Predicting Who'll Have the Edge in the Best NCAA Basketball Rivalries in 2014-15
Rivalries are the lifeblood of college basketball, and these are the predictions for who will win the 2014-15 season's battles between teams who have hated each other for decades.
As if those predictions aren't enough to spark a series of debates, we're also ranking these 10 rivalries based on a combination of both past and present significance.
To the surprise of precisely nobody, Duke vs. North Carolina is both No. 1 on the list and the most difficult to forecast. Kentucky vs. Louisville isn't far behind.
There were a lot of good rivalries that missed the cut, but three were close enough to warrant an explanation for why they were omitted.
Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State—A.K.A. the Bedlam Series—has been a great rivalry for more than a century. However, the real rivalry is on the football field, and Oklahoma State figures to be such a mess this season that neither game should even be close.
Florida vs. Kentucky has been a great battle over the past 10-plus years and should deliver quality games again this season, but this one isn't so much a heated rivalry as it is a pair of teams who just happen to always be near the top of their conference. Also, we're already covering Kentucky in another rivalry.
Missouri vs. Kansas used to be an epic rivalry and Missouri vs. Illinois is a solid one as well. However, there's now a push for Missouri vs. Arkansas as a great rivalry, too. When a team can't even decide who its primary rival is, there's no way it can be one of the 10 best battles in the country.
10. New Mexico vs. New Mexico State
The Rio Grande Rivalry is an exceptionally rare one, as these non-conference foes square off twice each season.
The Lobos have been dominating the series as of late, compiling a 15-5 record over the past decade. The last time New Mexico State swept the season series was in 2002-03—not so coincidentally New Mexico's worst season out of the past 30.
However, I think the Aggies have a great chance of breaking that cycle, because the 2014-15 season ought to be a rebuilding one for New Mexico.
Cameron Bairstow and Kendall Williams graduated, and Alex Kirk was one of the most surprising early entrants to the NBA draft. Factor in the decisions of Cleveland Thomas and Nick Banyard to transfer, and the Lobos are losing more than 73 percent of their points from last season.
They do have one of the top JUCO transfers in Jordan Goodman, but there are an awful lot of holes to be filled.
Meanwhile, New Mexico State's biggest casualty is 7'5" Sim Bhullar, but the Aggies still have his "little" brother, 7'3" Tanveer Bhullar, as well as 6'10" Tshilidzi Nephawe.
Nephawe, DK Eldridge and Daniel Mullings led the team in scoring last season, and will all be back for one more year as seniors looking to avenge three consecutive one-and-done appearances in the NCAA tournament.
Winning at The Pit is a tall order, but New Mexico State pulled it off last season when the Lobos were considerably stronger. I'm expecting the Aggies to go 2-0 in the series this year.
9. Michigan vs. Michigan State
Michigan vs. Ohio State is the big rivalry in football, but I'll take the intrastate showdown in college basketball, thank you very much.
From Feb. 1998 through March 2010, the Spartans absolutely dominated the Wolverines, winning 18 out of 21 games.
Then again, that's barely even a fair time to compare the schools head to head, because Michigan State advanced to five Final Fours during that stretch while Michigan only appeared in two NCAA tournaments.
As Michigan has returned to national relevancy, though, the tables have turned on Tom Izzo and company. The Wolverines have won six of the last nine meetings between the two schools.
But the past is the past, and the immediate future holds a pair of teams trying to bounce back from an offseason flush with turnover.
Though they only had one senior on last year's team, the Wolverines are losing Jordan Morgan, Jon Horford, Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas. They'll still have a pretty strong backcourt with Zak Irvin, Caris LeVert, Derrick Walton Jr. and Spike Albrecht, but this is a shrinking team that already relied heavily upon three-pointers.
In the green corner, the Spartans will be without Gary Harris, Adreian Payne and Keith Appling—otherwise known as their three leading scorers from last season. Branden Dawson and Denzel Valentine headline the list of returning players, but they could be looking at a pretty short rotation unless Gavin Schilling and/or Alvin Ellis III makes a huge, unexpected leap as a sophomore.
Size will be a considerable issue for Michigan against a lot of opponents next season, but Michigan State shouldn't be one of them. The Spartans aren't returning anyone over 6'9" or 240 pounds, and that should bode well for Michigan's guard-heavy approach.
These teams seem to be very evenly matched, and will probably split the season series. But if either team is more likely to sweep, the edge goes to the Wolverines.
8. Pittsburgh vs. Syracuse
Quite a few quality rivalries fell by the wayside during the great Big East schism of the 2013 offseason, but Pittsburgh vs. Syracuse remained intact and very competitive—albeit low-scoring.
Last season, the Orange and the Panthers delivered a pair of great games played in the 50s, with the second showdown ending quite memorably on Tyler Ennis' successful 35-foot heave at the buzzer.
