As a Kentucky assistant, Joe B. Hall accompanied head coach Adolph Rupp on a side trip when the team played at Kansas in 1971.
The coaches visited Phog Allen, in his mid-80s, at his Lawrence home, and Hall was in awe. Rupp, the Baron of the Bluegrass and Kentucky legend with four NCAA championships, visiting his old Kansas coach, Allen. Rupp, a Halstead, Kan., native, was a try-hard guard on Allen’s great teams of the early 1920s.
They’re part of the greatest team photograph in college basketball history, the 1923 Jayhawks with Rupp standing behind Allen and James Naismith, the game’s inventor and Kansas professor.
“Phog sat in there in his big chair and Adolph was like a little boy at the foot of his mentor,” Hall said. “It was amazing to see those two together. Big, big-time stuff.”
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The blue-blood series returns Saturday when Kentucky visits Kansas as part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge. The teams find themselves in odd places, with the Jayhawks ranked fourth in The Associated Press poll but losers in three of their last five, and the Wildcats ranked No. 20 and winners of four of five.
The series also has unfolded in a bizarre manner for the programs that stand 1-2 on college basketball’s all-time victory podium.
Historically, Kentucky hasn’t treated Kansas with the reverence Rupp felt for Allen.
The Wildcats own a commanding 22-6 edge in the series launched in 1950, when big men Bill Spivey of Kentucky and Clyde Lovellette of Kansas battled in Lexington.
Kentucky won that game — big — setting the tone for a series that was commanded by the Wildcats when the teams played annually in December from 1971 to 1985.
Things somewhat evened up after that, but lately Kentucky has regained the upper hand. Teams of coach John Calipari, the former Kansas assistant, have won the previous three, a list that includes the 2012 NCAA Championship Game and a 32-point trashing in the 2014 Champions Classic.
For programs bonded by history and greatness — six who have coached in the series are enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, and Hall was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame three years ago — the stakes are perhaps greater than ever.
No coach in recent years has attracted more top talent than Calipari. Kansas’ Bill Self isn’t far behind. They are two on a short list of programs that truly recruit nationally, and they have the recent NBA Drafts and the plush on-campus apartments for basketball players to prove it.
Their team colors and blood runs blue. They are two of the game’s most traditional and cutting edge programs, and their history can be broken down into three eras.
Some 13,000 crammed into new Memorial Coliseum in Lexington on Dec. 16, 1950, sang Christmas carols at halftime and watched the inaugural meeting of the prominent teams. The Wildcats had won NCAA titles in 1948 and 1949 and would win their third that season. The Jayhawks followed with the 1952 title.
But on this night, it was all Kentucky, 68-39. Spivey finished with 22 points, and according to press clippings came up with 10 steals of passes intended for Lovellette, who finished with 10 points.
Afterward, Allen said he wanted a rematch, but Rupp didn’t oblige until 1959 — after Allen had retired — and the teams waited another decade before a third meeting.
In 1971, the series began an uninterrupted stretch, alternating home sites but rarely changing the winner. Kansas’ lone victory in the teams’ first 16 meetings occurred in 1973.
“We had good teams, they had good teams,” Hall said. “We always played a little over our heads. I think it was the excitement I had personally and it carried over to my teams. I was always fired up to play Kansas.”
Three of the 10 most lopsided losses in Kansas history came at the hands of the Wildcats during this span, including a 37-point loss at Louisville in 1974, which marks the largest losing margin for the Jayhawks since 1900.
But Hall more vividly recalls the close calls, like the crazy finish in December 1978, when the Wildcats prevailed 67-66 in overtime when Kansas called a timeout it didn’t have and was assessed a technical foul. Kyle Macy buried a free throw with three seconds remaining, this after the Jayhawks led by six with 31 seconds left in the extra period.
“I don’t know how much those games meant to the players, but they meant so much to me,” Hall said.
The defeats crushed Kansas coach Ted Owens, who lost 12 of 13 meetings and he couldn’t mask his feelings after an overtime loss in 1981.
“I get sick every time I see Kentucky 12, Kansas 1,” Owens said of where the series stood at the time.
The greatest Kansas basketball era started with the hiring of Larry Brown in 1983 and has continued through the tenures of Roy Williams and Bill Self.
It’s also the era when the Jayhawks made progress against Kentucky. Brown broke through against the Wildcats in 1985 — the only time an Eddie Sutton-coached Wildcats team met the Jayhawks — but it was the next meeting that Kansas fans will never forget.
