College sports are built upon the foundation of great rivalries. Tonight, we celebrate the Mona Lisa of college basketball rivalries when the No. 4 Duke Blue Devils welcome No. 15 North Carolina to Cameron Indoor Stadium at 8 p.m. CT on ESPN.
The Battle of Tobacco Road is the best rivalry in college sports. Yes, I went there. I said it. The best darn rivalry in college sports.
It’s better than Auburn and Alabama because the unhealthy fanaticism that leads to families never speaking again or trees being poisoned doesn’t exist. There is respect for one another’s schools and programs.
It’s better than Michigan and Ohio State because the Carolina campuses are just eight miles apart and both programs have been relevant for the better part of the past decade. (I’m looking at you, Michigan football.)
The cast of characters between Durham and Chapel Hill is better than anything Stephen Spielberg could muster up and might only be surpassed by the Yankees and Red Sox baseball rivalry — maybe.
Allow me to list just a few names from both schools whom you might recall from the past three deacdes: Dean Smith, Larry Brown, Michael Jordan, Antwan Jamison, James Worthy, Jerry Stackhouse, Tyler Hansborough, Vince Carter, Sam Perkins, Brad Daugherty, Ed Cota, Sean May, Wayne Ellington, Rashad McCants, Hubert Davis, Raymond Felton, Rick Fox, Danny Green, Ty Lawson, Kenny Smith, Rasheed Wallace and Tyler Zeller.
Sorry, that was just the Tar Heels.
Duke in the past few decades has given us Shane Battier, Carlos Boozer, Elton Brand, Seth Curry, Andre and Johnny Dawkins, Luol Deng, Mike Dunleavy, Danny Ferry, Gerald Henderson, Grant Hill, Kyrie Irving, Christian Laettner, Trajon Langdon, Corey Maggette, Josh McRoberts, Mike Krzyzewski, Austin Rivers, Cherokee Parks, the Plumlee trio, Kyle Singler, Jay and Sheldon Williams, Jeff Capel, Steve Wojciechowski, and my personal favorite, J.J. Redick.
Whew! If you’re anything like me, your mind was racing through each name mentioned, matching it with a face or a moment from this rivalry that will live on in the lore of college hoops forever.
There is no doubt that Duke and North Carolina is the game’s greatest rivalry, but here are a few more than deserve much respect.
Indiana vs. Purdue
No where in America is the game of basketball more beloved and revered than in the state of Indiana. Trust me when I tell you that even the kids that didn’t play basketball growing up know how to defend the pick and roll and how to attack a zone defense — which is funny because I’m not sure that Tom Crean does.
I’m from Indiana and basketball is in our blood, we can’t help it. Driving through any random Hoosier neighborhood, you would be hard pressed to find a house that didn’t have some sort of basketball hoop in the driveway or hanging from the roof of a garage. Like salmon ritually swimming upstream, basketball is just what we Hoosiers do. This is what makes the IU and Purdue rivalry so great.
Both programs have been in rebuilding mode the past couple of seasons, but that doesn’t make this rivalry any less special, in fact it kind of makes it more fun in a small victories sort of way.
“Eh, we missed the tourney but we beat the hell outta IU in February.”
IU and Purdue have combined to win 43 Big Ten titles, but only Indiana has the big banners on the wall —five of them to be exact. That really rubs Boiler fans the wrong way and intensifies the rivalries with a hint of the “haves” and “have nots.”
The next installment of Hoosiers and Boilers will be tomorrow night when Purdue travels to Indiana at 8 p.m. CT on ESPN. So throw on some John Cougar Mellencamp, fry up a pork tenderloin and watch the greatest Indiana tradition the Crossroads of America has to offer.
Kentucky vs. Louisville
If any rivalry in college basketball rivals that of Auburn and Alabama in football, it’s this one. Kentucky and Louisville is the biggest thing the Bluegrass State has to offer that doesn’t involve bourbon or derby horses — which is funny because neither team has a player on its roster from the state that actually plays.
Over the past three seasons one of these teams has made the National Championship game, each school winning one a piece. While this rivalry is as heated as coal burning stove in the Appalachians, it is also easily the most loathsome. Both programs have coaches who aren’t very popular or likable outside of their own, rabid fan bases. Rick Pitino has done some things off the court that couldn’t be shown on network television and John Calipari is, well—he’s John Calipari.