Both teams were ranked in the AP Top 25 for both games last season, but that is pretty unlikely to be the case for either of their meetings this year.
Syracuse is all but starting over from scratch after losing Ennis, Jerami Grant and four seniors. Trevor Cooney is the best returning player, and his inconsistency was one of the biggest issues that plagued the Orange last season. They'll also have Rakeem Christmas and Michael Gbinije back in the fold, but there are going to be a lot of unfamiliar faces in Jim Boeheim's rotation.
Primary among them will be incoming 5-star recruit Chris McCullough. C.J. Fair was an automatic 15 points and six rebounds at the power forward position over the last two seasons, and the Orange will need McCullough to fill those shoes and then some.
Pittsburgh didn't have anywhere near as much turnover, but the two guys that the Panthers did lose (Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna) were unquestionably the two most important players for a team that spent the latter half of the season on the bubble.
In their absence, Michael Young and Josh Newkirk will need to become pivotal members of the rotation as sophomores, but a starting backcourt of Cameron Wright and James Robinson might be strong enough to carry the load.
Were it not for Pittsburgh head coach Jamie Dixon, I'd be tempted to give the nod to Syracuse in this rivalry. However, Dixon has had a ton of success against the vaunted Boeheim 2-3 zone. According to OrangeHoops.com, Dixon is 10-6 against Syracuse, and has yet to lose a game by more than eight points.
Between that track record and the personnel changes for Syracuse, it's hard not to like Pittsburgh's chances of flipping the script from last season and sweeping the Orange in 2014-15.
7. Arizona vs. UCLA
It could be an ugly year for the Arizona vs. UCLA rivalry.
Even without Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson, Arizona is still expected to be one of the five best teams in the country next season. With a frontcourt of Kaleb Tarczewski, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Stanley Johnson and a presumably healthy Brandon Ashley, the Wildcats should contend with Kentucky for the honor of the deepest and most-talented interior game in all the land.
And then there's UCLA.
Though Steve Alford has a pretty strong recruiting class headlined by Kevon Looney and Thomas Welsh and what should be very quality minutes from redshirt freshman point guard Isaac Hamilton, the Bruins will be trying to recover from a mass exodus.
Between the graduation of the Wear twins and the early departures of Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams and Zach LaVine, the Bruins are only bringing back three players who scored more than 21 points last season.
Business as usual for a coach like John Calipari, but Alford's teams have always relied heavily on veteran leadership. Over his previous 12 seasons at Iowa and New Mexico, Kendall Williams and Tyler Smith were the only freshmen to average so much as eight points per game—and those were unquestionably his two least successful coaching campaigns of the past decade.
Even if this ends up being the year that trend changes, there's no reason to believe the Bruins should beat the Wildcats.
When UCLA advanced to three consecutive Final Fours from 2006-08, it went 7-0 against Arizona, winning those games by an average of 10.3 points per game.
I expect Arizona to display an equivalent level of dominance in the rivalry this season.
6. Indiana vs. Purdue
This used to be one of the best rivalries in any sport, but it has been some time since both Indiana and Purdue were good teams in the same season.
They have each had their share of recent successful seasons, but 2007-08 was the only time in the last 11 years that both teams made it into the AP Top 25 at any point in the same season.
Dating back to Feb. 2009, there have been nine games between Indiana and Purdue in which one team was ranked and the other was not. The ranked team won all nine of those games.
Of their last 16 games against one another, 14 have been decided by double digits—including Purdue's 82-64 win this past February. They have taken turns on each side of the blowouts—Indiana is 11-9 over the last 20 games—but it's hard to recall any close games or significant upsets in the past decade that really define a rivalry.
Though the tree hasn't produced much fruit lately, the roots run very deep. Indiana and Purdue have played more than 200 times since 1901, and each team has more than 20 Big Ten championships.
If the string of recent blowouts is destined to continue, I like Purdue's chances of pulling off a pair of convincing wins this season.
Terone Johnson is graduating and Ronnie Johnson is transferring, but A.J. Hammons is sticking around for his junior season and should provide all of the advantage the Boilermakers need.
Indiana isn't returning anyone taller than 6'7" who averaged even eight minutes per game last season, so 7'0" Hammons and incoming freshman Isaac Haas—a fellow 7-footer—should have a field day against the Hoosiers' depleted frontcourt.
Yogi Ferrell and James Blackmon Jr. could absolutely tear Purdue's backcourt to shreds, but I'll take a significant interior advantage over a pair of players who might get hot from three-point range any day of the week.
5. Cincinnati vs. Xavier
I get the impression that most people outside of Ohio's state boundaries weren't even aware this was a heated rivalry until the brawl that broke out at the end of the game in 2011, but these two teams have played each other at least once in every season since the end of WWII.
