Historically in college basketball, the month of February is all about positioning.
As the regular season winds down and the conference tournaments approach, the handful of top teams in the country maneuver themselves in an effort to claim the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
At the same time, other teams, not so secure in the belief that an NCAA bid awaits, make their final push to claim a highly ranked scalp or two in their conference that will all but sew up a tournament berth and extricate them from the dreaded bubble.
But every February, as the conference battles come to a head, a handful of high profile teams always venture outside of league play to slug it out with other big name schools in a made-for-TV gig.
This February has been no different. A handful of clashes, such as Memphis at Gonzaga, Michigan at UConn, and Notre Dame at UCLA all occurred on the first weekend of the month.
Last week brought Duke and St. John’s from Madison Square Garden. And of course, the mid-majors got into the act with the Bracket Busters weekend as a way to show the rest of the country they can ball with the best of them too.
So with the annual excitement of out-of-conference games this late in the season, let’s take a look at some of those games that should occur every year.
This match-up has all the ingredients in what should be a great rivalry.
High profile conferences? ACC and Big East at your service.
Big name coaches? Gary Williams and John Thompson III (following in the steps of JT II) can X and O with the best of them.
Basketball pedigrees? Both teams have been the last one standing at the end of March.
Drama and intrigue? For starters, the schools are a mere 12 miles apart. Sounds like it has some UNC-Duke flavor to it.
One school is private while the other is a state school—again, a UNC-Duke characteristic and we all know how heated that rivalry is.
What’s more, both schools have Baltimore—as fertile a recruiting ground as there is in the nation—in their back yards. So this match-up provides the drama of pursuing the same kids off the court and winning with them on the court.
As far as an out-of-conference rivalry goes, this one screams of Kentucky-Louisville potential.
Now in his sixth season at Westwood, Ben Howland has resurrected the Bruins and restored them as the premier program in the western time zone as well as one of the best in the country.
From 2006-2008, Howland led the Bruins to back-to-back-to-back Pac 10 titles and back-to-back-to-back Final Four appearances, including a title game loss in 2006 to Florida.
California is one of therecruiting hotbeds in the land so Howland has no shortage of talent-rich blue chippers to restock his team with year after year. While expecting the Bruins to make a Final Four run every season isn’t very realistic, expecting them to have a say in the Pac 10 pecking order year in and year out, is.
Gonzaga, while still a mid-major based on their conference affiliation, is anything but. Mark Few has himself an honest-to-goodness program up in the Great Northwest.
It seems like every year, Gonzaga is primed to have their best team ever and finally break through with a Final Four berth. While that has yet to happen, other mid-majors still point at the Zags and ask “why not us?”
Since Gonzaga doesn’t encounter a whole lot of resistance in the West Coast Conference—all due respect to St. Mary’s—Few has adopted an approach of “take on all comers” in the out of conference slate. Need proof? Look no further.
The Zags tangled with Oklahoma State, Maryland, and Tennessee in an early season tournament, followed that up with road games at Washington State and Arizona, a visit from UConn, hit the road again to play Utah and Tennessee, and then, in the middle of conference play, Memphis came calling.
Surely catching a flight to LA is much faster than heading to Tennessee?
UMass and B.C. already play each other every year for state bragging rights but since both programs have had some hard times over the past decade, the game’s meaning has lost some luster.
Throw UConn into the mix and here’s why this works.
The Huskies, with two NCAA championships in the last 10 years and a Hall of Fame coach in Jim Calhoun, bring star power into any game they play.
Boston Collegeis an underrated program that has had its share of success as evidenced by knocking off UNC and Duke this year after being picked second to last by the ACC media.
Derek Kellogg has had some struggles in his first year as head coach of the Minutemen. But if there’s a guy who can right the ship, it’s him.
Remember, Kellogg, a native of Springfield, Mass., played there under former coach John Calipari when UMass began their run in the 1990s. He then spent eight years coaching under Calipari on the Memphis bench.
With Kellogg, widely considered one of the best recruiters in the country, at the helm, Minutemen fans have to feel good about the direction of the program.
