Six Series That College Basketball Deserves Back
Last month, Connecticut made its reunion with the Big East official, and in turn restarted some classic series college basketball had been deprived of for several years. The other week, I explained why basketball fans everywhere should rejoice at the news, but this is only one step of many that can and should be made to rekindle some fantastic series this sport is missing.
It wouldn’t have to come by way of conference realignment. In many cases, that isn’t feasible, nor would it be good for the sport if it happened. But some matchups are too juicy, too rich in history, and too important to basketball to be ignored.
Fortunately, we will soon see UConn share a floor with Georgetown, Villanova, Providence and more twice a year, but here are the series we don’t see on the college basketball schedule that need to make their way back.
Indiana vs Kentucky
The Hoosiers and Wildcats are two of the biggest and most prestigious brands in all of basketball, and with only about three hours of separation between them, they should be on the same court regularly. But after meeting annually from 1969-2012, Indiana and Kentucky have not scheduled any other matchups. The teams have only met once since: a 73-67 Indiana victory in the second round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament.
There is legitimate bad blood between the two programs. This was, and still is, one of the best rivalries this sport has to offer. You will be hard pressed to find places in this world that love basketball like Indiana and Kentucky, and although Purdue and Louisville might not like to hear it, the Wildcats and Hoosiers are the flagship basketball programs for their respective states. It is borderline criminal for these two states to not have a yearly bragging rights contest.
According to John Calipari in an SEC Teleconference in late June, he and Kentucky offered Indiana two games to be played at a neutral site in Indianapolis, but the Hoosiers rejected the idea. He went on to say he doesn’t see a game between the two schools “happening anytime in the near future.”
This series ended in 2012 when the two schools disagreed over the same dilemma. In a statement released by Indiana Athletics, the school “will not sign a new contract to play the University of Kentucky in men’s basketball next season in light of their insistence that the matchup be moved off-campus sites.’
Kentucky spun the situation as Indiana being scared to play the Wildcats away from Assembly Hall. The Hoosiers claimed they wanted the series to remain home-and-home so their students and fans could easily and affordably attend in Bloomington.
It’s petty, which makes the ordeal almost perfectly college basketball, so to speak. But not quite, because for it to be perfect, we’d get to enjoy it played out on the court, not through manicured-for-media quips.
Kansas vs Missouri
We used to get this matchup twice a year in the Big 8 and Big 12, but when Missouri moved to the SEC in 2012, that number shrank to zero. After playing hundreds of times over 105 years, the Border War was no more.
This is one of the most ruthless rivalries in all of sports, let alone college basketball. It’s called the Border War for a reason: real blood was spilled when clashes between Kansasans and Missourians broke out during the Civil War. There’s deep hatred between the states that goes back generations, and it’s deeply rooted in the history of each university.
When the Tigers split for the SEC to escape what appeared to be an unstable Big 12, both sides took up a moral high ground that they’ve dug their heels into since. Kansas says Missouri is the one who left the conference, so it’s their fault. Clearly, the rivalry wasn’t important enough to the Tigers for them to stay in the conference, Jayhawks assert. But Missouri points out non-conference rivalries are perfectly normal in college sports, and that it would like to play Kansas every year in all sports.
Now, Missouri is a total misfit in its new conference, with no deep history or rivalry with any of its annual opponents. Kansas still has some of its old Big 8 usual suspects on the schedule each season, and Kansas State and Iowa State have become two series fans can look forward to every season for intensity. But it’s not the same without Missouri on the docket, no matter how much Jayhawks homers may insist otherwise.
In 2017, the two teams met for a preseason charity exhibition at the Sprint Center in Kansas City. Kansas won, 93-87, in front of 18,951 fans, who helped raise more than $2 million for hurricane relief. More than 18,000 more shelled out $40 each to watch a live stream of the game.
Even though it was an exhibition, the players didn’t treat it like one, and neither did the fans. The intensity and atmosphere were there like they have been since 1907, and for one day, the rivalry was back.
