Throughout my lifetime, Kentucky has had various rivalries in the SEC in basketball. At different times, Vanderbilt, Tennessee, and Florida have challenged UK’s greatness. The Gators probably had the most prolonged rivalry with UK since 1992 of any SEC team, basically being an elite program from 2000 to 2014. UK still won more games over the Gators during that time but Florida was the only school in the league consistently in the Top 25 for that period of time. The issue is that even winning 2 national titles and going to 2 additional Final Fours did not make Florida FANS serious about the sport. In’s unfortunate because if both fanbases had bought in that could have become one of the top rivalries nationally. But without UF fan support, it just didn’t have the pop of other rivalries.
I still contend that despite being a shorter rivalry, the UK-Arkansas clashes from 1992-1995 were the best rivalry games the SEC has ever seen in the modern era. A quick recap of those clashes:
1992: #9 Arkansas 105, #8 Kentucky 88 (in Lexington)
-The worst home loss of the Rick Pitino era. Jamal Mashburn was held to just 4 points and the Razorbacks announced their arrival to the SEC with a bang.
1993: #13 Arkansas 101, #2 Kentucky 94 (in Fayetteville)
-A freshman by the name of Corliss Williamson stole the show, scoring 22 points and giving UK fans a glimpse of a player that would haunt them for several years.
1993: #4 Kentucky 92, #14 Arkansas 81 (SEC Tournament Semifinals)
-A theme that would play over and again for the next 3 years, Arkansas would get the regular season meeting and Kentucky would get the revenge in the SEC Tournament. UK led in this game 17-0 and played steady from there, with Travis Ford getting 26 and Mashburn with 22.
1994: #3 Arkansas 90, #4 Kentucky 82 (in Lexington)
-No team beat Rick Pitino at home in consecutive years, except for Arkansas. This was of course their national championship team and the win broke UK’s 33-game home winning streak. UK led by as much as 15 in the first half but Arkansas dominated the 2nd half, outscoring UK by 14.
1994: #10 Kentucky 90, #1 Arkansas 78 (SEC Tournament Semifinals)
-Kentucky gave the eventual national champs their final loss of the season, controlling their SEC Tournament semifinal matchup for the 2nd straight year. Despite being such a hotly contested rivalry, it wasn’t until a year later the 2 teams would play a game within 5 points.
1995: #9 Arkansas 94, #5 Kentucky 92 (in Fayetteville)
-In the 6th meeting of the renewed series, the teams finally played a game down to the final minutes. In those 6 meetings, UK and Arkansas scored over 90 points in 8 of 12 chances. Scotty Thurman hit a late basket to give Arkansas the win here, keeping Pitino winless in the regular season against Nolan Richardson.
1995: #3 Kentucky 95, #5 Arkansas 93, ot (SEC Tournament Championship)
-THE CLASSIC game in the rivalry. So many memorable moments. Rod Rhodes missed free throws, the UK comeback in the overtime and Anthony Epps clutch steal and free throws. Arkansas would never be the same under Richardson or really anytime since, but this short lived rivalry ended on the highest of notes.
That 7-game stretch was so, so good. The best the SEC has ever been in my opinion. And what made it great? First and foremost is both teams were national title contenders in each meeting. Of the 7 meetings, both teams were ranked in every matchup and both teams were in the Top 10 five times. But what else should not go unmentioned and will be tough to hear. What made that rivalry great was ARKANSAS WON MULTIPLE GAMES. Arkansas went 4-3 in those games, beating UK twice at Rupp. It showed their prominence at that time. It’s not a rivalry when it’s one sided, whether in Kentucky’s favor or not. Those games were so tight and anybody could win at any time, it made it the greatest in SEC history.
But why I never considered Florida a great rivalry was that Gator fans never bought in. Arkansas fans, when their team is good, are the 2nd best fans in the league. They have the 3rd biggest arena in the league and maybe the most raucous when they are good. It’s the kind of program that COULD actually rival Kentucky in passion.
UK really doesn’t have a rival anymore in the league. If Nolan Richardson could have kept things going at Arkansas, I think the UK-Arkansas rivalry would be on par with any conference rivalry in country outside of Duke-UNC. Those 7 games above proved that. Maybe we’ll see it come around again someday. But for tonight, let’s hammer the Hogs. We need it.