Skip to content

Kentucky Sports Radio

University of Kentucky Basketball, Football, and Recruiting news brought to you in the most ridiculous manner possible.

Kentucky’s Biggest Basketball Rival: Louisville or Tennessee?

Are we tired of Louisville? They cheat and still don’t win. Before the cheating, they hadn’t been winning, and the Cardinals don’t look to win big anytime soon with underwhelming recruiting and a six-player 2020 offseason overhaul. Did I mention they have NCAA infractions flying in semi-annually?

Perhaps Louisville is no longer Kentucky’s finest rival in college basketball. After all, Rocky eventually left Apollo Creed behind. As I survey the landscape of our annual basketball schedule, one squad has stood above the rest and has been the Clubber Lang to Kentucky’s Rocky, the hip new contender that’s cooler, more physical, more in-your-face, more relevant. And they’ve similarly knocked our teeth in.

It’s the Tennessee Volunteers.

To conclude which school currently sits at the top of the UK rivals totem pole, I mapped out six categories for measuring everything that goes into being the truest rival. Has Tennessee’s recent run of success pushed them past Louisville as the preeminent threat to Kentucky’s widespread dominion of Appalachia? I have some thoughts on the proposition…

Competitive Spirit

Watching basketball reruns during the quarantine is like watching a Kentucky and Louisville game over the past decade: you already know who is going to win. Kentucky’s domination has developed into an MJ-to-Karl Malone superiority complex. The Cats have beaten Louisville teams akin to the Bulls’ 96-54 obliteration of Malone’s Jazz in Game 3 of the ’98 Finals – and UK occasionally dangles the carrot, like this past year, presenting the possibility of victory, only to re-snatch it as Louisville undid itself under pressure. Louisville’s MJ reached deep into a bucket of resiliency and decade-defining history to win one last clash in the 2010s.

Tennessee beats Kentucky, for real. Starting with Rick Barnes’ ascension from the south half of Texas up to the Smoky Mountains, the Vols immediately became a threat. He has yet to go a year without beating Kentucky and boasts a comfortable 7-5 lead in the series since his arrival. For reference, Louisville has beaten UK just seven times in the past 22 seasons. The season low-point total for Calipari teams often comes at the edge of the gaudy orange sword, while late December is usually a peak. Clearly–Advantage: Tennessee.

Players

Over the last five years, Tennessee has had better players, more drafted players, more hate-able players and, ultimately, more lovable and memorable players. Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams were instant legends, the representation of, what I think, is apex Tennessee in the lexicon of SEC Hoops (Wayne Chism’s headband just popped off in disagreement).

Williams sailed to (fully deserved, sorry PJ Washington) back-to-back SEC Player of the Year honors as a 6-foot-5 (listed hilariously at 6-foot-7) utility power forward with Harden-esque foul-drawing ability. He joins Scottie Wilbekin and Marshall Henderson to form the Holy Trinity of ‘Guys Most Likely to Induce a Television-Shattering Rage in 2010s SEC Basketball’, at least for Kentucky fans. And his running mate? A bulldozer sharpshooting wing named Admiral; Admiral Schofield.

They handed Kentucky a couple of Thompson Boling baptisms, but even so, damn, that was a fun group: along with the two forwards there was the slithery Jordan Bone running point, Kyle Alexander and John Floppy Hair Fulkerson cleaning the boards, while Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner were gunning for threes on the wing. The “One Fly We All Fly” Vols are one of the legendary non-Kentucky SEC runs, up there with 90s Arkansas, mid-oughts Florida and Kevin Stallings-era Vanderbilt. These guys were cool.

Over that same stretch, Louisville did give the world one of its best NBA talents since the recently late Wes Unseld, Donovan Mitchell, or as I refer to him, He Who Won One Postseason Game. But the coalition of Rocky Top talent far outpaces Mitchell and, what, Deng Adel and Jordan Nwora? Please. Advantage: Tennessee.

Coaching

By measure of visceral hate, the Kentucky/Louisville rivalry peaked in the mid-2010s. Particularly, I look to the game during the 2015-16 season as the crescendo, when Kentucky outlasted the Cardinals in what went down as “The Dominique Hawkins Game” as D-Hawk nailed three huge 3-pointers in place of an injured-right-before-tip-off Isaiah Briscoe (this was important at the time, I swear).

