CRESTVIEW HILLS, Ky. -- Thomas More coach Drew Cooper harbored big news about the men’s basketball team Thursday afternoon, but he could not reveal it fully until a press release went out at 2 p.m.
So he waited until 1:50 p.m. before sending a group text message to his players. The Saints, he said, will play John Calipari and the University of Kentucky in an exhibition game Oct. 27 at Rupp Arena in Lexington.
The announcement was a hit.
“I was pretty surprised,” said Michael Griffin, a senior guard. “I knew that (Cooper) had called UK about an exhibition and he said that they didn’t say no, so I didn’t know for sure if we were going to play them. I’m pretty excited. I’m looking forward to it.”
It’s as momentous a game as there ever has been in Thomas More men’s basketball history, even if it’s only a preseason scrimmage. The Division III Saints have never faced the storied Division I Wildcats on the hardcourt.
Details like tip-off time, TV and ticket information are yet to be determined, but a few things are certain. Kentucky Deputy Athletic Director DeWayne Peevy said Friday that Thomas More will receive $20,000 per the schools’ contract plus 100 comped tickets.
The scenario is nothing new for the Wildcats, which have implemented Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart’s philosophy to give back whenever an opportunity arises. In recent years Kentucky has done that by scheduling at least one in-state school as an exhibition opponent.
This fall the Wildcats have two in-state exhibition foes in Thomas More and fellow Division III school Centre College. The latter program, from Danville, travels to Rupp on Nov. 3.
So how exactly did the Thomas More/Kentucky exhibition come to be?
“Just by asking. I don’t want to make it sound that simple but I think UK has made a very selfless decision, as many other institutions in their situation have, to allow in-state small colleges to benefit from the hand they’ve been dealt. We’re very fortunate that UK has chosen us,” Cooper said.
Cooper first approached Kentucky in March after the Saints’ season ended. Thomas More went 22-7, won the Presidents’ Athletic Conference Tournament and played one game in the Division III NCAA tournament. All five starters return for the 2017-18 campaign.
Talks picked up this week when Peevy was setting UK’s exhibition slate. He had Thomas More on a short list of in-state programs the Wildcats had never faced. After ensuring an exhibition date worked for both programs, he and Cooper quickly completed the contract.
Peevy said playing in-state teams affords fans of both schools to enjoy a unique experience that will last well after the final buzzer. Some past opponents have tied the UK exhibition to an alumni event or planned other activities around it to extend the excitement.
While the Saints will arrive with a veteran squad, the Wildcats last month bade farewell to NBA draft first-round picks De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo. Next year’s Kentucky team is young, which suits exhibition match-ups against DIII schools.
“There might be years we couldn’t play a Division III school. We might need a bigger challenge. But we’re not looking for that this year because we’re in the learning process too,” Peevy said.
Division III has different offseason rules than its Division I counterparts, and the Saints are prohibited from practicing before Oct. 15. The team will have less than two weeks under its belt before facing Kentucky.
That’s fine with Griffin, who likes the idea of having a stringent test quickly so the Saints can see where they stand. He grew up outside Louisville and is no stranger to Rupp, having played there in the high school postseason.
The environment then compared to a rocking Wildcats fan base will be quite different. Last season 20,099 mostly Kentucky fans watched the Wildcats wallop Clarion 108-51 in a season-opening exhibition at Rupp.
The biggest crowd Thomas More played before was 1,377 in an exhibition at Austin Peay. The Saints’ average home attendance was 319.
“I’m not sure how you can prepare for it, really,” Griffin said.
Cooper expects some initial nerves but hopes the team has the maturity to lose itself in the competition. Ideally he wants Thomas More to test the Wildcats and expose weaknesses in their play.
“I envision a great 40 minutes for both basketball programs and then for my young men, and myself, after the basketball season to look back and continue to do that five, 10, 20 years down the road and enjoy it. We’ve already talked about when UK has that next lottery pick. Well, that lottery pick in the NBA will have been guarded by a Thomas More Saint. That’s going to be very neat for our guys to talk to their families about,” Cooper said.
The fifth-year Saints coach is from Louisville and lives there still. He knows how much basketball is woven into the fabric of Kentuckians’ lives, and that the exhibition game memories will last a lifetime.
“Whether you’re a basketball fan or not, it’s impossible to grow up in Kentucky without appreciating the tradition that UK basketball is,” Cooper said.