Ranking the 25 Best Rivalries in College Basketball
Great college basketball rivalries bring out the best in top-notch teams and the loudest in their diehard fans. When your school is playing its arch-nemesis, you know you’re guaranteed one of the biggest games of the season—and very likely one of the best.
One conference showdown that’s grown into a first-class rivalry is Florida’s pair of annual contests with the Kentucky Wildcats. Even in 2012-13, as Billy Donovan’s Gators were running away with the SEC, they couldn’t avoid a loss against struggling UK at Rupp Arena.
Read on for more on the SEC’s best annual showdown and the rest of the 25 most intense, most meaningful rivalries on the college hardwood.
Thanks to realignment, this showdown between geographical neighbors has become a conference battle as well.
Neither of those factors, though, adds as much of a sting as Mike Anderson brought to the contest by abandoning his job at Mizzou to take over as head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks.
If transfer-loving Missouri coach Frank Haith ever feels like recruiting freshmen again, the Tigers and Razorbacks will also be facing off in that arena on a regular basis.
After all, it was B.J. Young, the St. Louis native turned Arkansas star, whose clutch offense turned a final-minute 70-66 deficit into a 73-71 win for the Hogs in Fayetteville last season.
Syracuse’s move to the ACC has jeopardized most of its longstanding Big East ties, but the Orange’s showdowns with the Pittsburgh Panthers will continue right on schedule.
There’s no better object lesson in the relative virtues of zone and man-to-man defenses than watching Jim Boeheim’s iconic 2-3 zone take on the bruising man-to-man of Jamie Dixon’s teams.
Both teams have also enjoyed great success recruiting in New York City—a site the ACC is now investigating for its conference tourney—where last year’s Big East tournament saw them battle down to the wire.
It took two Michael Carter-Williams free throws to ice that game in the final seconds in a 62-59 'Cuse victory.
23. Marquette—Notre Dame
You can’t throw a rock without hitting one of Notre Dame’s football rivals, but the Irish haven’t cultivated nearly as many long-term basketball foes.
ND’s biggest battle on the hardwood comes against another Catholic program that also spent most of its history on the outside looking in at the power conferences.
In addition to their historically talent-laden rosters, the Marquette Golden Eagles and Fighting Irish also share an underdog mentality that makes their head-to-head meetings especially contentious.
Picking the better upset specialists between the program that ended UCLA’s 88-game winning streak (Notre Dame) and the one that beat Dean Smith in his first national title bid (Marquette) is no easy task, making this one game where no one wants to be the favorite.
It’s hit a rough patch of late, but the Princeton Tigers—Penn Quakers matchup was, for a long time, the only game that mattered in the Ivy League.
From 1989 through 2007, there wasn’t a single NCAA tournament that didn’t feature one of these two teams as the Ivy champion.
Considering that few conferences can touch the Ivy League for giant-killing (just ask any UCLA fan), being the preeminent rivalry in that conference isn’t just a matter of bragging rights.
However, if Penn coach Jerome Allen—a three-time conference champ as a Quakers guard—doesn’t turn his alma mater around soon, Harvard may replace Penn as the Tigers’ No. 1 nemesis.
21. Iowa—Iowa State
Neither the Iowa Hawkeyes nor the Iowa State Cyclones are regular title contenders in their own conferences, but both have made plenty of noise in the NCAA tournament, as ISU did with last year’s win over Notre Dame.
More often than not, the most important regular-season game of either team’s year comes in this battle for in-state supremacy.
Last season's edition saw an 8-2 Iowa squad (on its home floor) win for the first time in four tries against Iowa State, even though it was the Cyclones who managed an NCAA tournament berth by season’s end.
The arrival of Fred Hoiberg in Ames has made things even more interesting between these two schools, as the transfer-happy coach loves adding former Hawkeye foes from the Big Ten to his own rosters.
Like several contests on this list, the hardwood edition of Stanford and Cal is overshadowed by its iconic gridiron counterpart.
