Trying to catch Kentucky has been a historical objective in Southeastern Conference men's basketball.
Now, buddying up to the Wildcats is a shared goal.
The SEC announced at its spring meetings in May that the league will maintain an 18-game conference schedule but that the number of permanent opponents would increase from one to three. Having two guaranteed games annually against Kentucky would enhance a school's strength of schedule, and no program within the SEC produces sold-out arenas more than the eight-time national champion.
"I think that everybody would like to have Kentucky," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said earlier this week. "Kentucky has been the bell cow in this league for years and years and years. If you gave just about everybody a choice, if they did not consider the competitive disadvantages it may create because it's awfully tough to beat them, I think everyone would line up and want to play Kentucky."
Jumping to three permanent opponents will not occur until the 2015-16 season, and the league is expected to announce those pairings later this year.
The SEC went to an 18-game league schedule when Missouri and Texas A&M joined in 2012 and adopted a format in which each team would play the other 13 members, one team twice annually and then have home-and-home series with four of the remaining 12. Those home-and-home series would rotate on three-year cycles.
Florida, which has been to five Final Fours in the last 20 years and is the only other SEC program with multiple national titles, was selected as the permanent foe for the Wildcats.
That left the two closest league schools to Kentucky -- Tennessee and Vanderbilt -- feeling somewhat slighted. The Volunteers have played Kentucky more times (217) and have more wins (67) over the Wildcats than any other program, yet this past season marked the first time the two didn't collide in Knoxville since 1953.
Vanderbilt ranks second among SEC teams in terms of wins (44) and meetings (183) against Kentucky.
"I would think that would be a team for us that's high on the list in both directions, quite honestly," Stallings said. "They enjoy the rivalry just like we do, and it wouldn't be a surprise to me if they were one of our three."
Yet Tennessee and Vanderbilt aren't alone in claiming historical ties with Kentucky.
LSU is second all-time in conference championships, Alabama is second in all-time league victories, and what about the great Arkansas-Kentucky games that took place when the Razorbacks joined the league before the 1992 season?
"Obviously you want to play against the best teams in your conference," Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. "We've had great games, and when Arkansas was good, Kentucky was good, and our league was at its height. I would have no problem with that as far as permanent partners."
Even schools that don't land Kentucky as an annual rival can still benefit from the increase in permanent foes. Georgia finished in a tie for second with the Wildcats this past season within the SEC but never got much NCAA tournament consideration due to its league schedule.
The Bulldogs are longtime rivals of Florida but did not face the Gators in Athens for the first time since 1962.
"We had no home games against Kentucky, Florida, Auburn and Tennessee," Georgia coach Mark Fox said, "and those are the teams our fans will traditionally come out and see. We didn't have any of those games at home, and I think that's an issue all the teams run into. With more partners that you play every year, you can avoid some of that.
"There will always be an unbalanced schedule with 18 games, but going to more partners would help eliminate some of those situations where people don't have natural draws at home."
SEC coaches were allowed to request permanent partners, but the pairings ultimately will be decided by athletic directors and the league office.
"There is still some ironing out of the scheduling format to do, and I'm fine with whatever they do," Stallings said. "I would be fine with three permanent opponents. As crazy as it sounds, I would be fine if we played everybody twice."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...