When these teams play, its ugly. Neither team has shooters, no team sets screens, the shooting percentages are lower than a frat boy’s GPA, and no one can score. The last time these two teams met was this season on Dec. 27 when neither team was able to score more than 25 points until the second half and Louisville shot just 25 percent from the floor.
The only thing more loathsome than the coaches of these programs are their respective fan bases. Luckily for you, this is a short post so I wont get into much detail, but if you were to mix “Deliverance” and “Jersey Shore” hosted by Jerry Springer, stirred up with a mason jar of apple pie moonshine with a toothpaste drought. It’s not a pretty picture, but that is the Cliff’s Notes version of Kentucky’s and Louisville’s fan bases. Harsh, yes — but the truth is harsh at times.
But hey, its a rivalry — even if no one outside of Kentucky really likes it.
Villanova vs. Georgetown
Sadly, football and conference realignment had to go and ruin several of the best college hoops rivalries like Syracuse vs. Georgetown and Kansas vs. Missouri. Thankfully, the Big East is still semi-intact and still a good hoops conference, although it will never be what it once was.
Luckily for you and I, we still have Villanova and Georgetown to fawn over. Jay Wright has Nova positioned as a national title contender this season, while the Hoyas are struggling to regain the swagger that once made them the baddest team on the block, yet still in the hunt for an NCAA bid.
The Hoya-Nova rivalry was never higher than it was back in the 1980s when Georgetown was a powerhouse under coach John Thompson. The Hoyas were hated for their brashness feared for their physicality. They were the Public Enemy of college basketball, and they loved it. In 1985, the Hoyas were on the verge of their second-straight national title when they faced off against Villanova in Lexington. The Wildcats were massive underdogs, but Rollie Massimino’s squad caught fire, hitting over 70 percent from the floor against Thompson’s Hoyas, upsetting Georgetown in spectacular fashion for Nova’s first and only national title.
We can only be so lucky to have such another matchup between these two familiar Big East foes. The teams already squared off earlier this season that saw Wright’s Wildcats top John Thompson III’s Hoyas, 69-53.
Xavier vs. Cincinnati
In 2011, it was almost a “where were you moment” when these two teams brawled at the end their game in Xaver’s Cintas Center. Punches were thrown, blood was shed, coaches hollered, players pretended to be tough to the media — it was great. The game was called with 9.4 seconds remaining and resulted in eight players serving suspensions.
While Duke and North Carolina’s campuses are close, they aren’t as close as the Bearcats and Musketeers who must share the Ohio River and the Queen City. This rivalry will only get better with time as both programs feature young, talented coaches in Mick Cronin and Chris Mack who continue to pilfer big recruits from the likes of bigger, more noticeable Midwestern schools.
The punches may have ceased in the past couple of seasons, but that doesn’t mean the intensity has to subside. Look for this matchup to become more popular on a national level in the coming years.
There is a long list of former rivalries and almost rivalries that are also worth mentioning.
Kansas vs. Missouri
Thank our good friends football and conference realignment for ruining such a hate-filled rivalry. These two states and fan bases absolutely loathe one another. It is a such a shame that Mizzou had to jump ship to the SEC just to get blown out every season in the conference championship game. Is that reaSyrally worth losing your biggest sports rival?
Indiana vs. Kentucky
This was the second biggest rivalry the sport had behind Duke and Carolina, and then Calipari had to be Calipari and demand the game be played on a neutral site, ruining the home-and-home series that had been played for decades. People from Kentucky and folks from Indiana do not like one another — not in the least bit. These two states play a home-and-home, boys and girls high school basketball series every spring that is played before tens of thousands of fans, featuring the best players from their respective states. Losing this game because of pure greed is such a smear on the game of college basketball.
Syracuse vs. Georgetown
Jim Boeheim and John Thompson never really got along, and it was beautiful to watch on the basketball court. Quite frankly, college hoops could use more of their energy on the sidelines. Villains sell tickets and bring in bigger TV audiences. In the heyday of the Big East, there were no bigger titans than the Orange(men) and Hoyas. They fought for the same recruits, competed for conference and national titles and built a resume of fantastic games that are now forever stowed away to the ages.
There are some rumblings that this rivalry could be renewed for the 2016 season and going forward. It would be such a welcome sight, and much needed for these two hoops blue bloods to duke it out on the hardwood every season.