Really, it was the Tyler Ulis and Damion Lee game. The two guards traded elbow jumpers, body-twisting finishes and deep step-back threes for 17 second-half minutes before an abnormally quiet Jamal Murray hit two late three-point daggers.

But what was the lasting legacy of arguably the most purely entertaining UK/UL game of the decade? Rick Pitino’s old Bronx Salute (or, middle finger) on his way out the back door – that slimy New Yorker.

Now, Chris Mack is left to clean up the rubble (and wade through some more) while a superior coach named Rick keeps things humming a few miles south. Barnes right now is the better coach, and I think most would agree, but this is about rivalry and rivalry emphasizes hate and passion. Barnes is honorably boring while Mack isn’t afraid to bite at opposers (Cincinnati fans have a Hippo’s mouthful for Coach Mack). One is better at coaching and player development, one plays into the rivalry. Tie. 

History

The head-to-head percentages are fairly similar historically – Kentucky winning 70% of the time vs. Louisville and 67% vs. Tennessee – but the last 25-30 years of Kentucky/Louisville bouts have been consistently more contentious both on the court and in the stands. It’s like playing a neighbor in a game of 21 vs. playing your wily little brother. You want to beat the neighbor but you want to psychologically dismantle your little bro, 21-zip. You give extra shoves on layups, pull the immature bounce-off-the-shoe checkup move, anything to get an edge and win by just a few extra points.

Tennessee, historically, is the neighbor, and Louisville is the feisty nuclear family foe. Advantage: Louisville. 

Fan Hatred/Passion

As a rogue Kentucky fan in a community stocked with an unusually high percentage of L1C4 sycophants, middle school was an atomic arguing ground for me and the bastion of Louisville fans in my class. Our battles were cutthroat, often nonsensical, and bred from blind parent-taught loyalty and a cartoonish hatred of the other side–so like modern political discourse.

We weren’t alone, obviously, as BBN supporters and Card cronies are even less mature towards each other on social media. And the media itself hasn’t always been peaceful towards each other either. Who am I kidding? From Thanksgiving through Christmas, Kentucky and Louisville media members bark at each other like Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro in a Martin Scorsese movie.

Tennessee, for my experience, never brought the same punch in terms of hatred. I’m sure tensions are higher in the southern part of the state, but even so, the Lou-Lex combo of population and proximity boil bar-side brawls at a much more respectable rate–when it comes to measuring that sort of thing in college sports rivalries. Advantage: Louisville. 

Recruiting

For starters, has Louisville beat Kentucky for a recruit under Calipari that wasn’t a 3rd or 4th backup option for the ‘Cats? Years ago, Tennessee plucked 9th-ranked prospect, Scotty Hopson, right out of Hopkinsville, and they’re a top contender for ace Kentucky target Paolo Banchero along with Kentucky-interested five-star point-guard Kennedy Chandler in 2021. And there’s a non-zero chance the pair of blue-chippers turn orange.

Those are just next year’s high school seniors. Rick Barnes’s current incoming haul of freshmen includes two more five-star prospects, Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson, joining former 2019 top-20 player Josiah-Jordan James.

When was the last time Louisville had two five-stars committed to the program at the same time? Summer of ’17. Fresh signee Brian Bowen was set to fill the void left by Donovan Mitchell and 8th-ranked rising junior Anfernee Simons was already committed. Did either of them ever play a game at Louisville? Advantage: Tennessee.

Timing

The biggest knock on the Kentucky/Louisville rivalry is the annual timing of the game: late December. Imagine taking the first North Carolina/Duke game out of mid-February, right after the Super Bowl, and placing it on CBS in the middle of the afternoon, following the Cheez-It Bowl on the day after Christmas.

In December, teams play barely once a week and the sports world’s focus is on the College Football Playoff, Bowl Game gambling and the upcoming NFL Playoffs, not a regional college basketball rivalry taking the usual spot for Cheers reruns.