Even so, these two longtime Pac-12 contenders are just as fired up for the hoops version, especially with a game like next season’s that features plenty of seniors on both sides.
Last year saw a rare sweep by Aaron Bright and the Stanford Cardinal in what’s usually an evenly matched contest, thanks in part to a combined 35 points from Chasson Randle.
Cal Golden Bears coach Mike Montgomery knows a bit about great performances by Stanford guards, having coached such luminaries as Brevin Knight during his years on the bench in Palo Alto.
19. Gonzaga—Saint Mary’s
Gonzaga’s rise to national prominence has put the West Coast Conference on the map, but the Zags’ dominance of their own league has faced one major obstacle.
Saint Mary’s, with its wealth of international talent, has given the Gonzaga Bulldogs all they can handle in head-to-head play. The Saint Mary's Gaels are the only team since Pepperdine in 1999-00 to win an outright league title ahead of Gonzaga.
Even last year’s three-game Zags sweep included a hard-earned win at the Kennel in which Matthew Dellavedova brought the Gaels as close as one point with 15 seconds to play.
This pairing would rank higher still if the Gaels weren’t heading into NCAA sanctions for some recruiting improprieties.
This classic duel was marred by a postgame brawl in 2011, but the programs are carrying on one of the top intra-city showdowns in the country.
Both the Cincinnati Bearcats and Xavier Musketeers are regular NCAA tournament contestants, and with their campuses just three miles apart, they don't have any trouble bringing in crowds to compete with any fans in the nation.
Disappointingly, Cincinnati is leaving the Big East just as Xavier joins it, but the Musketeers’ rise from the mid-major A-10 should make them an even more dangerous foe for the AAC-bound Bearcats.
Even last year’s inexperienced, undermanned Xavier squad gave Cincy (unbeaten and ranked 11th at the time) a respectable battle, leading at the half before fading in a 60-45 Bearcat win.
With in-state rivals DePaul and Northwestern in downturns (recent and perpetual, respectively), Illinois’ best matchup of the year comes in the cross-border Braggin’ Rights game with the Missouri Tigers.
The annual clash in St. Louis gets student-laden (and vocal) crowds, despite its neutral-court status.
The early-season meeting also tends to give Illinois a welcome chance to pit offense vs. offense before having to slog through the grind of Big Ten conference play, as the Tigers are usually a high-scoring outfit themselves.
Last season had both teams ranked in the top 12 as Laurence Bowers and Mizzou toppled the formerly unbeaten Illini by an 82-73 margin.
In many ways, perpetual spoiler Wisconsin’s biggest rival is whichever team happens to top the Big Ten standings at any given time. When it comes to a single opponent, though, there’s no better match for the Wisconsin Badgers than the in-state meeting with Marquette.
In recent years, this contest has been an epic defensive slugfest, thanks to the physical man-to-man approach favored by both Bo Ryan and Buzz Williams.
Last season's version (played in Milwaukee) saw the Marquette Golden Eagles win while being held to 60 points, something they accomplished just four times in a 26-9 season.
15. Villanova—La Salle
Philadelphia’s Big 5 matchups—featuring Villanova, La Salle, Penn, St. Joseph’s and Temple—are among college basketball’s most revered non-conference rivalries.
This year, they’re also going to have a real shot at including two Top 25 teams, courtesy of the Villanova Wildcats and La Salle Explorers.
Last year’s edition of this contest saw La Salle’s Tyreek Duren force OT on a long three-pointer, then drove for the go-ahead score in the final seconds of the extra session.
That’s the kind of competitive game Philly fans get to enjoy on a regular basis from Big 5 action, and with Duren and ‘Nova’s Ryan Arcidiacono both back for 2013-14, another burst of late-game heroics would be no surprise at all.
Jim Calhoun spent a quarter-century building the UConn program, climbing to sixth on the all-time wins list in the process. For every one of his 24 years on the Huskies' bench, he had to face off with the man who now stands second on that list, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim.
Calhoun’s retirement and Syracuse’s departure for the ACC cost the Huskies and Orange several spots in these rankings, but they still have too much history to be ignored.
