The Dormant College Basketball Rivalries We Most Want to See Renewed
It wasn’t this past weekend’s most dramatic game (that would be Indiana’s wild win over Butler), nor was it the most worthy of the marquee (that would be North Carolina’s victory over Gonzaga). But Saturday’s tilt between Tennessee and Memphis, which the No. 3 Vols won 102–92, may have been its most intense. There were thunderous boos toward Tennessee from the second-largest crowd the Tigers have drawn in their 14 years at FedEx Forum and ample chirping and jawing between players, culminating in an on-court skirmish in the final minute that officials needed to quell. It ended with a tense, fleeting handshake between coaches Rick Barnes and Penny Hardaway, setting a tone that carried on in the days after, with Barnes making light of Hardaway’s description of seeing the Volunteers’ “fists balled” and Hardaway calling Barnes “low class” in a Tuesday press conference that concluded with the first-year coach saying, “Rick Barnes, get the [expletive] out of here.”
While we at the Midweek Rebound are not in the business of promoting fighting or outright personal animosity, the energy surrounding the game was a welcome sight. This was the first meeting between these programs since 2013, renewing an on-and-off cross-state rivalry that has had 26 meetings over the years (Tennessee leads 15–11)—including a No. 2-ranked Vols team beating No. 1-ranked Memphis in 2008—and didn’t seem to have lost any steam from its irregularity. “It was amazing, man,” Vols guard Jordan Bone told reporters afterward. “Coming into this game, I didn’t know the rivalry was this big. Just walking into the gym, seeing all those fans. It’s amazing.”
This season’s opening six weeks have been strong, featuring an unusually and enjoyably high number of games between high-caliber opponents, including three clashes between teams ranked in the AP poll’s top five at the time of their playing. But just as importantly, it has offered a number of quality non-conference rivalry games ranging from the rehashing of the annual (the rotating intra-Indiana Crossroads Classic, featuring the aforementioned Indiana-Butler thriller) to the revival of the dormant (Cincinnati and Ohio State’s first regular season tilt since 1920).
Such games are a crucial aspect of the season’s opening months. It’s not just for the (admittedly entertaining) bad blood they can foster. At a time of year when college basketball struggles for relevance and games are often viewed through the abstract lens of forward projection—what will it mean for conference play? for March?—these games can give the rare feeling that they matter in and of themselves. That can be true even when one or both of the involved programs are in a lull, providing a spark of intrigue in a period when too many games function as interchangeable tune-ups or are played in neutral-site sterility.
With that in mind, cued by the resumption of series like Tennessee-Memphis and Ohio State-Cincinnati, here are a half-dozen non-conference rivalries we would like to see renewed:
Kansas vs. Missouri: The Border War entered an unfortunate ceasefire when Mizzou left the Big 12 for the SEC in 2012, going out in style, with the teams trading narrow home wins while both ranked in the top 10. The closest they’ve come to playing since was an exhibition last October to raise funds for hurricane victims, after which Bill Self—who seemed to quite enjoy the final installment of the rivalry—made clear he’s in no rush to resume the series when the games count, implying doing so is not in Kansas’s best interest. True, the Jayhawks would have more to lose than gain, but it’s a shame that a series with so much history—267 meetings!—and such year-in, year-out fervor on both sides is, at least for the foreseeable future, a thing of the past.
Kansas vs. Wichita State: At the risk of asking too much of Self—who, it should be noted, often schedules a quality non-conference slate, this season especially—an annual Sunflower State showdown would have the makings of a real event. When the Jayhawks and Shockers met in the second round of the 2015 NCAA tournament (inspiring then-Kansas governor Sam Brownback to don a fittingly noncommittal split T-shirt), it was only the programs’ 15th meeting in 107 years and first since 1993, long before the Shockers were players on the national scene. Wichita State has slipped some since upsetting Kansas three-plus years ago, which means the Jayhawks would be risking their stature even more. But hey, after being bounced as a No. 2 seed in their last meeting, shouldn’t the prospect of some delayed payback be tempting?
