Member Login

Is Kentucky-Louisville Rivalry the Best? Analysts Weigh In

This article appears courtesy of KY Forward and is written by contributor Ryan Clark.

The Best.

I remember when I first heard it said. It was Clark Kellogg, analyst for CBS Sports, and I was talking to him at the Yum! Center in Louisville. We were chatting before the Cardinals, one of the best college basketball teams in the country, faced off against Kentucky, the defending national champs, in a much hyped, made-for-television contest with all the drama of a Super Bowl.

Around these parts we call it The Dream Game.

Full disclosure: I write books about college basketball, and I was in the Yum! Center working on my latest: Fightin’ Words—Kentucky vs. Louisville (with my buddy Joe Cox), a history of the rivalry, due out in March.

That December day last year offered an electrifying environment inside the arena, nothing unusual for a Kentucky-Louisville matchup. But that game served up something extra: There was an added excitement from Louisville fans. They had not seen their team defeat Kentucky since John Calipari became coach at UK in 2009, and one of those Big Blue victories was in the college basketball Holy Land called the Final Four. It led to UK winning a championship.

Cards fans thought (correctly) 2013 was their year. They had Kentucky in their arena, and they were more experienced at every position than the rebuilding Cats. The UofL fans smelled blood in the water.

It reminded me of the other great rivalries in sports: Yankees-Red Sox, Ohio State-Michigan football, and of course, the preeminent rivalry in college basketball, Duke-North Carolina. Most would agree the Tobacco Road rivals star in the best matchup the sport has to offer. The schools are just a short drive away from each other, they are annually two of the best teams in the country, and they play two games a year because they’re in the same conference.

And of course, the fans severely dislike each other.

But much the same could be said of Kentucky and Louisville.

It all added up to something big, and I wanted to ask Kellogg one question: Was it possible that as of 2013, the Louisville and Kentucky rivalry had overtaken Duke and Carolina as the best rivalry in the sport?

Kellogg didn’t hesitate.

“I would consider this rivalry, now, the best,” he said. “With all the elements—the coaches involved and how competitive the teams are nationally—right now it’s the best.”

It surprised me, because I hadn’t heard anyone of Kellogg’s celebrity say those words. But I do not disagree with him.

If you remember, and I bet you do if you’re a Cardinals fan, Louisville went on to defeat Kentucky that day by three points on their way to a national championship of its own. UK fought inexperience and injuries on the way to an NIT berth.

The 2013-14 season may serve as a tiebreaker of sorts.

The season hasn’t been all it was billed to be to date for UK, which has lost three games early on by a combined 14 points, but this is the Wildcats’ last chance at a major non-conference win. Louisville is ranked No. 6, with its only loss a 93-84 neutral-court loss to North Carolina. It’s still a matchup of top-20 teams (and if you ask KenPom.com’s computers, it’s No. 1 Louisville vs. No. 12 Kentucky). Given Louisville’s relatively weak conference schedule in the new American Athletic Conference, it’s also one of the Cardinals’ last shots at a win the NCAA tournament selection committee will smile upon in march.

It’s still the equivalent of basketball Armageddon when the two teams meet Dec. 28 in Rupp Arena. But is it the best rivalry in the sport?

“It’s so difficult to rank these kinds of things, especially before the season even starts,” said Jimmy Dykes, an analyst for ESPN and a former assistant coach at Kentucky under Eddie Sutton. “It’s certainly one of the most important rivalries in the country. Fierce competitors, highly successful coaches, and absolutely no one is a fan of both teams—you’re either for Kentucky or Louisville. There’s no in-between.”

Dykes said the game is one of the best in any sport.

“All these ingredients make it one of the great rivalries in college athletics, not just basketball,” he said.

Some say it starts with the coaches. Long ago, Louisville coach Rick Pitino, a graduate of Massachusetts, helped Calipari get his first head coaching job at UMass. Calipari turned the Minutemen into a national power. Later, when the pair had moved on to other jobs, they would face off on a regular basis in Conference USA. Pitino at Louisville and Calipari at Memphis, they battled on the court and on the recruiting trail—and somewhere along the line all of that competing soured the relationship. Each wants to beat the other. Badly.

And each should be commended for what they have built. Pitino, who was recently inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, became the first college basketball coach ever to win championships with two different schools (he led Kentucky to the title in 1996). Calipari has signed the top recruiting class to Lexington in each of his first five seasons, while guiding the Cats to two Final Fours and a championship in 2012.

“What both Rick and John have done is amazing,” said former Louisville head coach Denny Crum. “They build and they teach. They are great at what they do, and their teams are always going to compete. They’re always going to be among the elite.”

But does that make it the best rivalry? Ask the fans, and they will say yes. They will say that meeting only once a season (unless the teams face off in the postseason) makes the game an event, an annual struggle for bragging rights.

But one college basketball luminary says that in his opinion, nothing beats the schools from Tobacco Road.

“The state of Kentucky is so blessed to have two coaches the caliber of Rick Pitino and John Calipari—so talented and so competitive,” said broadcaster and Hall of Famer Dick Vitale. “You know there’s a mutual respect there, but each wants to win so badly. That’s what makes that rivalry so special. Obviously, you ask each fan base, they’re going to tell you their rivalry is best. But it’s hard to beat Carolina-Duke.”

Vitale cited the frequency at which the ACC schools play and the importance of each game, which often helps decide the annual conference champion. Throughout the last 20 years, one of the two teams has frequently gone through the other to win the conference, earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and be in the best shape to win the whole thing.

In Kentucky, many think the hiring of Calipari resulted in an increased motivation for Pitino.

“This past year I was lucky enough to introduce Rick Pitino when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, and we talked,” Vitale says. “Do you think when Louisville hears that Kentucky got a great recruit that doesn’t motivate them?”

One preseason publication even predicted a UK-UofL national championship game.

“Oh, that would be amazing,” Vitale says. “There’s no way to predict, but we would be lucky, even across the nation, to see that game.”

But first, there is The Dream Game. Dec. 28. Rupp Arena. It could be the biggest regular season matchup on the schedule.

“I think that game is going to be one of the premiere contests of the year,” Vitale said. “Obviously, because it’s later in the year the two programs will be a little farther along, and that makes it a little better.”

And it could be the first indicator of which team could make another run at a title, something that could preview the 2014 national title game.

“Wouldn’t that be something?” Crum asked, smiling.

It would be something—something indicative of the greatest rivalry in college basketball.

KY Forward's coverage of UK Athletics is sponsored by Republic Bank

Photo from last season's UK-UofL game/KY Forward