Power 16
Mid-Major Top 10
Cinderella Watch
Fans Poll Top 25
Message Board

ESPN Auctions
Sunday, February 2
Updated: February 3, 5:40 PM ET
Best teams make today's best rivalries

By Andy Katz

Tradition never goes out of style. But, when it comes to college basketball rivalries, exactly what a rivalry means to a team's fans isn't always the same as what it means to its players.

And, as for the best rivalries? Well, they fall into one of two categories:

  • What it means for fans. (See: bragging rights)
  • What it means to the teams. (See: conference, or even national, titles)

    Best of Best's Andy Katz ranks his top five traditional rivalries and today's top five rivalry games:
    1. Duke vs. North Carolina: The schools are so close together, which certainly helps. The state school views the private school as a bunch of snobs, which definitely fuels the rivalry. But more than anything, the two schools have been atop the ACC, save the last two seasons for Carolina, for most of the past two decades.
    2. Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State: These are the two largest state schools and the fan bases overlap throughout the state. And, once again, both schools have traditionally been very strong in the sport. The Bedlam Series is one of the best to watch.
    3. Xavier vs. Cincinnati: There is a long week of buildup for this game every season. They alternate sites and once again you've got a situation of a private school against an urban school. That can breed disdain for each other. They play in different leagues, but that doesn't diminish the importance of this game every season. The winner has a year to gloat.
    4. Missouri vs. Kansas: They get a chance to play twice, like the OU-OSU and Duke-UNC series, and that makes this as intense as those. But there is also definite hatred between the two schools. Kansas has long been the dominant program of the two in the Big 12 and nationally, so when Missouri can win the game, it adds even more fodder to the rivalry.
    5. BYU vs. Utah: This rivalry doesn't get enough national publicity. But there is more dislike for each school than most would even know. BYU is owned and operated by the Mormon Church. Utah is the state school. This adds to the rivalry more than people would admit. But more than anything, these two programs have traditionally been two of the best in their conferences -- from the WAC to the MWC. Listen to talk radio in Salt Lake City and BYU fans want Utah to lose, even when the Utes aren't playing BYU, and the feeling is mutual from Utah fans.
    1. Duke vs. Maryland: Until Carolina is a regular atop the ACC, Maryland has replaced the Tar Heels as the Blue Devils' most heated rival -- on the court. The Terps get up for the Duke game like no other. The home-and-home series the past three seasons have been some of the best games of the year. Two years ago, they played four times, something that may never be duplicated by any conference's schools.
    2. Louisville vs. Kentucky: This could have been a traditional rivalry, but the schools stopped playing each other for decades in the middle of the last century. Having Rick Pitino at Louisville has made this one of the best rivalry games of the year. The past two years each game has provided an intense atmosphere that is hard to match for any other game at Freedom Hall or Rupp Arena.
    3. Indiana vs. Kentucky: While it has been a traditional game, alternating between Indianapolis and Louisville, the rivalry has become even more intense over the past few seasons. Certainly, Indiana's Mike Davis has made this game larger than life with his postgame comments and then on-court antics this past season.
    4. Arizona vs. Stanford: These schools aren't traditional rivals, but this is a case of a rivalry that is built on competitiveness, rather than proximity. These two programs have been the best and most consistent in the past 10 years in the Pac-10. That has bred an intense rivalry between the two veteran staffs and the players who pass through the program. They know that usually they have to beat the other to win the Pac-10.
    5. Illinois vs. Missouri: Once again, this is a rivalry that has tradition, but didn't get enough play until they were both back in the national spotlight. The games the past few seasons have been just as intense as any other non-conference rivalry game. The game is played in St. Louis and provides both sets of fans plenty of access to a game that can give plenty of alumni bragging rights for a year.

    More often than not, the best of today's rivalries don't hold the same importance for the fans and their teams.

    The best example comes in the ACC, where Duke fans get up more for North Carolina than any other team on the Blue Devils' schedule. The Blue Devils also know beating UNC is expected each season. But beating Maryland over recent years has been the key to winning three of the past four ACC titles and its 2001 national championship.

    On the other side of today's best rivalry, Maryland fans may be awaiting this week's traditional rival Virginia, but the Terps' faithful showed all too well what beating Duke means to not only the program, but the fan base. And as for the players, asking what games on the schedule mean the most each season, it's not even a question worth asking.

    Look in most major conferences and the same is true for the top teams.

    In the Pac-10, Stanford's fan base has more disdain for Bay Area rival California, but the Cardinal players look forward to playing Arizona. Games against UCLA and Oregon have also become as heated, and certainly as important in the long run, with the Cardinal, Bruins, Wildcats and Ducks combining to win the past 12 conference championships.

    The Big East was built on games involving Georgetown, Syracuse and St. John's in the 80's and mid-90's. But the games that have decided the most recent championships, more often than not, also involved Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Connecticut.

    The SEC's traditional rivals still fill arenas when they clash, but the best games don't translate from the gridiron to the hardwood. And while Missouri is a "must-win" game on the Jayhawks' schedule, beating Oklahoma or Texas has meant more in deciding the Big 12 championship -- and will again this season.

    Now, this isn't to say competitive games against the best teams in conferences will ever replace traditional rivalries. Louisville-Kentucky, Xavier-Cincinnati, Illinois-Missouri, and those mentioned above along with others, still produce great drama and close games. Long-standing rivalries are great. But better rivalries can be created when something bigger than tradition is on the line.

