Commentary

Red-hot rivalries burn down the house

Originally Published: July 2, 2009
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

The biggest rivalry news of 2009-10 is that the rivalry in college hoops isn't so hot -- at least in relation to its own molten standards.

Duke-North Carolina will still make a whole lot of people hyperventilate when they play two or more times this season. But not the way basketball fans will lose it in the state of Kentucky (when Louisville plays the Wildcats) or in other parts of the Southeastern Conference (when Tennessee plays Kentucky) or in the Big Ten (when Michigan State plays Purdue). Right now there are at least three rivalries you have to rank ahead of the annual Blueblood/Eight Miles Apart/Roy versus K hypefest.

Simply put, that rivalry hasn't been competitive enough in recent years. And the two teams probably aren't as good as recent vintage, either. Which is why this is a fine time for sporting America to broaden its regular-season scope beyond Tobacco Road and notice the red-hot rivalries that will be burning down the house elsewhere.

1. Kentucky-Louisville

KentuckyLouisville

Why It's Hot Now: It's always hot, but the temperature shot up to nuclear-fusion levels when John Calipari was hired in Lexington. Suddenly, Rick Pitino has a rival with a comparably outsized personality and competitive nature. And for the first time in a long time, there is a genuine and mutual antipathy between the coaches, no matter what they say publicly. Meanwhile, a not-insignificant percentage of Kentucky fans seem to have reneged on their mellowing over Pitino's switch from blue to red after his moving eulogy to late UK equipment manager Bill Keightley last year. With Pitino's alleged extortionist heading to trial later this summer, they're salivating over the chance that their ex-coach's name will be dragged through the mud. On the other side, Louisville fans were gleeful over the May revelation of alleged NCAA violations on Calipari's watch at Memphis. Schadenfreude has long been the prevailing state emotion when it comes to this rivalry, but never more than now.

Upper Hand Today: Louisville has won two straight in the rivalry and had better NCAA tournament showings of late. In fact, there was no NCAA showing last March for Kentucky, a first since 1991. But the Wildcats look stronger for the coming season than the Cardinals.

Upper Hand Historically: Kentucky leads the all-time series 26-14. Pitino is 6-2 coaching the Cats against the Cards, 4-4 coaching the Cards against the Cats.

Cardinal Bird to Scratch the Wildcat: Can you even remember your last Final Four?

Scratch the Wildcat to Cardinal Bird: Can you even remember your last national title?

2. Michigan State-Purdue

Michigan StatePurdue

Why It's Hot Now: These are the two best teams in the Big Ten and, for my July money, two of the five best teams in the country. Spartans won the 2009 Big Ten regular-season title; Boilermakers won the 2009 Big Ten tournament. Spartans haven't won in West Lafayette since 2005; Boilermakers haven't won in East Lansing since 1998. Not a lot of innate testiness here, but the potential always exists between two teams competing for the biggest stakes.

Upper Hand Today: Michigan State is coming off a Final Four berth, should be ranked higher than Purdue to start the season and has won six of the past eight head-to-head meetings.

Upper Hand Historically: Purdue holds 61-45 all-time series lead, but it's been a different story lately. Michigan State leads 13-5 in the past 10 seasons.

Sparty to Purdue Pete: Matt Painter and Gene Keady should ask Tom Izzo what April basketball is like. They wouldn't know.

Purdue Pete to Sparty: Have you gotten that powder-blue Heel print off your face yet?

3. Kentucky-Tennessee

TennesseeFlorida

Why It's Hot Now: Bruce Pearl versus John Calipari was great theater when they met once a year. Now it's on twice annually, at least. The two hypercompetitive hams direct teams that should battle for the SEC Eastern Division title. Pearl's Volunteers spoiled Calipari's undefeated regular season at Memphis in 2007-08, then the Tigers returned the favor with a victory in Knoxville last winter. Kentucky-Tennessee hasn't had this much heat since the late Ray Mears (original wearer of the orange blazer) was tweaking Adolph Rupp and Joe B. Hall.

Upper Hand Today: Kentucky surprisingly swept the Vols last year amid a terrible season, highlighted by Jodie Meeks' 54 points in Knoxville. And thanks to Calipari's spring recruiting work, the Cats should start the season ahead of Tennessee in the polls as well.

Upper Hand Historically: Kentucky has the upper hand historically on everyone in the SEC, and this is no exception. Cats lead the all-time series 142-65.

Smokey to Scratch: Let us be the first to extend a warm SEC welcome to Coach Vacated.

Scratch to Smokey: Jodie Meeks is still open.