Cincinnati dominated the rivalry in the 1960s and 1970s, winning 22 out of 24 games. However, Xavier has held a slight edge over the past 35 years, posting a 20-15 record since the start of the 1979-80 season. Each of the last four games has been decided by at least 15 points.
Like a few of the other rivalries already listed, the Crosstown Classic may be marred by roster turnover. Both Cincinnati and Xavier made the 2014 NCAA tournament—though neither managed to win a single game—but it wouldn't be shocking if they both failed to get back there in 2015.
Cincinnati's already anemic offense could be in some serious trouble following the departure of Sean Kilpatrick, Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles.
In addition to potential scoring woes, the Bearcats will need to find a new solution on the defensive end of the court as well. Those three players led the team in rebounding and steals, and Jackson and Rubles led the team in blocked shots.
The Musketeers aren't in much better shape after losing Semaj Christon, Justin Martin and Isaiah Philmore, but they should win the battle this year.
Indiana transfer Remy Abell will be a welcome addition to Xavier's roster, as will ESPN 100 recruits Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner. Dee Davis and Matt Stainbrook won't be in consideration for preseason All-American teams by any stretch of the imagination, but those seniors are better than just about anyone Cincinnati projects to put on the court.
4. Kansas vs. Kansas State
The names for some of these rivalries are even more intriguing than the games themselves, and that's certainly the case here with the "Sunflower Showdown."
Over the past 30 years, this rivalry has been about as evenly matched as Dick Vitale vs. Rogaine. Since January 1984, the Jayhawks are 69-10 against the Wildcats. From 1994-2005, Kansas won 31 consecutive games.
But Kansas State won the most recent game between the schools and is hoping to build on that momentum.
Unfortunately, the Wildcats figure to be overpowered on the court this year. Marcus Foster might be the best player on the court for either team, but his supporting cast won't be enough to contend with Kansas.
The Jayhawks lost a few good men to the NBA in Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, but they'll still have one of the deepest rotations in the country. They whiffed on the Myles Turner Sweepstakes, but did add point guard Devonte Graham to an already extremely impressive incoming class of Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre.
Couple that trio with returning players like Perry Ellis, Wayne Selden Jr., Jamari Traylor, Frank Mason and Conner Frankamp, and it's hard to imagine Foster and Thomas Gipson having the firepower to pull off an upset.
If there is an ace up the Wildcats' sleeve, though, it might be JUCO transfer Stephen Hurt. As a freshman at Lipscomb, Hurt averaged 18.9 points and 12.9 rebounds per 40 minutes before transferring to Northwest Florida State College.
JUCO rankings are a bit hit or miss—I'm particularly fond of Utah's Delon Wright being ranked both No. 24 and No. 34 in last year's rankings before taking the world by storm—but 247Sports ranks Hurt as the seventh-best JUCO transfer for this offseason.
If he can come in and do enough in the paint to both consistently score and open up space for Foster to get to the rim, there might be a chance that Kansas State wins its home game against Kansas. However, I'm going to assume the Jayhawks continue dominating this series with another sweep.
3. Big 5 (Philadelphia Schools)
What the Big 5 rivalry lacks in national recognition, it makes up for with regional significance and the mutual hatred of five teams toward one another.
Dating back to 1955, La Salle, Penn, Saint Joseph's, Temple and Villanova have been competing in an unofficial annual round-robin tournament. From 1991-99, each team only played two of the other four teams, but aside from that hiatus each team has played four games every season to decide which team rules southeast Pennsylvania.
Not only did Villanova emerge with a 4-0 record this past season, but the Wildcats trounced everyone by an average margin of 22.5 points per game.
The victories might not be quite as dominant, but they should be the champions once again in 2014-15.
Though they are losing leading scorer James Bell, they still have quite a returning arsenal, headlined by JayVaughn Pinkston, Darrun Hilliard II and Ryan Arcidiacono. Winning the Big 5 should serve as a nice stepping stone to a second Big East regular-season championship for Villanova.
We can't simply pick the winner and call it a day, though.
Coming in second place in the round-robin tournament will be Temple. The Owls struggled mightily this past season, finishing with a 9-22 record. However, they're returning two of their three leading scorers and adding Jaylen Bond from Texas and Jesse Morgan from Massachusetts.
Remember the name Will Cummings, because he's going to score more than 20 points per game for a Temple team looking to get back to the NCAA tournament.
The remaining three schools would finish in a three-way tie for last place with a 1-3 record if it weren't for La Salle and Saint Joseph's playing each other twice in conference play. Regardless, it's unlikely that either of those teams or Penn will finish at .500 or above against the other four teams.
Saint Joseph's is losing three of its five starters from last season, and the Hawks rarely went to their bench. All five starters averaged at least 32 minutes per game. They combined to account for 90.9 percent of the team's points over the course of the season, and scored 99.1 percent of the team's points over the final five games.