    "We obviously have a healthy rivalry with Cal in all sports, but it's tempered a bit by Arizona," Stanford coach Mike Montgomery said. "It's a bigger deal. That rivalry has been bigger for us than Cal."

    With this evolution of rivalries happening all over college basketball, a number of traditional rivalries are simply getting pushed to the back seat. And, there are still rivalry games that are one in the same, such as Oklahoma-Oklahoma State, which could have a bearing on the Big 12 title.

    But just look at Florida-Kentucky, a rivalry solely based on the Gators becoming Kentucky's chief competition in the SEC East since Billy Donovan arrived on campus seven seasons ago. It's no surprise ESPN made sure Tuesday night's game in Lexington, Ky., was part of Rivalry Week. Both teams are perfect in SEC play, and once again on track for not only SEC superiority, but poised for a run to New Orleans and the Final Four.

    "Kentucky is our biggest rival," Florida senior guard Brett Nelson said. "Every time we've played them there's been a lot at stake."

    Nelson's assessment of Florida's biggest rival in basketball begs the question: What about Georgia? The Florida-Georgia rivalry is among the biggest in all of college football, but hasn't translated into the "World's Biggest Indoor Cocktail Party". The Georgia basketball program wasn't at the same level as Florida.

    That was until the past two seasons when the teams split their four games -- each winning twice on the other's court. Florida had won four straight, and five of six since 1998. The Bulldogs nearly made it three straight wins in Gainesville this season, before a buzzer-beater by Anthony Roberson gave the Gators a 66-63 win.

    Georgia is right on Florida's and Kentucky's heels for the SEC East title. And Georgia is gaining ground. But, Florida-Kentucky remains the SEC's glamor games each year. Florida senior forward Matt Bonner echoed Nelson's thoughts by pointing out the final weekend of the SEC East season has come down to Florida-Kentucky the past three years.

    "One of the conditions for a great rivalry is that it has to be a really competitive situation," Bonner said. "Over the last two years, Georgia has become another great rivalry for us. We've played some very tight, competitive games that have meant a lot to the standings in the SEC East. The Georgia series has developed pretty quickly over the past two years."

    As for the changing trend in the Big 12, Missouri players look at Kansas as their traditional rival. The same is true at Kansas. But both schools are blossoming non-traditional rivalries in the conference.

    "That's the thing about the Big 12," Missouri junior guard Ricky Paulding said. "Every game we play is a big game -- against Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Texas ... they're all big games now."

    "Texas, Oklahoma and Iowa State have turned into new rivalries because they have been some of the best teams and the toughest teams to beat over the last four years," Kansas senior forward Nick Collison said. "We've all been playing for the same title."

    One aspect that can't be ignored when it comes to these newer rivalries developing is the traditional rivals seeing one or both teams take a step back. That's the case in the Big Ten, where the league's best rivalry hadn't been much of a contest.

    Before the revival at Purdue this season, Indiana was clearly a better team the past three seasons. The Hoosiers had won five straight meetings with the Boilermakers before losing last weekend. And while a modest winning streak over the course of a 102-year rivalry won't kill it, beating Indiana's other rivals certainly meant more to winning championships or earning national bragging rights.

    The past three Indiana-Kentucky games have become much more important in measuring each team's national standing. And as for Big Ten bragging rights, beating Illinois and Michigan State was a bigger deal, and in turn, made for a better rivalry than IU's two games against Purdue each year.

    Steve Blake
    Both teams playing at the highest level makes Duke-Maryland among today's best rivalries.

    "It's just more of an intense game when both teams are ranked," Indiana senior guard Tom Coverdale said. "Purdue meant more this year, but Illinois was always atop the standings the previous years so it was bigger. It's a bigger deal for the players when you're playing a team that is in your way for the conference championship.

    "You're supposed to have a rivalry with someone that's on top. That's probably why Duke-Maryland is a bigger deal than Duke-North Carolina right now."

    Which brings us back to the biggest rivalry going in today's game: Duke-Maryland.

    Only Kansas-Oklahoma comes close when it comes to conference rivalries meaning more than just conference championships and bragging rights. It's a game that features not only the past two national champions, but has been played on the grandest of stages (see: 2001 Final Four). Duke-Maryland has produced great comebacks, few blowouts and drama that lives up to the hype.

    "For me, this has been the biggest rival," Duke junior guard Chris Duhon said after the Blue Devils lost to Maryland in College Park on Jan. 18. "We had four great battles my first year, and then last year we split. They're one up on us now."

    "Duke has been the best team in basketball the last 15-16 years and that has forced us to get our level up there and to compete with them," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "When Lefty (Driesell) was here, the North Carolina thing was great. But now it's Duke. That's the biggest rivalry for us.

    "It may not be for Duke, but we've always had to get past them to do anything here. We're compared to Duke all the time. It's unfair sometimes, but that's our water mark."

    Andy Katz is a senior writer at

  •  More from ESPN...
    Forde: Rivalry Week needs a few villians
    Love 'em or hate 'em, coaches ...
    Darcy: Creating new Big(ger) East rivalries
    Traditional rivalries have ...

    Best Rivalries looks at today's ...

    Andy Katz Archive

     ESPN Tools
    Email story
    Most sent
    Print story
    Daily email