Disappointingly, they only got to play each other once in their final Big East season, with unranked UConn toppling the No. 6 Orange in Storrs, 66-58.
With Mizzou gone from the Big 12, it’s anybody’s guess when the Border War will resume. Even so, the bitter history between what used to be the two best programs in the Big 8 earns the Missouri Tigers and Kansas Jayhawks a place on this list.
Legendary Mizzou coach Norm Stewart refused to buy gas for the team bus in Kansas because the tax money would support the Jayhawks, and that level of intensity showed up when the players took the floor.
The most recent meeting was an all-time classic in February 2012, as Tyshawn Taylor’s free throws let No. 5 KU sneak by No. 3 Missouri in Lawrence in OT, 87-86.
Although it’s currently in limbo, thanks to arguments over where to play the games, the Indiana Hoosiers-Kentucy Wildcats matchup has better than four decades of history behind it. It’s also got the advantage of a whopping 13 national titles between the two combatants.
On top of that, the last regular-season contest between these two teams was one of the most memorable games of this century, as Christian Watford’s buzzer-beating trey handed eventual champion Kentucky the first of its two losses of 2011-12.
College basketball will be poorer for every season that doesn’t include a meeting between these two all-time great programs.
11. Michigan—Michigan State
Michigan very nearly stole a page from the Michigan State Spartans’ playbook in March, as fans in East Lansing are eminently familiar with riding a superstar point guard to a national title.
Trey Burke even had Michigan State on his Wooden Award highlight reel, as his late steal-and-score saved a 58-57 squeaker over the Spartans in Ann Arbor.
With the Michigan Wolverines battling for the top of the national rankings again after an extended slump, there’s a lot more fire in their meetings with Tom Izzo’s perennial title contenders.
These are programs with tradition stretching half-a-century back to the likes of Cazzie Russell and Johnny Green, and it’s all to the good of Big Ten hoops to see them at the top of their respective games again.
Yet another casualty of realignment, the Maryland Terrapins—Duke Blue Devils rivalry is heading into its last season of conference play before Maryland jumps ship for the Big Ten.
That makes 2013-14 the last chance for the two teams to duplicate their astonishing 2000-01 season, when they met four times: two regular-season games, the ACC tournament semis and the Final Four, where eventual champion Duke beat the Terps for the third time.
Of course, one of those wins required Duke to make up a 10-point deficit in 54 seconds, a painful memory for Maryland fans that was pushed aside a year later by their program’s only national title.
The 2012-13 Terps weren’t up to that standard, but they did score their biggest win of the year over then-No. 2 Duke, stunning the Blue Devils by an 83-81 margin in College Park.
9. Michigan—Ohio State
There’s no better feeling in college sports than ruining a rival’s perfect season, an opportunity the Ohio State Buckeyes took to heart when Michigan was the last remaining unbeaten team in the country in January.
OSU ran out to a huge first-half lead before hanging on for a 56-53 win, one that Trey Burke and company would avenge in overtime a month later in Ann Arbor.
With both teams in the thick of the national title conversation, there’s rarely been a better time to enjoy this matchup.
Fittingly, the two coaches who brought them to this point have wildly contrasting styles, and the battles between Thad Matta’s defense and John Beilein’s offense should be Big Ten staples for years to come.
Of all the great rivalries that are being lost with the dissolution of the old Big East, none carried more heat behind it than the Orange and the Georgetown Hoyas.
The two teams put on a fitting swan song last season, as Syracuse’s OT win in the Big East tournament avenged a historic defensive pounding by Georgetown in a 61-39 win at the Carrier Dome just six days earlier.
Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone has now faced off with two generations of John Thompsons and their accompanying big men, from Patrick Ewing to Roy Hibbert.
Whenever these two programs meet next, it’s a good bet that both will be ranked in the Top 25 yet again.
When Billy Donovan arrived in Gainesville, this rivalry jumped to the top of the SEC list.
The Florida Gators’ high-powered coach had made them the class of the conference during two national title runs…but then John Calipari arrived in Lexington to put UK back on top.