4. North Carolina-Duke

North CarolinaDuke

Why It's Hot Now: This is college basketball's eternal flame, but in 2009-10 it cannot hold a candle to the above smoldering matchups. The Tobacco Road rivalry has been too lopsided of late, and both teams figure to take a couple of steps back from last season's stature. Besides, since Gerald Henderson redesigned Tyler Hansbrough's nose with that flying elbow drop a couple of years back, this has been a pretty well-behaved rivalry.

Upper Hand Today: It's all Heels right now, a rare happening with Mike Krzyzewski in Durham. They've won six of the past seven head-to-head meetings, won the two most recent Tobacco Road national titles and will start this season higher in the rankings.

Upper Hand Historically: With a 5-3 lead in national championships and a 130-97 lead in the all-time series, Carolina gets the nod. But give Krzyzewski credit for upgrading this rivalry from good to great over the past 20 years.

Blue Devil to Rameses: Better gym, better fans, smarter students.

Rameses to Blue Devil: And you have exactly what to show for those self-proclaimed superlatives over the past five years?

5. Villanova-Pittsburgh

VillanovaPittsburgh

Why It's Hot Now: If you saw that memorable East Regional final last spring, you know why. Scottie Reynolds snatched away Pitt's first Final Four in eons with a last-second drive, giving Nova a leg up in the Pennsylvania hoops hierarchy. It also gives the Wildcats a leg up in what many people believe will be the Big East rivalry of the next decade as Jay Wright and Jamie Dixon turn down other jobs and become even more entrenched. Nova could be the favorite to win the league this season, with Reynolds pulling out of the draft and returning to potentially haunt Pitt again. And even after losing the guts of a great team, you cannot discount the perennially competitive Panthers.

Upper Hand Today: Villanova won the last meeting, is coming off a Final Four and will be ranked much higher than Pitt, which might not be ranked at all.

Upper Hand Historically: Villanova has a 32-27 series lead, has been to three Final Fours since Pitt's last appearance and owns some national title hardware.

Roc the Panther to Will D. Cat (a pair of very poor mascot names): Everyone at Villanova clings to that 1985 title. Try winning one with a sober point guard.

Will D. Cat to Roc the Panther: We beat you on the court and in the draft. Dante Cunningham was taken ahead of both Sam Young and DeJuan Blair.

6. Dayton-Xavier

DaytonXavier

Why It's Hot Now: Under Brian Gregory the Flyers have challenged the Musketeers' three-year reign atop the Atlantic 10, but haven't knocked them off. After Dayton won the first meeting last season, some of the Flyers jumped up on press row, a celebration that resonated with the X players. Before the second game, with the league title on the line, the two teams went chest-to-chest during warm-ups, a confrontation that worked against Dayton and in favor of Xavier, which easily beat the Flyers for the 24th straight time at home. The two campuses are about an hour apart, which means there are plenty of opportunities for the fans to taunt one another.

Upper Hand Today: This is Dayton's chance at a hostile takeover. Xavier lost a lot of talent and experience from last season's team, not to mention its coach, Sean Miller. The Flyers return a nucleus that could, for once, make them the team to beat in the A-10.

Upper Hand Historically: Dayton leads the all-time series 81-68, but Xavier has won 31 of the past 42 and seven of the past eight.

Rudy Flyer to D'Artagnan the Musketeer: Xavier, where coaches only rent and never buy.

D'Artagnan the Musketeer to Rudy Flyer: If you could beat us with any consistency, somebody might come after your coach, too.

7. Oklahoma-Oklahoma State

OklahomaOklahoma State

Why It's Hot Now: When fiery Travis Ford arrived in Stillwater last season, Bedlam got busier. The Cowboys stopped a five-game Oklahoma winning streak in the series by upsetting the Sooners in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals, and should be positioned to make this series competitive (and contentious) for years to come. Ford and the understated Jeff Capel make for intriguing opposites on the sidelines, too.

Upper Hand Today: The Sooners still figure to be dealing from a position of strength. They went further in the NCAAs last March and, thanks to the return of guard Willie Warren, should be ranked higher this November.

Upper Hand Historically: Oklahoma leads the all-time series 126-89, though a fair amount of that advantage dates to the earliest days of the rivalry. The Sooners won 26 of the first 28 meetings early in the 20th century.

Boomer to Pistol Pete: You'll always be the stepchild in this state.

Pistol Pete to Boomer: Exactly how many national titles have you won? And how many Final Fours did you get out of No. 1 pick Blake Griffin?

