The Most Underrated Rivalries in College Basketball
Rivalries are the lifeblood of college basketball, whether they’re between bitter conference foes (North Carolina-Duke) or long-running local combatants (Louisville-Kentucky). Of course, not every pair of opponents can garner the hype of those famous duos, but that doesn’t mean that less-heralded rivalries don’t have a lot to offer.
The Big East has nurtured plenty of intense annual battles, but one of the best in the current century has been Syracuse-Pitt. As the Panthers have joined the Orange among the nation’s winningest regular-season teams, their on-court battles have routinely had conference championships as well as pride at stake.
Herein, a closer look at Syracuse-Pitt and the rest of an elite eight of rivalries that deserve more credit on the national scene.
The football side of this rivalry owns the spotlight, especially with Stanford's recent success. Nonetheless, with both Cardinal and Golden Bear hoops on the upswing in the last couple of seasons, it’s time to give some love to the basketball version.
The Pac-12 has its share of intense geographical rivalries, but Stanford-Cal has an edge when it comes to featuring consistent NCAA-tournament contenders on both sides (as opposed to, say, Arizona-Arizona State).
If one of college sports’ classic battles needed any more spice, it certainly doesn’t hurt that longtime Stanford coach Mike Montgomery is currently running the show in Berkeley.
7. New Mexico-New Mexico State
The Lobos and the Aggies are far from the highest-profile teams going, but one unique twist pushes their rivalry into the upper echelon.
Alone among interconference clashes, New Mexico and New Mexico State manage to schedule two games a year against each other, one on each campus.
That home-and-home series drastically magnifies the bragging rights at stake for both squads. It hardly hurts that (as the state’s only two D-I teams) they get their share of high-school teammates and rivals on their respective rosters.
Add in the fact that both are consistently in the title mix in their conferences, and UNM-NMSU deserves far more buzz than you might think.
6. Iowa-Iowa State
It’s been a long time since either the Cyclones or the Hawkeyes were front-runners in their own conferences, but that hasn’t stopped their annual showdown from being a hard-fought one.
Indeed, the contests have been that much more intriguing for the lack of a definitive favorite.
The excitement isn’t dulled any by the typically contrasting styles of the physical, defense-minded Hawkeyes and the freewheeling Cyclones.
With so many Big 12 teams having lost their best rivalries to realignment, it’s nice to see one of the conference’s best interleague battles keep right on rolling.
Thankfully, the disintegration of the Big East isn’t destroying all of the conference’s great rivalries.
Syracuse and Pitt will get to continue facing off as ACC foes, and just because they aren’t on Tobacco Road doesn’t mean they won’t be among the most entertaining rivals in the league.
The Panthers and the Orange routinely play some of the nation’s toughest D—man-to-man and zone, respectively, of course—and now that the Panthers are reliable national contenders, they're just as likely as 'Cuse to demonstrate that defense wins championships.
Geographic rivals are hard to come by for a program as isolated as Syracuse, but the similar approaches of these two hard-headed teams give their battles an intensity of a different stripe.
Although it took on some tarnish thanks to last season’s ugly brawl, Xavier-Cincinnati still deserves a place with the best interconference rivalries going.
Two NCAA tournament fixtures located a mere three miles apart in Cincinnati, the Bearcats and Musketeers bring top-flight talent to go with their rivalry’s heat.
Xavier and Cincy also boast two of the best young coaches in the country in Chris Mack and Mick Cronin (each an alum of his current school).
Regardless of where the two programs land when the realignment dust has settled, expect their annual contest to carry NCAA-tournament ramifications well into the future.
The Owls and Wildcats are here not just for their own hotly contested battles but as stand-ins for the entirety of Philadelphia’s sadly neglected Big 5.
Though still a phenomenon locally, the Big 5 contests (also featuring Penn, La Salle and St. Joseph’s) have lost a lot of national prominence with the relative decline of erstwhile title contenders such as the Explorers (and, indeed, the ‘Cats).
The current standard-bearers for Philly hoops, Temple and Villanova, have parlayed ever-flowing fonts of backcourt talent into some thrilling basketball in recent years.
It’s a sign of how deeply this rivalry is rooted in local tradition that both teams’ coaches have area roots: Jay Wright played at Bucknell, while Fran Dunphy is on his third Big 5 program after playing at La Salle and coaching at Penn.
2. Gonzaga-St. Mary’s
Despite the imbalance in their national name recognition, Gonzaga and St. Mary’s have enjoyed one of the most evenly matched rivalries in the nation, one played with very high stakes.
Since 2009-10, the Gaels have two regular-season and two tournament titles in the West Coast Conference, while the Zags have two regular-season and one tourney crown.
Bulldogs-Gaels games are also distinguished by their United-Nations feel: Both programs have cultivated rich recruiting ties in international circles, bringing stars such as Elias Harris (Germany) and Matthew Dellavedova (Australia) stateside.
As Randy Bennett continues to build St. Mary’s into a national contender, expect this matchup to earn a lot more respect outside of the WCC.
There’s no beating the Blue Devils’ rivalry with that other ACC foe, but Duke and Maryland have had some epic battles of their own over the years.
Sentimentality helps push this duel to the top of the list, as the Terps’ imminent, inexplicable departure for the Big Ten means they won’t see much of Duke in the future.
That’s a shame for college basketball fans, who will be deprived of nail-biting contests like Maryland’s 83-81 home win over Coach K’s squad last weekend.
The two teams also made Final Four history in 2001 when eventual champ Duke erased an 11-point halftime deficit in the national semis, spoiling the Terrapins’ first-ever Final Four trip.