College Basketball: 10 of the Game's Nastiest Rivalries
Rivalry games are a microcosm of everything that makes college sports so popular in America.
There’s passion, bright school colors, crude chants from the student section and just the right amount of hatred on the court or field from the players to make the game that much more entertaining.
The records don’t really mean anything in these games, and even the best coaches can have their jobs on the line if they don’t win them enough. Bragging rights are often at stake for entire states or regions, and the offseason just seems to go a bit slower when your team loses to its archrival.
Read on to see 10 of the nastiest rivalries in all of college basketball.
Note: Some rivalries were not included because I didn’t want to have the same team twice.
Duke and North Carolina
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No list of college rivalries would be complete without the holy grail of basketball showdowns.
While some fans may think that Duke and North Carolina matchups are a bit over-hyped, there is a reason these games get so much attention.
It’s the legendary coaches (Dean Smith, Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski), the national titles, the fact that almost every ACC title goes to one of the two teams and the legendary names that hang above the rafters.
But perhaps the biggest reason that there is so much hatred between these two programs is that you can count on two hands the amount of miles that separate the schools. Krzyzewski summed it up perfectly.
“Forget the Big Ten ... we share the same dry cleaners ... There is no other area like this. It produces things, situations, feelings that you can’t talk to other people about. Because they have no understanding of it.”
Well, even if we can’t understand it, we can still enjoy every second of it two to three times a year.
Kentucky and Louisville
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There really wasn’t a more prominent rivalry in all of college basketball in 2011-12 than that between Kentucky and Louisville.
The Wildcats and Cardinals, who rang in the New Year with a closely fought battle on New Year’s Eve, faced off in a rematch at the Final Four of all places. Kentucky went on to beat its in-state rivals, which set off riots and an entertaining police blotter in Lexington.
While the showdown between the two biggest programs in the basketball-loving bluegrass state has always been passionate, the fact that two of the most accomplished (and polarizing) coaches are front and center in the rivalry today only makes it that much more intense.
Conference stalemates such as Duke and North Carolina typically play two to three times a year, but the Wildcats and Cardinals only play one time a season, barring an NCAA tournament matchup. This means that the losers have to sit and stew all offseason as they wait for the long summer to pass.
The stewing is even worse when the loss occurs in the Final Four.
Indiana and Purdue
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Basketball is basically a religion in Indiana, and its two biggest gathering places are Assembly Hall and Mackey Arena.
While the showdown between Indiana and Purdue doesn’t have quite the same intrigue as it did when Bobby Knight and Gene Keady were prowling the sidelines, Tom Crean and Matt Painter have brought plenty of intensity of their own.
Despite the difference in national titles and even prestige around the country, it is actually Purdue that has the head-to-head advantage over Indiana in the all-time record.
I’m sure the Hoosier faithful are more than happy to have those five national titles instead of the rivalry advantage, but you can bet it’s still somewhat of a thorn in their side.
The Big Five
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I may be taking the easy way out by including the rivalries between five separate teams under one umbrella, but there is nothing quite like the college basketball rivalries between the five schools in the Philadelphia area.
Penn, LaSalle, St. Joseph’s, Temple and Villanova hail from three separate conferences (Atlantic 10, Ivy League and Big East) and battle it out every season.
The cherry on the top of these games is that fact that most of them have been played in the Palestra, which is affectionately known as the “Cathedral of College Basketball.”
While some rivalries between the Big Five are more intense than others (Villanova and St. Joe’s play in “The Holy War”) the tradition, pageantry and overall intensity of Philadelphia sports fans makes these games as intense as any.
Syracuse and Georgetown
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The future of the Big East is somewhat in jeopardy, which means one of the best rivalries in college basketball may not have quite the same in-conference flavor.
But you can bet there will still be plenty of hatred between the programs and fanbases.
The Georgetown and Syracuse rivalry has plenty of historic and memorable moments, but perhaps none had a bigger impact on the bad blood than the Hoyas comeback victory over the Orange in the final game of Syracuse’s Manley Field House.
Georgetown’s coach John Thompson II actually grabbed a microphone and announced to the crowd “The Manley Field House is officially closed.”
Well, the hatred between the two programs is still officially open.
Cincinnati and Xavier
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It’s almost unfortunate that the main reason the Crosstown Shootout rivalry in Cincinnati exploded onto the national scene was an ugly brawl that left players suspended, fans irate and universities embarrassed.