La Salle is also losing three of its most important players in Tyreek Duren, Tyrone Garland and Sam Mills. The Explorers should still have enough senior leadership to be mildly competitive next season, but expecting them to win so much as two games in this tournament might be overly optimistic.
Lastly, we have Penn. The Quakers are 2-26 in the Big 5 over the last seven seasons, so we're going out on a limb in even expecting them to win one game. However, there is enough turnover at both La Salle and Saint Joseph's that Penn might be able to steal one of those games.
2. Kentucky vs. Louisville
Great as some of the aforementioned rivalries may be, none of them even compare with the amount of anticipation already building for when these top two pairings take place.
Kentucky vs. Louisville is a rivalry barely three decades old, but it's unquestionably a "don't make other plans on that Saturday in December" type of appointment viewing.
It seems like at least one of these two teams is competing for a national championship every year. In the 31 years since they started playing every season, they have combined to miss the tournament just 12 times while combining to appear in the Final Four 12 times.
There have been just four regular-season meetings in which neither team was ranked in the AP Top 25, and 14 meetings in which both teams were ranked.
Long story short, the odds of these two teams playing in a game without national significance have been slim to none.
That certainly figures to remain the case this season, as both Kentucky and Louisville are expected to be ranked in the top 10 when the first official poll comes out in a few months.
Considering the amount of national hysteria over Kentucky's stacked roster for the 2014-15 season, you might think it would be a no-brainer to pick the Wildcats.
However, Louisville's roster is looking pretty darn good, too. With Montrezl Harrell, Mangok Mathiang, Akoy Agau and four incoming freshman who are 6'9" or taller, the Cardinals are one of the only teams in the country that will actually be capable of contending with Kentucky's interior riches.
The big X-factor in this one will be the contributions of Louisville's top recruit, Shaqquan Aaron.
Having to replace both Russ Smith and Luke Hancock in the same offseason is not an enviable situation for Rick Pitino. Chris Jones, Terry Rozier and Wayne Blackshear are good, but they'll need help from Aaron to really have a formidable perimeter game.
Moreover, if Aaron is playing small forward for this game, he's the Louisville player most likely to be overmatched on the defensive end of the court—likely asked to guard some combination of Alex Poythress, Karl Towns Jr. and Marcus Lee, depending on how John Calipari decides to arrange his rotation.
I like Aaron in the long run, but its unlikely that he'll be that much of a difference-maker in this game. Though Louisville will have home-court advantage, Kentucky should win this one by a few buckets.
1. Duke vs. North Carolina
Go ahead and call it an East Coast bias, but Duke vs. North Carolina has been the most talked about college basketball rivalry year after year for as long as most of us can remember.
The last time Duke and North Carolina played in a game in which neither team was ranked in the AP Top 25 was on Feb. 27, 1960.
Heck, they've only played one game since January 1997 in which neither team was ranked in the Top 10. During the same 17-year window, they have played 28 games while both ranked in the AP Top 25.
Love it or hate it, this rivalry always features at least one of the best teams in the nation.
Surprise, surprise: both teams will be ranked in the top 10 when the 2014-15 season begins—provided the Tar Heels don't have a repeat of last year's offseason drama with P.J. Hairston.
Call me crazy, but this matchup warrants a position-by-position comparison of the projected starting rosters.
North Carolina dominates the battle at point guard. Whether Duke goes with the veteran leadership of Quinn Cook or the top-rated point guard in this year's recruiting class (Tyus Jones), he'll be going up against arguably the best guard in the country in Marcus Paige.
The Tar Heels immediately give back that advantage once we move over to shooting guard. Duke's combination of Rasheed Sulaimon and Grayson Allen will likely be good for six made three-pointers per game. Meanwhile, North Carolina figures to be choosing between Nate Britt and J.P. Tokoto to start at the 2, and those two guys combined to make 11 three-pointers in the entire 2013-14 season.
North Carolina reclaims the edge at small forward, bringing in two of the best small forwards in this year's class—Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson. Duke does have a great recruit at SF in Justise Winslow, but Jackson should be one of the best freshmen in the nation this year.
Power forward could be a wash between Amile Jefferson and Brice Johnson. Though, it will be interesting to see how Johnson responds to what should be a starting job with James Michael McAdoo out of the picture.
And at center, Duke should have a pretty significant advantage in the battle between Kennedy Meeks and No. 1 overall recruit Jahlil Okafor. Meeks showed flashes of brilliance this past season, but unless he surprises us all and comes back in November in incredible shape, he'll get outworked by Okafor repeatedly.
So that's two wins for each team and a tie at power forward. That didn't do us a whole lot of good in determining a favorite, but it goes to show just how tightly contested these games ought to be.
I would expect both Duke and North Carolina to win at home. If either team is going to pull out a road victory, though, it would have to be the Tar Heels because of their edge at point guard with Paige.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.
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