Maryland vs. Georgetown: Tensions between legendary coaches John Thompson Jr. and Lefty Driesell contributed to this series being put on ice, meaning the two alphas of D.C.-era basketball—located less than 15 miles apart—met just three times between 1980 and 2015. After the Dave Gavitt Tipoff Games between the Big Ten and Big East brought the two together for a home-and-home series in ‘15 and ‘16 it has again been shelved; last fall, new Hoyas coach Patrick Ewing (who never played the Terrapins during his four-year playing career at Georgetown) told The Washington Post he was in no hurry to schedule more such meetings. Considering the depth of D-I programs in the DMV area—including George Mason, George Washington, UMBC, American, Howard, and Towson—it would make perfect sense as the centerpiece of a local tournament featuring a double- or tripleheader.
UConn vs. Boston College: New England’s top two programs used to play annually as founding members of the Big East, from 1979 through 2005. But the Eagles’ football-driven departure for the ACC not only ended the mandated series but burned bridges: After B.C. successfully lobbied to exclude the Huskies from joining the league as well, UConn coach Jim Calhoun vowed to never schedule the Eagles again. Since then they have played just once, at the 2K Classic in New York City in the Huskies’ second season under Calhoun’s successor, Kevin Ollie. As UConn begins a new era under Ollie’s replacement, Dan Hurley, and B.C. is getting its footing under Jim Christian, renewing the series could stoke local interest all around.
West Virginia vs. Marshall: The buildup to these teams’ meeting in the second round of last season’s NCAA tournament reminded many of the barbs traded by coaches Bob Huggins and Dan D’Antoni as this in-state series fizzled out a few years ago. Huggins has said he would welcome the Thundering Herd to Morgantown, a departure from the longstanding neutral-site games these teams had in Charleston. Given the two coaches’ contrasting and idiosyncratic personalities and their teams’ distinct playing styles, there is way too much potential entertainment value being left on the table.
Kentucky vs. Indiana: Last but far from least, it’s the rivalry this sort of list couldn’t exist without. The last time the Wildcats played the Hoosiers in the regular season, in December 2011, Indiana forward Christian Watford stunned the eventual national champs on a buzzer-beating three that instantly entered Alumni Hall lore. The teams have since only met in the ‘12 and ‘16 NCAA tournaments because of disputes between John Calipari and Indiana brass on where to schedule the games, with Cal reportedly rejecting a proposal to play twice in Indianapolis, followed by a home-and-home. Until then, the Hoosiers and Wildcats had met every season since 1969–70. The good news? Indiana AD Fred Glass said this spring that the schools had engaged in “preliminary talks” to begin playing again; in September, he told The Herald Bulletin that he’d be willing to compromise to make it happen. Let’s hope it does.
If you are wondering what exactly you are reading, this is the Midweek Rebound, SI.com’s weekly Wednesday column on college hoops. If there’s anything you like or dislike or would want to see more of here, or if you would just like to occasionally see photos of my foster kittens, you can find me on Twitter @thedangreene. Thanks for reading.
It wasn’t long ago that Gonzaga was undefeated and No. 1 in the polls, fresh off slaying the early season’s mightiest beast by downing Duke in the Maui Invitational finals. Now, after a rough week, the Bulldogs sit at No. 9 and riding a two-game losing streak, with both defeats coming against the kind of top-notch competition they will need to get past if they are to win the program’s first national title.
There is not yet a need to panic. The loss to Tennessee on Jan. 9 was at a neutral site (in Phoenix) to a top-three team, and the defeat at North Carolina on Saturday was a true road game against another national contender. Plus the Zags are still waiting on the returns of forward Killian Tillie and guard Geno Crandall from their respective injuries. But there are some legitimate concerns about how Gonzaga as currently constituted is defending. North Carolina managed 1.23 points per possession on Saturday, six days after Tennessee went for 1.12—which followed wins where the Bulldogs allowed 1.21 PPP to Creighton and 1.18 to Washington, which is the Huskies’ best showing this season. Gonzaga now ranks 65th nationally in defensive efficiency, struggling to force turnovers (its 17.1% defensive turnover rate ranks 272nd) or rebound on that end (opponents are grabbing 30.6% of available offensive boards, the Zags’ worst mark in 13 years). The Bulldogs should be able to outgun the WCC over the next few months, but that will be harder to do come March.