Williams’ second KU team was unranked to open the season and shocked the nation by beating the top two ranked teams, eventual national champion UNLV and Shaquille O’Neal-led LSU, on its way to the Preseason NIT title. The Wildcats arrived at Allen Fieldhouse under first-year coach Rick Pitino with eight scholarship players, nobody taller than 6-7 on the roster, and on NCAA probation.
What unfolded that Saturday afternoon remains a highlight of the Kansas’ record book and a blot in Kentucky’s.
The final: 150-95, Jayhawks.
“The crazy game,” said Mike Maddox, a starting forward for that Kansas game. “They kept pressing, and we had eight or nine guys who could score. I remember looking up at the scoreboard and we had 80 at halftime. Eighty.”
In the game’s final moments, the Wildcats had used all their timeouts. Williams communicated with Pitino that Kansas would call a timeout if he needed. Pitino returned a profanity. The pressing and scoring continued and Kansas set a school record for points and victory margin. It was the second-worst loss in Kentucky history.
Payback occurred at Rupp Arena the next season. A Kentucky fan held up a sign “Judgment Day Is Here!” So was a freshman named Jamal Mashburn, who would become one of the program’s greatest, and Sean Woods. He went for 25 points and eight assists in the Wildcats’ 88-71 triumph.
Kentucky won the next two meetings, including the programs’ first showdown in the NCAA Tournament in 1999. When Self arrived in Lawrence four years later, Kansas enjoyed its greatest stretch in the series.
KU, then UK
Aaron Miles was stoked to play at Rupp Arena as Kansas and Kentucky staged a home-and-home series starting in 2005 in Lexington.
“It was Kentucky, it was special and we were all excited,” said Miles, currently the program’s assistant director of student-athlete development.
The Jayhawks were without their All-America big man, Wayne Simien, who was out with a thumb injury. They also played the final few minutes without Keith Langford, who had suffered a concussion. But in Miles, the senior point guard, Kansas had its most clutch player who provided the biggest moment.
With Kansas clinging to a two-point lead with about 30 seconds remaining, Miles tripped over a Kentucky player and was sitting on the floor with the ball. Surrounded by Wildcats, he managed to find Michael Lee, who drained a clinching three-pointer.
Kansas won the return game the next season in Lawrence and made it three straight by knocking off Kentucky in the 2007 NCAA Tournament before the pendulum swung back to Kentucky.
The programs have opened or closed the season in their last three meetings, with the Wildcats prevailing in the 2012 NCAA Championship Game and in the 2011 and 2014 Champions Classic. Kentucky’s 32-point victory in Indianapolis to open last season is the most lopsided loss of the Self era at Kansas.
More than ever, the titans today clash on the recruiting trail, and the Wildcats also have the edge there. In the last decade, which encompasses the game’s one-and-done era, Kentucky and Kansas rank 1-2 in players selected in the NBA Draft. The Wildcats have had at least one freshman selected in the first round after each of Calipari’s first six seasons. The Jayhawks have had at least one freshman selected in five of the last six years.
“I don’t know how it was before, but the last 10 years or so, a lot of recruiting battles come down to Kentucky and Kansas,” Miles said. “Duke, North Carolina are right there. Michigan State and Arizona, but Kentucky’s always there.”
To Self, nobody works one-and-done recruiting better than Calipari.
“I don’t think that we or other schools sell it the same way he does, and that’s a compliment to them and him,” Self said. “You’re going to come here, you’re going to play and you’re going to get better, and in one year you’re going to leave. That’s certainly been the case with several of their guys.”
With roots in the game’s foundation, a history of success and rivalry in recruiting, Kentucky and Kansas continue to enrich their blue blood with Saturday’s game.
“You have a terrific team with unbelievable history and tradition coming in here, but they’re going against a terrific team with unbelievable history and tradition too,” Self said. “I think it’s going to be a fabulous night. It will have a different feel.”
Kentucky vs. Kansas facts
Kentucky leads, 22-6
Naismith Hall of Fame coaches
Adolph Rupp, Kentucky
Rick Pitino, Kentucky
John Calipari, Kentucky
Phog Allen, Kansas
Larry Brown, Kansas
Roy Williams Kansas
All-time victory list
1. Kentucky 2,194
2. Kansas 2,169