also rowdy for Kentucky’s matchup with the Miami Hurricanes (Nov. 28) in the inaugural ACC/SEC Challenge and for the long-delayed, much-anticipated Zvonimir Ivisic debut game against Georgia (Jan. 20), too.

The much-criticized Rupp Arena crowds have generated electric atmospheres for Kentucky home games with Florida, Tennessee, Gonzaga and Alabama this season. Silas Walker/swalker@herald-leader.com
The much-criticized Rupp Arena crowds have generated electric atmospheres for Kentucky home games with Florida, Tennessee, Gonzaga and Alabama this season. Silas Walker/swalker@herald-leader.com

The mostly mistaken idea that Rupp Arena is not a robust home environment owes, in part, to how Kentucky schedules.

Because Calipari has organized his program in such a manner that he largely fields a brand-new team every year, UK plays essentially a whole month of “get up to speed” games in November against teams from conferences far down the men’s college basketball food chain.

It is unquestionable that Kentucky plays in some really sterile home environments throughout the first month of most seasons. But you are not going to get a Gonzaga-level of fan fervor for a steady diet of Texas A&M-Commerce and Stonehill College.

Here’s my question: Do you really want that, anyway? “Big game Rupp Arena” wouldn’t be special if you had a frothing crowd for every game with every directional school that UK invites to play in the venue.

Obviously, Kentucky could get more engaged crowds if it played more big games at home. But for all the complaining there is about UK’s nonconference home schedule (and there’s a lot of that, at least based on my fan interactions), the underlying truth is that Kentucky’s home-scheduling model is in line with its college basketball peer group.

This year, UK gave its season ticket holders two marquee nonconference games at Rupp Arena — Miami and Gonzaga.

As you will see, that stacks up well to the home schedules of the other men’s college hoops blue bloods. Below is the number of “big time” opponents that UK’s peers among the men’s college hoops elite played this season on their home courts (I define as “big time foes” as teams from other power conferences, meaning the football Power Five and the Big East plus Gonzaga):

Duke (1): Arizona.

Kansas (2): Connecticut, Missouri.

North Carolina (1): Tennessee.

The story was no different among the “fallen blue bloods”:

Indiana (1): Kansas.

Louisville (1): Kentucky.

UCLA (1): Maryland.

Among the men’s college hoops “new bloods,” the lack of big-time, home nonconference games was even more stark:

Connecticut (0): No major nonconference foes on the Huskies home court or their “home away from home” in Hartford.

Gonzaga (0): Ditto for Mark Few’s Bulldogs (I’m not counting playing UConn in Seattle as a “home game” because the Spokane-based Zags do not regularly play in that city).

Villanova (2): Maryland, UCLA (a game that was played in Philadelphia, but not at Villanova’s on-campus arena).

As for the current UK home campaign, with disappointing Arkansas (14-13, 5-9 SEC) on March 2 and struggling Vanderbilt (7-20, 2-12 SEC) on March 6 as the only remaining home games on the Kentucky men’s hoops schedule, we have likely seen the last of “big-game Rupp Arena” for 2023-24.

In a season where UK has lost four home games, the fans in the stands this winter at Rupp have a better record in terms of coming through in the big games than does the Wildcats team.

Kentucky fans in the student section cheer before the Wildcats’ game against Tennessee at Rupp Arena on Feb. 3. Silas Walker/swalker@herald-leader.com
Kentucky fans in the student section cheer before the Wildcats’ game against Tennessee at Rupp Arena on Feb. 3. Silas Walker/swalker@herald-leader.com

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