1. North Carolina: The Tar Heels hung 103 on Gonzaga thanks to an efficient attack that also got up and down the floor, a daunting prospect for the ACC defenses awaiting in January. With 20 points and 16 boards, Luke Maye looked like the preseason POY candidate many expected this year.
2. Oklahoma: The Sooners are knocking on the top 25 door after beating USC and Creighton, giving them a 6–1 mark against major-conference foes through the season’s first six weeks. Not bad for a year when many expected some post-Trae slippage.
3. Indiana: Rob Phinisee’s buzzer beater over Butler capped a solid two weeks of nailbiters for the Hoosiers, who have also beaten Louisville, Penn State, and Northwestern this month—by a total of eight points.
4. Old Dominion: The Monarchs not only went into the Carrier Dome and knocked off Syracuse, but managed to erase a 10-point halftime deficit to do so. It was the Orange’s first loss at full strength this season and ODU’s best nonconference win.
5. Buffalo: The Bulls also won at Syracuse, stretching their undefeated start to 11–0 by outscoring the Orange 39–23 in the second half, after trailing for the entirety of the first. Friday’s trip to Marquette will be their last test before MAC play.
Top of the Classes
Senior: Max Strus, DePaul forward
The Hickory Hills, Ill., native set a career high with 34 points (on 8-for-16 three-point shooting) to go with 13 rebounds in a win over Illinois Chicago, just two days after scoring a hyper-efficient 27 points on just 11 field goal attempts against Chicago State.
Junior: Shamorie Ponds, St. John’s guard
Known primarily as a scorer, Ponds took just seven shots in a win over Wagner but turned them into 16 points—while dishing out a career-best 14 assists (against just one turnover) and grabbing nine rebounds.
Sophomore: Terry Taylor, Austin Peay forward
The Governors’ 6’ 5” not-that-big stuffed the staff sheet in a blowout win over Purdue Fort Wayne, putting up career highs in points (32) and assists (five) while adding 11 rebounds.
Freshman: R.J. Barrett, Duke forward
The 27 points Barrett scored against Princeton were, amazingly, barely above his per-game average of 24.5, an indicator of the level of excellence we have so quickly come to expect from the latest baller out of Mississauga.
Bests of the Best
Each week, we’ll get to know one of the country’s best players a little better by asking them what they consider to be the best in various subjects. This week we welcome Oklahoma guard Christian James, who is averaging 18.5 points and 7.0 rebounds for the Sooners. So, Christian, tell us about the best...
...home-cooked meal. “I would have to say spaghetti and meatballs, mac and cheese, probably some green beans, corn, and cornbread, with some lemonade. My mom makes it. I don’t get a lot of home-cooked meals out here, so when I go home I try to get my mom to cook as much as possible.”
...animal to be reincarnated as. “A lion. He’s the king. Not too many people are gonna mess with a lion. He’s aggressive, big, strong, fast—and he’s smart.”
...class you’ve taken in college. “My African-American Studies class where my pastor was my professor. I had great chemistry with him, Pastor Coleman. He works with the Oklahoma City Thunder too, so he goes and travels with them. He’s a good guy. It’s been interesting learning about my culture and learning history and things I didn’t know about great leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.”
Social Media Post of the Week
One to Watch: Duke vs. Texas Tech, Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2
In a game so intriguing the entire SI college hoops staff weighed in on it, the uber-talented Blue Devils will meet the Red Raiders’ wearing defense at Madison Square Garden in one of Duke’s regular Big Apple showcases. The Blue Devils have faced some quality foes, but Texas Tech offers the kind of dogged, scrappy D that can get under even the most athletic opponent’s skin and grind them to a halfcourt halt. Few would have seen the Red Raiders getting off to the kind of start they have, but with USC faltering, their only win of real note was against Nebraska before Thanksgiving. An upset here would put the Big 12 on notice. And for a Duke team looking to grow up fast, getting past this kind of test will bode well for the rigors to come.