Cats vs. Cats

Chris Coffey cradles the 2019 NAIA national championship trophy during a rally at Georgetown College. GC men’s basketball will open next season with a game at UK.

It’s not a leisurely victory lap, given the nature of the chosen assignment, but NAIA men’s basketball champion Georgetown College is set to enjoy two hours of national attention on hallowed hardwood when the Tigers tip off their title defense in the fall.

Georgetown will make the short trip to Rupp Arena and face none other than the University of Kentucky Wildcats in an exhibition game at 5 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 27.

The broadcast will be available through SEC Network and its various platforms. Tickets may be purchased via UK at a later date.

“We are very grateful to have the opportunity to play Kentucky in Rupp Arena,” GC coach Chris Briggs, who began his career as a student manager at UK, said in a press release. “Our players will be very excited to have this unique experience that they will always cherish.”

Division I title contenders taking on local and regional teams from lower divisions in the lead-up to their seasons is a rite of autumn.

Kentucky met Kentucky State (2015), Asbury (2016), Thomas More (2017) and Transylvania (2018) the past four seasons. Georgetown’s recent history includes battles with Louisville, Xavier, Florida and Western Kentucky, Mississippi State and Florida State.

On Nov. 1, 2008, GC lost by a slim margin of 74-67 on Louisville’s home court while the Cardinals were ranked No. 3 in the preseason poll.

And yes, there were two previous contests with Kentucky. 

Happy Osborne’s Tigers put up a tussle against Tubby Smith’s Wildcats in 2005-06, with UK pulling away for an 85-63 victory.

After guiding GC to the second national title in school history two seasons earlier, Briggs brought the Tigers to Rupp for another preseason showdown in the fall of 2014.

That, of course, was the UK team that won its first 38 games in succession before being upset by Wisconsin in the final four. The Wildcats showed their northern neighbors minimal mercy in a 121-52 verdict that left Briggs in marvel mode.

“We had the same problems that the rest of the country probably will have the rest of this year,” Briggs said after the game. “Those guys are unreal. I told our guys in the locker room, (Kentucky) could have beaten some NBA teams tonight. There’s no question in my mind.”

Most of the players wearing Kentucky uniforms that night became big-time pros in short order. Aaron Harrison led seven Wildcats in double figures with 17 points. Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson each added 12.

Devin Booker, Karl-Anthony Towns and Tyler Ulis were freshmen that year for UK coach John Calipari.

That Tiger team ultimately won 25 games and lost eight, reaching the Mid-South Conference semifinals. Arizona Christian ousted Georgetown in the opening round of the NAIA tournament, the only time GC has been knocked out that early in the past nine seasons.

In his post-game press conference that night, Briggs went on to say he had a hard time seeing how the Wildcats would lose a game that year.

Naturally, that drew a good-natured retort from Calipari.

“Coach, did you do that to me?” Calipari said. “So he also said we’re going to have 40 wins and win by 25 (every night), right? No, this will be a process. We’re going to hit some bumps in the road.”

NAIA schools forever will draw their courage to stand sneaker-to-sneaker against the NCAA’s best from tiny Chaminade of Hawaii.

Back on dec. 23, 1982, the Catholic school shocked the world when it beat then-No. 1 Virginia, featuring Ralph Sampson, in a Christmas tournament.

And times have rarely been higher at Georgetown, which stormed to its third title in March with a 68-48 rout of Carroll (Montana) in the national title game. The Tigers also tripped up William Carey, Arizona Christian, LSU-Shreveport and Rocky Mountain en route to the title.

Led by former Kentucky high school stars Troy Steward, Eljay Cowherd, Chris Coffey and Jacob Conway and NCAA Division I transfers Brodricks Jones, Joe Burton and Dominique Reid, GC went 33-4, including 10 consecutive wins at the finish.

The championship run earned Twitter accolades from no less than authority than ESPN’s Dick Vitale, in which he was pictured with Briggs.

Steward, Reid and Burton were the only seniors on the championship roster, so the Tigers will be considered one of the favorites in NAIA once again.

It’s familiar territory for a program known for its remarkable success and stability. Briggs is only the fourth different coach at GC — following in the footsteps of Osborne, the late Jim Reid, and Bob Davis — since 1953. 

The Tigers have 1,619 wins, an average of more than 24 per year, in that span.

Kentucky, as is its custom, boasts what is regarded as perhaps the top-ranked recruiting class in the nation, led by Tyrese Maxey, Kahlil Whitney, Keion Brooks, Johnny Juzang and Pendleton County’s Dontaie Allen. Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley, E.J. Montgomery and Nick Richards are the top returnees. 

Graduate transfer Nate Sestina (Bucknell) also is expected to make an immediate splash.

UK also will host Kentucky State on Nov. 1. Its all-time exhibition record: 136-12, which includes 15 straight wins and 61 in the past 63 tries.

Kal Oakes can be reached via email at sports@news-graphic.com.

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