Now, here’s where it gets juicy.
Boston College had a very public and very messy divorce from the Big East. As a former conference foe, the Huskies would like nothing more than to deliver a few beatings to B.C. as payback for back stabbing the Big East.
UConn and UMass used to play. That all changed amid some friction between Calhoun and Calipari, so the series was never renewed.
College basketball isn’t exactly the religion in the Northeast that it is in other parts of the country. But, if these three teams played a round robin each year, the winner could claim the unofficial title of King of New England Hoops a la the Big Five games in Philadelphia.
Speaking of Calipari and Calhoun, isn’t it about time to make this happen again? Even if there’s too much ego involved to make it an annual game, at least sign a deal for a home-and-home series.
Calipari, like him or not, is one of the best coaches in the game. He is also a master recruiter. He’s taken two non-BCS conference schools—Memphis and UMass—to the Final Four.
Calhoun’s resume clearly speaks for itself. And as noted above, given the frosty relationship between the two, don’t these teams need to face each other on the other’s home court? The post game handshake would be sure to elicit many a flash bulb.
This match-up is one of the most storied and heated rivalries in college football. So why not translate that tradition to the hardwood?
Both programs are on the upswing. Tim Floyd has shown the ability to recruit top flight talent—see O.J. Mayo and DeMar DeRozan—while Mike Brey has turned the Irish into a tough out in the Big East year after year.
Here’s the best part.
Since the end of the college football season coincides with the start of the college hoops season, the athletic departments at both schools could rework their schedules to make these games take place on the same weekend.
Both games could happen at the same school or the schedule could be constructed so that when USC visits Notre Dame in football, the Irish are catching a flight to SoCal for hoops and vice versa.
The city of Memphis is situated in the southwest corner of Tennessee, or, right along the Arkansas border. Nothing like a good, old fashioned border war to stoke the competitive flames. It works for Missouri and Illinois and it can work here.
Memphis is home to some of the best high school basketball in the entire country every year and recruiting is the life blood to any successful program.
Under Coach Cal, Memphis has shown no fear of playing anyone out-of-conference.
Think back to the mid-1990s and surely one of the images ingrained in the head of every college hoops fan has to be Nolan Richardson, Corliss Williamson, Scotty Thurman, and 40 Minutes of Hell.
Watching the Hogs race up and down the floor as they competed with Kentucky for SEC supremacy was hoops heaven.
Ironically, Arkansas has handed the job of resurrecting a once-proud program to one of the Kentucky Untouchables, John Pelphrey. And what better way to create some buzz than by picking a fight with the established powerhouse, a short 319 miles away.
Say the following words to any Kentucky fan: “1992 East Regional Final” and watch as the steam radiates from his or her scalp.
This was the classic game when Christian Laettner hit a turn around jumper at the buzzer to send Duke to the Final Four and break the hearts of the Kentucky faithful in the process.
Oh yeah, there was also a little incident involving Laettner, which many a Kentucky fan thinks he should’ve been tossed from the game for.
To refresh your memory, Laettner stepped square on the chest of Kentucky freshman Aminu Timberlake after a dead ball. Laettner was hit with a technical but he remained in the game and, as the saying goes, the rest is history.
If revenge is a dish best served cold, Kentucky played the part to perfection six years later.
These two teams met again in the 1998 South Regional Final. Duke had a 17-point lead with 9:38 to play and seemed well on their way to another Final Four at the expense of the Wildcats.
Kentucky would have none of it though, as the Cats stormed back to win, 86-84, and advance to their third straight Final Four. The Wildcats, in Tubby Smith’s first season as head coach, cut down the nets for their second title in three years.
This match-up represents a who’s who of hoops. Two programs that are college basketball royalty. Duke and Kentucky. Kentucky and Duke.
Kentucky is first on the all-time wins list while Duke is fourth.
The ACC and the SEC.
Cameron Indoor Stadium and Rupp Arena.
The Cameron Crazies and Ashley Judd.
Two of the most passionate fan bases in all of college hoops.
So Coach K and Coach Gillispie, if you’re reading, make this one happen.
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