The players still care, at least for now. It still means everything to the fans. The simplicity of putting together the charity game proved how easily the two can meet on the court. There’s a pettiness epidemic in college basketball, and unfortunately, the Kansas-Missouri rivalry fell ill with it.
Maryland vs Georgetown
From 1950-74, these two programs met every year, several times more than once. Although the home-and-homes stopped in 1974, the teams still played almost every year until 1980. That’s when the rivalry took its hiatus.
In 1979, Maryland head coach Lefty Driesell and Georgetown head coach John Thompson got into it during a game. Curses were exchanged, a handshake was skipped, and a personal feud between the coaches that would last years became public. As Georgetown skyrocketed in the 1980s, Thompson kept local schools off his schedule, delaying a renewal even further.
Finally, in 1993, the teams attempted to restart the series. Maryland won the first game, 84-83, in overtime. Maryland head coach Gary Williams called the win “as big as any I’ve ever coached in my career,” a testament to the importance of the rivalry at the time. The return game in College Park expected for the following season, but Thompson nixed it, stating the Terps wouldn’t give his school enough tickets.
There have been a few games here and there since in preseason and postseason tournaments, but for the first time since 1974, the Hoyas played in College Park in 2015 in the first half of a home-and-home as part of the Gavitt Games between the Big Ten and Big East. The atmosphere was unforgettable in Xfinity Center for Maryland’s 75-71 victory in a back-and-forth game, and the environment at Verizon Center in 2016 for the return game, a 76-75 epic comeback for the Terps, was also special.
This rivalry has cooled off a lot over the years with how infrequently the two teams have played since the 1970s. However, the games a few years ago indicated how easily the flames between these schools can be stoked, and only about 14 miles separate them. These are two strong basketball schools with plenty of importance to the history and tradition of the sport. If this series were played regularly, it would become a massive deal every year in the DMV and a marquee rivalry nationally. And with Maryland in a relatively new conference without any true rivals and Georgetown having lost some traditional Big East foes through conference realignment, it makes perfect sense to bring it back.
Xavier vs Dayton
Since the 1920s, the Musketeers and Flyers had played in a fierce, annual rivalry. The two Catholic universities less than an hour’s drive away from each other met mostly as independents, but the rivalry jumped to another level when Dayton joined Xavier in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference, now the Horizon League, in 1988, which the Musketeers had entered almost 10 years earlier. In 1995, both schools went to the Atlantic-10 together where the most modern version of the rivalry was experienced until Xavier bolted for the Big East in 2013.
Between the 1947-48 (the start of the “modern era,” according to Dayton) and 2012-13 seasons, the schools met 135 times, with the Flyers dominating early, then Xavier coming on strong in the later half of the series. Xavier had control when the series began in the 1920s until after World War II, but it’s not enough to overcome Dayton’s lead in the rivalry, 84-75.
The teams last played in 2015 in the championship of the AdvoCare Invitational, with Xavier waxing the Flyers, 90-61, but there have been no on-campus games since the Musketeers split from the A-10. In fact, Xavier appears to be so done with the rivalry that it auctioned off its copy of the Blackburn McCafferty Trophy, which was awarded to the winner of the teams’ matchups starting in 1980, in 2018.
It got vicious at times, although Xavier’s general dominance since the late-1980s slowly cooled the Musketeers to the rivalry. But Dayton has improved drastically since Xavier left the A-10, and there is so much to love about this series. These schools and programs share so many similarities and have so much history that it is a shame they’re no longer playing. Even though Xavier’s relationship with Cincinnati is more important and the Musketeers are enjoying the fruits of the Big East, these two teams can and should find one non-conference slot each season to put them on the same court like it always used to be.
Creighton vs Wichita State
Creighton left the Missouri Valley Conference in 1948 to go independent, only three seasons after Wichita State joined the league. The series dates back before the Bluejays came back to the Valley in 1976, though, as the teams have played 100 times, Creighton holding a 55-45 advantage.
