Is the UNC-Kentucky series on its way out?

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- On his website, CoachCal.com, Kentucky’s John Calipari last weekend posed an eye-opening question to Big Blue Nation: If the Wildcats had no other choice and had to eliminate or postpone one series, which should it be: North Carolina, Indiana or Louisville?

Officials at both UK and UNC this week said they’re hoping to extend the annual series between two of the top three all-time winningest programs, which will face off for the 12th straight season Saturday at Rupp Arena. The contract -- usually re-upped for two-year, home-and-home intervals -- expires this season.

But with SEC and ACC expansion on the way -- meaning amplified league schedules for both teams -- there is a concern over how much longer this kind of nonconference rivalry can last.

“These are learning opportunities,” Calipari said Wednesday of his current nonconference slate this week. “And you can’t learn against Popcorn State. ... You need these kind of games. You just don’t need 12 of them.”

And therein lies the rub.

Top-ranked Kentucky and No. 5 UNC both play 16-game conference schedules. But that’s expected to expand to 18 for the Wildcats next season, when the SEC adds Texas A&M and Missouri; and then to at least 18 for the Tar Heels when Syracuse and Pittsburgh join the ACC, likely in 2013.

Under NCAA rules, teams can play only 27 games, plus a multi-team tournament (such as the Las Vegas Invitational or the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament) during the regular season.

Do the math: Eighteen-game league schedules mean programs would have only nine games of wiggle-room to schedule nonconference foes.

Subtract another game for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge or the SEC/Big East Challenge. Then take away another slot or two, if you want to take players back near their hometowns to play.

All of a sudden, you’re left with a conundrum: How many difficult nonconference teams do you really want to play, when you know you’re already facing some hefty league foes?

“You’ve got to say to yourself now, You’ve got Syracuse and Pitt, those are pretty big heavyweights,’’ said UNC senior associate athletic director Larry Gallo, who works with UNC coach Roy Williams on scheduling. “Are we going to play them twice, are we going to play them once, who are you going to play away? That still all has to be worked out.

“Then you’ve got to add in two games against Duke, [NC] State, the rest of the ACC. The [holiday] tournaments usually have some pretty good competition ... and we’re in the first year of a four-year contract with Texas. You want to keep playing games like Kentucky ... but do you want to schedule anything any heavier?”

In this age of one-and-done athletes, when players and rosters turn over so quickly, coaches have to be worried about over-scheduling at the wrong time.

“My job is not to entertain,’’ Calipari said. “My job is to keep this program where it is, and not put it at risk.”

There’s also a money factor. Of the two added league games, one will be “away,” meaning most teams would like to add a revenue-generating, nonconference home game to the calendar. But high-caliber nonconference rivalries usually means inking in a return game every other year -- meaning less opportunities for dollars in the coffers.

Williams, for his part, has warned for a while that top teams would face this sort of problem if leagues expanded.

“We’re going to lose some of the rivalries that we’ve had for a long time nonconference-wise,’’ he said before the season. “I made that statement to a TV guy one time. I said, ‘You say you want more inventory?’ Would you rather have the No. 1 team in any league versus the No. 12 or would you rather have the No. 1 team in the league against the No. 1 team in another league? What’s the better inventory?’

“If you keep adding conference games, you’re going to lose games like North Carolina-Kentucky, North Carolina-Texas, North Carolina-Connecticut, North Carolina-Arizona, North Carolina-Michigan State.”

Those types of concerns are expected to be a factor when both leagues ultimately decide how much to expand their schedules. Only one thing is for certain now: UNC and UK officials are talking, but a new contract won’t be signed before Saturday’s tip-off.

“The agreement that we have in place expires this season, but that doesn’t mean the series won’t continue,’’ Gallo said. “ ... I still think we’d like to play, but we -- both schools -- want to see what the outcome of the expansion decisions will be, because they will have an effect.”

That poll Calipari put on his website, however, will not.

Asked if fans’ votes will ultimately have bearing on UK’s scheduling choices, Calipari said, “No.”

Robbi Pickeral can be reached at bylinerp@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @bylinerp.com.