But it’s also somewhat appropriate because it demonstrated how much the game between the University of Cincinnati and Xavier means to the respective programs and the entire city.
This under-the-radar showdown has featured star players, such as David West and Kenyon Martin, and premier coaches, including Bob Huggins, Thad Matta and Skip Prosser.
Just as Duke and North Carolina are separated by mere miles, Cincinnati and Xavier are a short 10 minute drive apart. This leads to an intensity among the players and the fans.
It was so loud, you couldn’t hear a guy standing three feet away from you. Our ears were ringing, and we couldn’t hear coach on the sidelines. You couldn’t hear plays being called so you had to have signals.
The Bearcats hold a sizeable lead in the all-time series, but the Musketeers have closed the gap considerably in recent years.
Kansas and Missouri
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The Kansas and Missouri rivalry is an endangered species, if not already extinct, as a result of Missouri’s move to the SEC.
However, it would benefit college basketball fans everywhere if this matchup continues.
Clearly, every rivalry on this list is palpably intense, but how many can actually trace their roots back to an actual war?
During the Civil War, a series of armed conflicts between pro- and anti-slavery groups broke out in the two states, leading to a hatred that carried over to the athletic competitions between the two flagship universities.
Hence, the term “Border War” that is used to describe the showdowns between the Tigers and Jayhawks today.
Part of the hatred inevitably stems from the fact that Missouri seems to always be looking up at Kansas in the standings and rankings. However, the Tigers have closed the gap between the two teams in recent years.
Unfortunately, the litmus test of the actual game may be taking a hiatus for some time.
Ohio State and Michigan State
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This rivalry is somewhat underrated on the national scene (and even within the Big Ten) because both fanbases probably see Michigan as their primary rival.
But the battles between the Buckeyes and Spartans on the hardwood have been much more relevant and intense in recent years than those between these teams and the Wolverines.
In fact, six of the past seven Big Ten championships have been won or shared by Ohio State and Michigan State. The games between the two programs often go a long way in determining who gets to take home the title.
Never was the magnitude of this rivalry more evident than last season when the Buckeyes and Spartans squared off in the de facto conference championship game in the final contest of the season, with William Buford hitting the game-winning shot at the buzzer.
Fear not East Lansing, Michigan State got its revenge by defeating Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament’s title game a week later.
Don’t look for the rivalry to fall off anytime soon. Thad Matta has built the Ohio State program into a consistent championship contender,and Tom Izzo is one of the greatest coaches in the history of the game.
Gonzaga and St. Mary’s
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The rivalry between Gonzaga and St. Mary’s doesn’t get the same level of attention as those between power conference schools, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve to.
For years the Zags completely dominated the West Coast Conference to the point where it was almost an afterthought to check the league standings by the middle of January.
However, in recent years St. Mary’s has turned the tide on the powerhouse. The Gaels dismantled the Zags in the WCC Tournament championship game in 2010, split the regular season title in 2011 and won it outright in 2012.
Led by dynamic players such as Omar Samhan and Matthew Dellavedova, St. Mary’s has even made some noise in the NCAA tournament.
Part of what makes this rivalry so intense is the fact that St. Mary’s undoubtedly built up some resentment of the Zags after all those second place finishes.
Now that the Gaels are regularly challenging Gonzaga, that resentment is beginning to flow both ways.
New Mexico and New Mexico State
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If the rivalry between Gonzaga and St. Mary’s is just a tiny blip on the national radar, the competition between New Mexico and New Mexico State doesn’t even appear on the screen.
But it is just as heated as anything this side of Tobacco Road.
New Mexico and New Mexico State compete in an annual competition deemed the Rio Grande Rivalry, which has its origins all the way back in the 1800s. Every time the two programs meet in any sport the winner is awarded points, and the school with the most points at the end of the athletic year claims ultimate bragging rights.
However, it’s not just the quirky rivalry system that puts this showdown on this list. The two basketball teams meet twice a year even though they are not even in the same conference.
That means that each program sacrifices an additional nonconference slot on their schedule that could be used on pushovers to boost their tournament resume or power conference schools to boost their payroll for the sake of the Rio Grande Rivarly.
In light of the news that Notre Dame recently cancelled its football series with Michigan, sports fans should appreciate this level of devotion and passion to a historical matchup.