Could UK return to Maui? Mark Pope will get to shape future schedule with some caveats.

On an afternoon where new Kentucky basketball coach Mark Pope could apparently do no wrong, one of the most noteworthy cheers during his introductory news conference came when Pope polled the crowd for some scheduling advice.

“Let’s say sometime in the future we can find our way into this Maui tournament. Would anybody come?” Pope asked the crowd. “Maybe. We will see.”

Pope was referring to the Maui Invitational, an annual showcase tournament played around Thanksgiving in Hawaii. Kentucky played in the event every four years from 1993 to 2010 but removed itself from the rotation during John Calipari’s tenure.

Calipari cited the long travel time and the general youth of his teams as reasons for not playing in the tournament, which features three games in three days. While the Calipari era featured no shortage of marquee trips for fans with neutral site games played across the country and even internationally in England, Canada and the Bahamas, a portion of the fan base has still bemoaned the loss of the Maui trip.

The field for the 2024 Maui Invitational is already set, but it is almost certain the tournament would welcome Kentucky and the throngs of fans it would bring to the island when a spot is available.

“I would say we’re probably in a position where we can work our way through it,” UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart said. “If that’s something he wants to do, that’s fine.”

The realities of Kentucky’s future schedules might make that quest more difficult though as Pope inherits several series from the Calipari era.

UK is contracted to play in the neutral-site Champions Classic for two more seasons with games against Duke set for 2024 and Kansas in 2025. The CBS Sports Classic, which features Kentucky, North Carolina, UCLA and Ohio State, is scheduled to continue through the 2026-27 season.

Kentucky will play Gonzaga in Seattle next season in the third year of a six-year series that also includes a neutral-site game in Nashville in 2025, a home game in Rupp Arena in 2026 and a road game at Gonzaga in 2027. The home-and-home series with archrival Louisville remains on the schedule as well as the SEC/ACC Challenge, which should be a road game for Kentucky in 2024.

Pope’s BYU team played in the Maui Invitational during his first season as coach. BYU then played in neutral-site multi-team events in Connecticut, Hawaii, the Bahamas and Las Vegas in Pope’s four other seasons as coach.

With so many neutral-site games already on Kentucky’s schedule, Calipari chose to use the multi-team event allowed each team by hosting one in Rupp Arena to add three home games to the schedule. For Kentucky to return to Maui or another neutral-site multi-team event, it would probably need to drop at least one of its current neutral-site obligations in order to not lose the revenue that comes from home games.

New Kentucky basketball head coach Mark Pope speaks during an introductory event at Rupp Arena on Sunday.
New Kentucky basketball head coach Mark Pope speaks during an introductory event at Rupp Arena on Sunday.

The athletic department’s revenue is also boosted by the payments the program receives to play in the Champions and CBS Sports classics.

“We’ve got a couple that we’re going to continue to work our way through that are very beneficial to us,” Barnhart said. “From a scheduling perspective, from a visibility perspective, really, really important.”

But Pope will have the chance to shape the schedule as he wants in the future. During his introductory news conference he also hinted at a possible game against St. John’s, which is coached by his former UK coach Rick Pitino.

By Monday morning, Pitino had watched highlights of Pope’s introduction and publicly accepted his offer.

“Wow, just saw clips from our Captain’s press conference. Not shocked, but pleasantly surprised. Would expect nothing less from @CoachMarkPope,” Pitino posted on X. “Also, @StJohnsBBall accepts, this year at UK, next year at the Mecca! Looking forward to saying goodbye to @KentuckyMBB.”

So, a return of Pitino to Rupp Arena could be coming for the 2024-25 season, with a trip to Madison Square Garden possibly on the 2025-26 schedule.

The Wildcats’ next opportunity to make a preseason international trip, which the NCAA allows once every four seasons, will come in 2026. Calipari took UK to the Bahamas for its last three preseason international tours — the Wildcats also played games in Canada last summer as a representative of USA Basketball — while Pope took his BYU team to Italy and Croatia in 2023.

By 2026, Pope should have a better idea of what he wants Kentucky’s schedule to look like moving forward. The international trip offers some of the same travel appeal as the Maui Invitational for fans, but the international games are exhibitions while the Maui Invitational usually features matchups with other marquee programs.

“If there’s something he thinks that helps in recruiting, something he thinks is good for our program, this is his program,” Barnhart said. “He’s got to design it. Cal designed it his way. Now Mark is in the chair.

“He gets to design it his way. If that’s something he says I want to do, then we’ll support that and figure it out.”

Kentucky last played in the Maui Invitational in Hawaii in 2010, John Calipari’s second season as coach.
Kentucky last played in the Maui Invitational in Hawaii in 2010, John Calipari’s second season as coach.

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