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Wesley Eversole: High-stakes games, coaching intrigue make UK-UofL best rivalry

Chances are, if you ask the average person what the best rivalry in college basketball is, nine times out of ten, they will tell you that it is Duke versus North Carolina.


With nine NCAA Championships and 33 Final Fours between them, it would be hard to argue with that statement, but I believe a case can be made for another rivalry as the best in college basketball. That rivalry, of course, is the rivalry between the University of Kentucky Wildcats and the University of Louisville Cardinals.


While UK and UofL have not been playing as long on a regular basis and Duke and UNC, a case can be made that they have played in more meaningful games. For example, Duke and North Carolina have played each other 236 times in their history. Do you know how many of those meetings have occurred in the NCAA Tournament? Zero! In fact, the only meeting in a national postseason tournament between those two schools occurred in the 1971 National Invitational Tournament, with North Carolina winning 73-67.


Nerlens Noel wins the tip in the most recent UK-UofL meeting. (Photo by Jon Hale)

By comparison, Kentucky and Louisville have only met 45 times in their history, but six of those meetings have occurred in the NCAA Tournament, with Kentucky holding a 4-2 edge. The most recent postseason meeting occurred during the 2012 NCAA Final Four, with Kentucky wining 69-61 en route to its eight NCAA Championship.


While Duke and North Carolina have met 20 times in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, in only nine of those meetings did the losing team fail to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Only two of those nine meetings have occurred since 1975, when the NCAA selection committee began allowing more than one team from each conference to participate in their postseason tournament.


It should also be pointed out that as members of the Atlantic Coast Conference, Duke and North Carolina are required to play each other every year. Since Kentucky and Louisville play in different conferences, technically there is nothing stopping one or both schools from canceling the series. Yet, they have played each other at least once every season since 1982-83, when Louisville defeated Kentucky 80-68 in overtime in the NCAA Mideast Regional Final.


Finally, no discussion of the UK-U of L rivalry would be complete without mentioning the coaches. For starters, this rivalry is probably the only one in college basketball, and possibly in any sport, where one coach (Rick Pitino) could coach at one school for eight years, then after spending several years coaching at the professional level, end up coaching at the other school.


Could you imagine Dean Smith coaching at Duke or Mike Krzyzewski at North Carolina? What about Paul “Bear” Bryant at Auburn or Ralph “Shug” Jordan at Alabama? Steve Spurrier at Florida State or Bobby Bowden at Florida? No, you could not, and that is what makes the UK-U of L rivalry so unique.


Besides the “crossing enemy lines” element with Pitino, both programs have been successful under multiple head coaches. While North Carolina has won championships under three different head coaches (Frank McGuire, Smith and Roy Williams), all of Duke’s championships have come under Krzyzewski. That does not mean the Blue Devils were nothing before Coach K, as they did reach four Final Fours (1963, 1964, 1966 and 1978) and played in two national championship games (1964 and 1978) prior to his arrival, but they did become a truly elite program until he arrived.


By comparison, both Kentucky and Louisville have won national championships under multiple head coaches. Kentucky won four titles under Adolph Rupp (1948, 1949, 1951 and 1958) and one each under Joe B. Hall (1978), Pitino (1996), Orlando “Tubby” Smith (1998) and John Calipari (2012). Louisville has won two national championships under Denny Crum (1980 and 1986) and one under Pitino (2013).


Consequently, this gave Pitino the distinction of being the first NCAA Division I coach to win a championship at two different schools. In addition to the 11 national championships the programs have combined to win under six different head coaches, seven different head coaches have combined for 25 Final Fours at these schools. Besides the aforementioned national championship years, Rupp took Kentucky to the 1942 Final Four and 1966 national championship game, Hall took Kentucky to the 1975 national championship game and the 1984 Final Four, Pitino took Kentucky to the 1993 Final Four and 1997 national championship game and Louisville to the 2005 and 2012 Final Fours, John Calipari took Kentucky to the 2011 Final Four, Peck Hickman took Louisville to the 1959 Final Four and Crum took Louisville to the Final Four in 1972, 1975, 1982 and 1983.


With at least five meetings in the NCAA Tournament and seven coaches that have led these programs to the Final Four, I rest my case that Kentucky versus Louisville is the best rivalry in college basketball.


Wesley Eversole is a 2011 graduate of the University of Louisville’s sport administration program. He enjoys a lifelong love of sports, especially UK basketball and football. You can read more about Eversole’s pursuit of his life goals while living with Asperger’s Syndrome here.





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