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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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