|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:
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.
"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 ESPN.com.