The two teams split last year’s meetings, which were (sadly) most notable for Nerlens Noel’s season-ending knee injury.
Next year’s showdowns, though, should be among the biggest games in the country all season, with both teams having real chances to rank in the top five by the beginning of conference play.
2012-13 was a rare boring year in Indiana Hoosiers-Purdue Boilermakers history, because the best IU team of this century coincided with a subpar Purdue squad that lost both games by 30-point margins.
Historically, though, the Big Ten has no better rivalry to offer than the one that triggered Bobby Knight’s most infamous in-game blowup.
Knight’s legendary chair throw became a fitting symbol, not only of the temper that eventually cost him his job in Bloomington but also of how much this rivalry matters in the Hoosier State.
In addition to the implications for the Big Ten standings, the yearly winner here has a chance to score points with the number of top in-state recruits that both schools pursue annually.
The revamped Big East exists to preserve rivalries like the Hoyas and Wildcats.
The two current standard-bearers among the league’s original Catholic programs, Georgetown and Villanova, have proven that a lack of FBS football doesn’t prevent a school from building a nationally renowned basketball program.
As many hard-fought, regular-season games as these two have battled through, it’s one legendary postseason contest that sets this rivalry apart.
Patrick Ewing’s 1984-85 Hoyas had swept the regular-season meetings with ‘Nova, but when the teams faced off again in the national title game, the eighth-seeded Wildcats overcame top-ranked Georgetown to become history’s greatest underdog champion.
The Bruins have been one of the Pac-12’s top teams since John Wooden's day, and Arizona has rarely been far behind since it joined the conference.
Over the last 30 years, one of these schools has earned a conference title (regular season and/or tournament) in 22 of them.
Last March, UCLA knocked the Wildcats out of the Pac-12 tourney on Kyle Anderson’s late putback, completing a season sweep, but losing Jordan Adams (and its own NCAA tournament hopes) in the process.
This year, Arizona will be the prohibitive favorite for the league title, but Adams, Anderson and the UCLA Bruins are among the most dangerous potential spoilers in that effort.
3. Kansas—Kansas State
The Wildcats’ return to national contention has been one of the best things to happen to the Big 12 lately.
Frank Martin and Bruce Weber have combined to make K-State a serious threat to Kansas’ stranglehold on the league. Last year’s Jayhawks, who had to split the conference title with the hated Wildcats, narrowly escaped from Manhattan with a 59-55 win.
Even Wilt Chamberlain had to worry about the Sunflower Showdown. A year after playing in the national title game, his 1957-58 squad at KU finished second in the conference standings to Bob Boozer and K-State.
The Jayhawks are as historic a program as there is in college hoops, but they still can’t intimidate their in-state foes after 106 years of familiarity.
The teams that have won the last two national titles share a home state and a fierce antagonism.
UK’s road to the 2012 championship included two wins over the Louisville Cardinals, including a rare rematch in the Final Four that made Louisville the first team to come within 10 points of Kentucky in that year’s Big Dance.
Between them, the Wildcats and Cardinals now hold five national titles since they started playing regularly in the mid-80s.
That total could easily rise to six in 2013-14, when they’re sure to be the top two teams in the preseason rankings and when Kentucky will look look to avenge last December's 80-77 defeat.
1. Duke—North Carolina
Were you expecting anyone else at No. 1?
Duke—UNC is on the short list for the greatest rivalries in any sport, both because of the insanity of the two rabid fanbases and because of the extraordinary quality of play on the floor.
These two programs have combined to win nine national titles and send 137 players to the pros, and it shows every time they get together.
Last year, no opponent came closer than North Carolina to beating the Blue Devils in front of the Cameron Crazies (pictured, in all their blue-painted glory, harassing James Michael Mcadoo). For a rarity, though, the teams’ two meetings had little impact on the ACC title.
That should change in 2013-14, when both the North Carolina Tar Heels and the Dukies will be in the thick of the conference race…in other words, business as usual on Tobacco Road.