The rivalry really heated up since the turn of the millennium as the teams became the premier programs of the MVC. From 2001 to 2013, Creighton and Wichita State combined for six regular season conference titles and often stood in each other’s way. Proximity added to the hate, plus clashing personalities on both sides.
“There’s a lot of history around Creighton-Wichita State,” former Shocker Ben Smith told Paul Suellentrop of The Wichita Eagle in 2013. “You don’t want to disappoint your fans. One fan told me: I don’t care if you lose every game. When you play Creighton, you’ve got to beat them.”
When Mark Turgeon took over at Wichita State in 2000, he circled Creighton as the team his needed to aim to topple. Southern Illinois was the other force in the conference at the time, but with the Shockers nipping at their heels, the Bluejays had enough hatred to go around. As the Salukis trailed off, Wichita State remained and took the brunt of Creighton’s heat.
Games were known to be chippy and often tight, leading to unforgettable late-game heroics from one perspective and heartbreaking failures from another. But there hasn’t been a Creighton-Wichita State game since 2013. Creighton has found a comfortable home in the Big East, and Wichita State left the MVC a few years later to join the American Athletic Conference (AAC) in 2017. There have been rumblings of a renewal at times over the last few years, but nothing has come to fruition yet. Without a shared conference or regular meetings to keep the fire going, this once-great rivalry will erode away. The only way these schools will be in the same conference again is if the Big East invites Wichita State, which I wouldn’t count on, at least not right now, so it’s on them to schedule something out-of-conference to salvage the hatred.
Cincinnati vs Louisville
With their first meeting coming in 1921 and 99 total matchups since, this was one of the biggest games of the season for both schools every year. Both programs are still by far the other’s most played opponent, more than each side’s marquee rivalry with Xavier and Kentucky. It extended to football, too, where the teams played for The Keg of Nails for almost 100 years, a testament to the dislike between the schools that went well beyond the basketball court.
Cincinnati and Louisville have been conference opponents in multiple different leagues. In the late-1960s, the Cardinals joined the Missouri Valley, which Cincinnati was already a member. Both schools entered the now-defunct Metro Conference as charter members. The Bearcats left the league in 1991, and for a few years, the teams didn’t play. But they restarted in 1996 when the Metro Conference merged with the Great Midwest Conference to form Conference USA, bringing the two together again, and the rivalry was back on. Then in 2006, Louisville and Cincinnati both received and accepted invitations to the Big East and took their hatred there. They even shared the AAC for the 2013-14 year before the Cardinals dashed for the ACC.
Through it all, these storied programs were at each other’s throats. The prestige and distance between the two, as well as the natural rivalry between the cities of Cincinnati and Louisville, were staples in the hatred.
Again, it wasn’t Kentucky-Louisville, and it wasn’t the Crosstown Shootout, but it was something important, with its own place. When Louisville and Cincinnati met in the 1990s, it was Conference USA basketball, and it was must-watch television for college basketball fans across the country. Even as the programs took turns dominating through the tail end of the rivalry, games between the two still meant something. If you want to know what it was like from the perspective of a Louisville fan who grew up during the heated Conference USA days, Mike Rutherford of Card Chronicle laid it all out right before the teams played for the last time (as of now) in 2014.
Right now, a renewal of this rivalry would mean more for Cincinnati than Louisville. The Cards are comfortable in the ACC and still have their annual meeting with Kentucky, while the Bearcats are stuck in AAC purgatory on the outside of the Power 5 looking in. Cincinnati still has the Xavier series, and former C-USA foe Memphis is also in the AAC. But it’s not the same without Louisville and some of its other old Big East opponents, like Pittsburgh and West Virginia. But even if Louisville will be fine with or without Cincinnati, for the sake of the sport, it would be a beautiful thing if this series were to return, perhaps one day as conference brethren.