And I’m not even counting this as one of them.
Over the last few years, since Calipari has been at Kentucky, the overall strength of the programs in the state has gone way, way up. Not only is Kentucky substantially better, but Louisville has also been at the top of its game. Meanwhile, down in North Carolina, the two premier teams are both looking at a somewhat down year after a disappointing postseason. UNC got knocked out by Kansas in the Elite Eight after losing Kendall Marshall, and Duke famously (and hilariously) lost their opening round game to Lehigh. Not exactly great.
With both of those trends taking place simultaneously, you have to wonder: is this the year I-64 officially overtakes Tobacco Road as “best rivalry” to the talking heads in college basketball?
There’s been no doubt in this area that the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry has had more fire, but it seems imperative now that the Rece Davis’s of the world have to admit that Cats v. Cards is imminently more compelling than Duke/UNC. If they don’t, well, here’s five reasons to convince anyone that Kentucky, not North Carolina, is now home to the best annual rivalry in college basketball.
(1) Last Season’s Results
Kentucky and Louisville had two of their best seasons ever, with each going to the Final Four, and UK winning the title. Not only that, but for a solid week, nobody in college basketball could talk about anything other than those two programs as they prepared to meet each other in New Orleans. At the same time, UNC and Duke were sitting at home watching and twiddling their thumbs. Needless to say, the Bluegrass matchup has more momentum going into the season that could kindle some excitement early on.
(2) Pre-Season Rankings
Both Kentucky and Louisville are ranked pretty unanimously in the Top 3 nationwide. That’s ridiculous, but it’s not new to you. UNC and Duke, though, muddle around the 8-15 range in various polls. That’s not terrible, but it’s not the juicy top three matchup that the Bluegrass offers. The real kicker here, though, isn’t the four teams in question; it’s North Carolina State. The Wolfpack is ranked #6 in both the AP and Coaches Poll, higher than both UNC and Duke. How can the “best rivalry” in college basketball be between two schools who aren’t even the best in their state?
(3) Head Coaches
This has been consistent over the last few years, but still weighs heavily on the issue. Four of the absolute biggest names in the game steer these teams, but the two at UK and U of L happen to have a prior history. They also happen to hate each other. That inspires drama, and drama always makes for an entertaining spectacle. There are so many storylines that folks can continually draw on between Cal and Pitino, that the stories basically write themselves.
(4) Timing of Games
Once conference play starts in the early part of every year, folks know to expect good basketball. The best teams in each league are made to play each other for real results. Regular season championships, and post-season league seedings are at stake, and every game is big. But in the non-conference slate, “cupcake” games are sprinkled with games against moderately challenging teams to bolster RPI. (See what I did there? “Cupcake?” “Sprinkle?” Nevermind.) There are tons of good games on TV in February, but a good game in November or December is a diamond in the rough. Folks are starving for good basketball, and Kentucky and Louisville always deliver. Not to mention that UK and U of L are in different leagues, so more than just one conference is affected by the results of the game.
(5) No Chance For a Split
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: UNC and Duke each win one their two conference games against the other, and college basketball’s “best rivalry” ends in a 1-1 tie. Fans of the teams gnash their teeth and shake their fists at each other, shouting “We’ll get you next year!” maniacally while consoling themselves in the fact that, well, at least they didn’t lose. Meanwhile, people outside North Carolina realize that college basketball rivalries are like soccer in at least one way: ties just aren’t fun to watch. In Kentucky, the rivalry can’t tie. Either you win, or you lose. Or if you’re Calipari, you win big or you win by just a few.
Understand that I’m not trying to convince anyone that UNC/Duke isn’t a great rivalry; it is. But this year, and for the foreseeable future, it doesn’t hold a candle to the talent, fire, and passion that Kentucky/Louisville provides on an annual basis. I hope you’re listening, Dick Vitale.