8. California-Stanford

CaliforniaStanford

Why It's Hot Now: Mike Montgomery's move across the Bay from Palo Alto to Berkeley was a major storyline last season. But it might be even harder to take this season for the Cardinal, with Cal expected to compete for the Pacific-10 title and Stanford expected to struggle in Year 2 under Johnny Dawkins. Stanford students don't take their sports terribly seriously, but they are accustomed to success in hoops, thanks to the foundation laid by Monty. At least the Cardinal won at home against Cal last season in a mostly cordial return for Montgomery; how would the fans handle being mauled in Maples Pavilion by their former coach?

Upper Hand Today: Cal had the better season last year and should have the better season this year, starting it in the Top 25.

Upper Hand Historically: Cal leads the all-time series 140-113, but the Cardinal have won 16 of the past 21 meetings.

Oski to Tree: You're an overhyped non-animal prone to childish antics.

Tree to Oski: So you're dignified? Have you looked at your 1950s letter sweater recently?

9. Kansas-Missouri

KansasMissouri

Why It's Hot Now: Mike Anderson has reinvigorated Missouri basketball, and in the process reinvigorated this rivalry. The Tigers pulled a last-second upset in Columbia last winter, then won the Big 12 tournament and advanced farther in the NCAA tournament than the Jayhawks. None of which will help them this season against what should be the preseason No. 1 team in the country.

Upper Hand Today: Kansas annihilated Mizzou in Lawrence last season and looks much stronger on paper, although the Tigers might not fall as far from last season's 31 wins as some think.

Upper Hand Historically: Kansas leads the all-time series 167-94. The Jayhawks have all the history and hardware on their side, while Missouri is arguably the most established basketball program to have never made a Final Four.

Truman the Tiger to Jay the Jayhawk: We're gaining on you smug Chickenhawks, one backcourt trap at a time.

Jay the Jayhawk to Truman the Tiger: Really? You want us to worry about you? Get in line behind Texas and Oklahoma.

10. Michigan-Purdue

MichiganPurdue

Why It's Hot Now: Wolverines guard Manny Harris' heat-seeking elbow that broke the nose of the Boilermakers' Chris Kramer drew an ejection and -- intentional or not -- hasn't been forgotten. With Kramer back in West Lafayette, Harris back in Ann Arbor and Michigan back on the radar under John Beilein, this matchup will be relevant in the Big Ten standings and worth watching nationally.

Upper Hand Today: Purdue has won five of the past seven meetings and will start the season ranked higher than Michigan.

Upper Hand Historically: Boilermakers lead the all-time series 80-61, though neither side has won more than five straight since Michigan took eight in a row in the early 1950s.

Purdue Pete to, um, Nothing (the Wolverine is a nickname but not a mascot): Keep your elbows to yourself, or I start swinging my sledgehammer.

Nothing to Purdue Pete: Does it bother a basketball school like you that a football school like us has been to three Final Fours since your last visit?

Honorable mention

Butler-Cleveland State: The Vikings upset the Horizon League heavyweight Bulldogs on their home floor to earn the automatic NCAA tournament bid last season, then backed it up with a first-round upset romp over Wake Forest. Butler will start the season ranked (possibly highly ranked), providing an even bigger target for Cleveland State. With Gary Waters coaching the Vikings, this rivalry will be an underrated gem.

USC-Arizona: The Trojans could be a train wreck this season, and the Wildcats won't be up to customary standards, either. But this one could actually supplant Stanford-Cal on the hard-feelings scale with Kevin O'Neill -- former interim coach and coach-in-waiting at Arizona -- now leading the Trojans.

Maryland-North Carolina: The Terrapins have shocked the Tar Heels each of the past three seasons, and no fan base in the ACC is as irritating (and occasionally tasteless) as Maryland's.

Rutgers-Seton Hall: Not a lot of attention or glory in the Rumble for New Jersey, but coaches Bobby Gonzalez and Fred Hill don't like each other and staged a memorable in-game and postgame hissing match back in 2008. With one or more of them fighting for their jobs this season, it will add to the tension.

Northern Iowa-Illinois State: The Panthers won a thrilling Missouri Valley Conference tournament title game last March, denying the Redbirds an NCAA tournament berth. When it was over, the Illinois State players marched off the court without shaking hands, leaving only the coaches to congratulate the Panthers. Even amid his joy at winning the tournament, Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson shook his head walking away from that.

Indiana-Wisconsin: Tom Crean and Bo Ryan are the Calipari-Pearl dynamic of the Midwest: bitter in-state nonconference rivals turned bitter conference rivals who now have the chance to meet more often.

Utah-BYU: Much like the football series, this is an old rivalry with heightened relevance, with both programs operating at the top of the Mountain West Conference.

Big 12-Baylor: If there is one opponent many coaches around the league love to beat -- especially on the recruiting trail -- it's the Bears' Scott Drew.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.