Kentucky gets its first crack at Tennessee in late January or February, when basketball is kicking into gear, before the return game in March right ahead of the postseason with all eyes on Lexington or Knoxville. And if UK meets UT meet for a rubber match in the SEC Tourney, it’s the game of the year in the conference, guaranteed. Advantage: Tennessee.

Character

Ha-ha. Ha-ha. Advantage: Tennessee. 

SO, the bigger rival is…

Tennessee, 5-2-1. After scoring the respective men’s basketball programs and their rivalrous relationship with Kentucky, a quest based mostly in half-decade recency with a tinge of historical context, I decided the proverbial power has shifted to Tennessee (for now), the tougher side as of late, the basketball team Kentucky has played more times than any other (230), and frankly, the only foe Kentucky can’t consistently beat.

A lot of folks despise Tennessee, but personally I don’t; I genuinely enjoy their basketball program. I hope more Admirals and Grants are on their way.

Follow me on twitter @alexweberKSR

Article written by Alex Weber

@alexweberKSR on Twitter.

26 Comments for Kentucky’s Biggest Basketball Rival: Louisville or Tennessee?



  1. Aar
    11:32 am June 7, 2020 Permalink

    Neither. They don’t have a high enough winning percentage over the long or short term to be rivals. Before you discredit this viewpoint based on UT in the Rick Barnes era, it’s not long enough. In the case of rivals, short term needs to be a decade.



  2. BG Cat
    11:43 am June 7, 2020 Permalink

    Louisville, because we share the same great state of KY!



    • Thetruthshallsetbennyfree
      12:33 pm June 7, 2020 Permalink

      The ultimate it factor: We choose to play Louisville, we have to play Tenn. We care more about beating Louisville than we care about playing Tenn.
      Character: Louisville if for no other reason than if Tenn would have been U6 it wouldn’t have been half as funny, it’s Louisville’s lack of character that makes beating them so much sweeter.
      Coaching: Louisville as well because no one cares about Barns in any way shape or form but they despised Pitino.
      Players: Louisville because until you mentioned the Tenn players I had completely forgot about them.
      Timing: Louisville because we all ways play them right as the youngsters start to figure out who they are and it tells us what they need to work on.
      Competitiveness: Louisville, yes they haven’t won but they also have made in farther in the tourney on several occasions, they also haven’t had refs hand them our games either. When they play it close it’s their own will that keeps them in the game when we’re clearly the better team.
      Recruiting: Doesn’t count in a rivalry but if it does Louisville because hookers are so much flashier than a couple of 5 stars that will never play up to potential unless they stay 6 years.
      See what I did I completely skewed the facts in my favor to make sure Louisville wins, obviously Alex is a freshly turned 18 year old who has no concept of what a rivalry actually is. We get in you haven’t been around long enough to understand the hatred of the Louisville program.



    • BowdenQB4ever
      12:39 pm June 7, 2020 Permalink

      @thetruth are you at all familiar with the history of the UK/UL rivalry? In no way do we choose to play them. We actively avoided playing UL for decades, the series only started back up because they passed a law requiring it in Frankfort after The Dream Game. In contrast, every decade of UK basketball history features meaningful battles with the Vols.



    • sprtphan
      3:35 pm June 7, 2020 Permalink

      Louisville without a doubt.



    • Thetruthshallsetbennyfree
      5:41 pm June 7, 2020 Permalink

      Bowden at QB must have been the first year of Kentucky sports you’ve seen. Tennessee was only relevant when certain coaches quit recruiting Kentucky boys and they’d fo to Tenn and light us up. That’s it.



  3. UKNUTZ
    12:17 pm June 7, 2020 Permalink

    Most definitely Louisville. Why would we want to elevate Tennessee and make them seem relevant or great or even the appearance of being equals to UK? Now that Pitino has left Louisville, I’m actually rooting for them to do well, especially when they aren’t playing our beloved CATS. UK doesn’t always have a chance to take down dUKe each year, where UofL does. I don’t own any Louisville gear and it’s always L’s down when playing UK, but how can you not root for any Kentucky school when they are going against Coach RATFACE.



  4. Southky
    12:34 pm June 7, 2020 Permalink

    All in all it has to be Tennessee. They beat us regularly in basketball and pretty much own us in football. No matter how bad their football team is they seem to always find a way to beat us.



