Last night, we were all witnesses to plenty of important moments in Rupp Arena. We all watched as Kentucky clawed its way back into the NCAA tournament picture. We all watched as Rupp Arena displayed why, when it’s rocking, it can be one of the best atmospheres for a college basketball game in the country. We all watched as Alex Poythress seemed to wake up from a 2-month hibernation, showing that when he wants to be– he can be a dominant force in men’s college basketball. We all watched as Alex Oriakhi muscled his way through the paint, showcasing exactly why John Calipari and his staff were devastated when he didn’t pick the Cats last summer. We all watched as Julius Mays proved time and time again just how valuable his presence is for this Kentucky basketball team. We watched Missouri fight to improve a tournament resume’ which severely lacks road wins. We all witnessed that when Archie Goodwin is good, he is SO good. We were all witnesses to a young and struggling team, who continued to fight– with backs against the wall– to keep a dream alive not only for themselves but for a nation of fans who were rabid all day yesterday. And then we were witnesses to a thrilling overtime game that stood out on a day when a number of games dipped into multiple overtimes.
But we also witnessed something else, something that when Missouri joined the SEC, many of us hoped might happen. In the midst of all of the bubble talk, inspiring individual and team performances, boos in the direction of Digger Phelps, etc… Perhaps a new SEC rivalry was born last night: Kentucky and Missouri.
The anticipation leading up to the first SEC match-up between the two schools was only heightened when College GameDay selected the game to be part of it’s nationwide tour. Even though some college basketball fans scoffed that yesterday’s game didn’t feature a top-25 team, enough was on the line–especially for Kentucky, to make the game an enticing one for the basketball fans across the country to keep an eye on.
Kentucky fans will always lead the pack when it comes to infiltrating SEC arenas for away games, but Missouri fans put up a strong showing in their first trip to Lexington. Although some of those fans were likely Missouri fans who happened to land in Lexington for one reason or another along the way, some of the fans made the road trip for the weekend. Compared to the other visiting SEC schools this season, Missouri fans had the biggest contingent in Rupp Arena and the Lexington area in general last night. Next season, Missouri will get the chance to show off the buzz and excitement its home arena and environment can provide. When Kentucky strolls into town for the first time, make no mistake that the Missouri faithful will flood into the building to create a tough road environment much like the Kentucky fans displayed last night.
Missouri’s entry into the SEC couldn’t have come at a better time. With the bottom half and even the middle of the conference wavering below average in the past few seasons– the opportunities for enticing match-ups and heated rivalries have been at a minimum. LSU, Mississippi State, Auburn, Georgia, Arkansas, etc. haven’t been able to create rivalries like the one Kentucky has with Florida, or even Tennessee in recent years. Ole Miss and Vandy have had their moments, but also haven’t reached the level of rivalry that a Kentucky vs. Florida game holds.
Following an overtime thriller in which both talented teams fought tooth and nail, the stage has been set for a new rivalry to be born between Kentucky and Missouri. Last night’s game likely put the rivalry in motion. We know that Kentucky will hold up its end of the deal when it brings in a blockbuster recruiting class next year. Frank Haith has done a great job of bringing talent to Missouri in his first few seasons as well. For rivalry purposes, I certainly hope that despite NCAA issues, Haith sticks around for a while. If for no other reason, so Missouri will be competitive in the SEC. Beating Vanderbilt on Wednesday night was great, but beating a team like Missouri– a team who will most likely make the NCAA tournament– was even better.