Kentucky and Michigan will play a game in London next season as part of a new deal between the men’s basketball programs that lets Kentucky showcase its team abroad and gives Michigan a multiyear series against one of the top universities in the sport.
The arrangements include the universities trading games against one another on campus (known as a home-and-home series) in the 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons, according to four people with direct knowledge of the agreements. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss details of a deal that had not been made public.
The London game is scheduled for December 2020 at the O2 arena, a stadium that has been used by the NBA over the past few seasons.
Games outside the U.S. are not unusual for college basketball, but they generally come in the form of early season tournaments played in resort destinations like Cancún, Mexico, and the Bahamas. An individually scheduled regular season game outside the U.S. is far less common.
The Pac-12 has held games in China each of the past five seasons. In college football, Notre Dame and Navy plan to open next season in Ireland, at Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Aug. 29, 2020.
The London event, which was organized as a fundraiser for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, also includes a game between the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and Marist. UMBC has two players, R.J. Eytle-Rock and Daniel Akin, who are originally from London and the team built significant name recognition in 2018 by becoming the first No. 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament to defeat a No. 1 when it upended Virginia (which rebounded with a national title the next season).
Over the past two seasons, the Hall of Fame has also organized an early tournament in Northern Ireland featuring several mid-major programs, none with the cachet of teams like Michigan and Kentucky.
The deal is a shift from past practice for Kentucky coach John Calipari, who previously moved away from a similar home-and-home arrangement with another Big Ten team, Indiana. Kentucky and Indiana have discussed renewing their longtime series that ended in 2011-12 but nothing has materialized. Under the new agreement, Kentucky agreed to play in Ann Arbor in December 2021 and to host Michigan in December 2022.
Calipari has a reputation for finding strategic advantages and embracing players destined for the NBA. He is perhaps best known in college basketball for his use of so-called one-and-done players who plan to enter the NBA draft after one season in college because of professional age restrictions.
In 2011 and 2012, Calipari coached the national team for the Dominican Republic, which put Kentucky in position to land a commitment from Karl-Anthony Towns, a Minnesota Timberwolves star who was the top pick in the 2015 NBA draft.
Michigan coach Juwan Howard, who was part of Michigan’s famed Fab Five team in the early 1990s, has a long-standing relationship with Calipari that helped lead to the deal. When Howard pursued the Michigan job last spring as an assistant coach with the Miami Heat, he reached out to Calipari as a confidant. Calipari was also instrumental in Howard’s decision to hire former St. Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli as an assistant coach.
Michigan also has sports experience abroad. Its football program under coach Jim Harbaugh has taken spring trips the past three years, to Italy, France and South Africa, giving the university a recruiting advantage financed by private athletic donations.