  5. Lip Man 1
    12:35 pm June 7, 2020 Permalink

    Has to be Louisville without question.



  6. dcforuk
    12:39 pm June 7, 2020 Permalink

    Have you ever been in a bible study and someone says “I did not read what you are talking but I think that……….” and gives their opinion. That’s what I am going to do now. I have not read the blog post (I am sure it is very good) but I will nonetheless share my thoughts/answer. UK’s biggest basketball rival has been UofL since 1983’s dream game and will (most very likely) always be its biggest rival. I think of it this way. There are other schools who are rivals who’s rivalry may get more heated and intense for a season (Example – Florida around 2006-2007). However, the Kentucky-Louisville basketball rivalry is like San Diego weather……It’s pretty much always there and always about the same level of intensity!



    • chris gettelfinger is not walking through that door
      8:11 pm June 7, 2020 Permalink

      Haha, I like your Bible study analogy. I may have been guilty of that a time or 2, but I try not to do that.



  7. jimlowe7
    12:54 pm June 7, 2020 Permalink

    I’d rather beat TN in football



  8. Megan
    1:44 pm June 7, 2020 Permalink

    For me, it’s Louisville. Because I hate them so. And by them, I mean their fans. It’s Hatfield-McCoy stuff for me.



    • JoeMoney333
      2:06 pm June 7, 2020 Permalink

      Does anyone actually think it’s Tennessee?



  9. CJKAssassin123
    2:01 pm June 7, 2020 Permalink

    Actually lately I think it’s been Auburn.



    • CJKAssassin123
      2:10 pm June 7, 2020 Permalink

      Uofl challenged us a bit but I would not consider them our biggest basketball rival. For that to be the case both team would need to be somewhat on the same level. UofL really hasn’t been since 2014 and Tennessee stopped being a threat completely during the 2017-18 season.



    • dcforuk
      7:55 pm June 7, 2020 Permalink

      There are “seasons” whereby rivalries are more heated (ala Florida 2006-2007). However, UofL is UK’s biggest rival since 1983 due to the aforementioned Hatfields and McCoys fans and that’s ok and that’s the way it should be. When UK plays UofL, the results are discussed at work the next day in Ky. Not so when UK plays UT.



  10. bbn606
    2:58 pm June 7, 2020 Permalink

    Seems like you can never beat your biggest rival so I say it has to be Tennessee



  11. T-Town Cat
    3:13 pm June 7, 2020 Permalink

    You lost me when you used the words “Vols” and “legendary” in the same sentence! That 2018-19 Vol team that you claim was so great did NOT win the SEC regular season crown, did NOT win the SEC Tournament, and only made it to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament. Even though UT has been more successful than UL against us in the regular season since Barnes arrived, as a rivalry it’s UL over UT comparably to Secretariat at Belmont.



  12. T-Town Cat
    3:20 pm June 7, 2020 Permalink

    Alex, did you actually write “Kevin stallings era Vanderbilt” when you were thinking of great SEC programs? Stallings’ SEC record at Vanderbilt was 138-142.



  13. 4everUKBlue
    3:49 pm June 7, 2020 Permalink

    Hands down UofLittleBrother! For me it’s not even close.



  14. Wakecrash
    4:09 pm June 7, 2020 Permalink

    As I was reading this I was guessing Alex must live in Knoxville, but then started reading his conclusion understood he just posting idiotic stuff to get clicks.



  15. chris gettelfinger is not walking through that door
    8:20 pm June 7, 2020 Permalink

    UL IMO. I can’t stand UT, and you make some strong arguments Alex, but still not strong enough. Only playing UL once a year in bball is one thing that separates it from UT, the same way it separates it from the Dook-UNCheat rivalry.

    In football, last year ppl were talking about how Satterfield is a nice guy (and he may be) and we don’t have a coach to hate any more. Then he complained, no WHINED to Stoops about Ls down. Haha.

    CJK beat me to it. Auburn is swiftly riding on our rival’s list.



    • chris gettelfinger is not walking through that door
      9:49 am June 8, 2020 Permalink

      Rising…



  16. mcp157
    8:57 pm June 7, 2020 Permalink

    Both schools are low down, they dirty, they some snitches………