Media Timeout: The Birth and Death of Rivalries After Realignment

Posted by Will Tucker on December 26th, 2014

College basketball places huge emphasis on individual games — showdowns between top-ranked teams, annual rivalry clashes, single-elimination tournaments — but it’s important to take a step back and look at the bigger picture from time to time. Each month, the Media Timeout will review emerging trends in how fans and journalists watch, follow, and talk about the sport.

Conference realignment in recent years has reshaped the college basketball landscape in both obvious and subtle ways. To paint the timeline in admittedly broad brushstrokes, it started with Colorado and Nebraska abandoning the Big 12 for the greener pastures of the Pac-10 and Big Ten, respectively. In the scramble for leagues to position themselves for the eventual “superconference” paradigm, the Pac-10 would add Utah to complete the Pac-12; the Big Ten would go on to poach Maryland and Rutgers; the SEC, Missouri and Texas A&M; the Big 12 reloading with TCU and West Virginia. Most of the Big East diaspora – Syracuse, Pitt, Notre Dame basketball, and eventually Louisville – settled in the ACC, and the Big East experienced its own dramatic transformation to a basketball-centric league as a result. Those shifts trickled down through many of the mid-major conferences, including the Mountain West, Conference USA, and Atlantic 10, weaving a convoluted web of migration across the country.

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The War in Prussia Had Nothing on Conference Realignment

The consequences of those migrations are still revealing themselves several years later. Nowhere have they been more tangible to fans than in the separation of traditional rivals and the formation of new rivalries, sometimes taking root in unexpected places. Rivalries have long been fluid entities, in spite of our tendency to mythologize and idealize a bygone era of college basketball – one in which meritocracy trumped TV revenue, recruiting was an even playing field, and geography and shared heritage determined which schools became rivals. In 1980, for example, Depaul-Marquette was a big deal; Syracuse-UConn wasn’t that big of a deal; and Louisville and Kentucky had played each other only 12 times, ever.

So with that in mind, let’s pay homage to several of the casualties of conference realignment, before turning our attention to budding rivalries that may take their place. We’ll also look at existing rivalries that are being preserved despite changes in conference affiliation.

Rivalries Lost

Duke-Maryland: The rivalry between Duke and Maryland had lost some of its luster by the time the Blue Devils closed out the series by claiming their 13th win in the final 16 meetings: Overall, the Blue Devils held a commanding 114-63 advantage over the Terrapins. But there’s no question that this rivalry’s demise was a significant loss for college basketball fans. This is especially true for fans in D.C., where both schools have a significant alumni presence (College Park is about nine miles from the Capitol Building; Duke places a large number of alumni in the nation’s power cities). On the hardwood, the series experienced a golden age at the turn of the 21st century, when the teams traded national championships and were fixtures at the top of the ACC standings. While the rivalry may have lost some of its competitive edge in recent years, it never lost the element that truly set it apart: vehement hostility. From JJ Redick’s phone number, to the $500,000 in property damage recorded during the 2001 College Park riots, to the imperious “Not our rival” chants serenading Maryland players in Cameron; the discontinued series left big shoes to fill in terms of sheer animosity.

Maryland's move to the ACC became a popular trash talk theme among Duke fans (Mark Dolejs / USA TODAY Sports)

Maryland’s move to the ACC became a popular trash talk theme among Duke fans (Mark Dolejs / USA TODAY Sports)

Kansas-Missouri: When it comes to deep-seeded acrimony, not even Duke-Maryland can hold a candle to the Border War. The rivalry between Kansas and Missouri was the oldest west of the Mississippi, dating back more than a century. Much more than a sports rivalry, the Border War was a proxy for cultural tension, steeped in references to the region’s bloody history. Prior to its recent rebranding as the “Border Showdown,” the name itself was an explicit allusion to the guerilla warfare and political violence waged by militias along the states’ shared east/west border before and during the Civil War. As Robert Mays wrote for Grantland in 2012, “Everything about the Border War – the mascot names, the passion, the depth – is a product of some 170 years of enmity.” The men’s basketball programs played 267 times before Missouri’s move to the SEC in 2012, at which point the Jayhawks held a commanding 172-95 lead in the series. But the rivalry went out with a bang that season, as the top-10 teams split two games decided by a cumulative four points, including a dramatic comeback Kansas win in overtime in Lawrence.

The Border War was so entangled with the region's history that even the 1856 sacking of Lawrence became a symbolic victory

The Border War was so entangled with the region’s history that even the 1856 sacking of Lawrence became a symbolic victory

Cincinnati-Louisville: Before Louisville joined the ACC this season, the Cardinals and Bearcats had accompanied one another through five conferences in 50 years, with only one interruption to that in the early 1990s. From the Missouri Valley Conference and Metro to Conference USA, the Big East, and finally the American, these schools’ nomadic histories helped strengthen their bond and reinforce their mutual aversion. Unlike rivalries with local schools Kentucky and Xavier, respectively, the fierce competition between Louisville and Cincinnati stemmed more from their similarities than from vast cultural differences. Located just 100 miles apart on opposite banks of the Ohio River, both universities emphasized an urban mission and had been adopted by cities that, since the mid-1970s, lacked a professional basketball franchise. Although the series went through some lopsided stretches, it remained fairly close overall, as Louisville led 56-43 but only held a 6-5 advantage during Mick Cronin’s tenure. My enduring memory of this rivalry will always be the surreal spectacle of watching the two former Conference USA peers play a Big East Tournament title game in Madison Square Garden in front of 20,000 Syracuse and UConn fans. While there’s no point in playing the “what if” game, it’s a shame to think that the series could have continued if Cronin had proposed a non-conference series with the Cardinals before Josh Pastner beat him to the punch.

UofL and Cincinnati split two games in their final season in the same league (Jamie Rhodes / USA TODAY Sports)

UofL and Cincinnati split two games during their final season in the same league (Jamie Rhodes / USA TODAY Sports)

Rivalries Gained

Duke-Syracuse: While the loss of the Duke-Maryland rivalry was unfortunate, the vast majority of college basketball fans around the country would probably consider a Duke-Syracuse rivalry a significant upgrade. The two programs had, somewhat amazingly, only met four times before Syracuse joined the ACC last season, but their first two games as conference foes certainly lived up to the hype, with Sports Illustrated immediately proclaiming it “the most intoxicating rivalry in college basketball.” Syracuse struck first, claiming a 91-89 overtime victory in the Carrier Dome, before Duke countered with a 66-60 win in Cameron Indoor Stadium that featured Jim Boeheim’s first-ever ejection. Although they aren’t designated “permanent partners” in the ACC’s rotating 15-team system, the conference has uncharacteristically scheduled a home-and-home between Duke and Syracuse for the second consecutive season in 2014-15, which could indicate that the league office intends to exploit every opportunity it gets to nurture this promising rivalry.


The first ACC matchup between Duke and SU received tremendous media hype, with even releasing desktop wallpapers in anticipation of the game

Cincinnati-UConn: This one is unique in that neither program changed conference affiliation, but games between the two have taken on additional significance this season with the departure of Louisville. Opportunities for signature wins in conference play are few and far between now that Memphis and Temple are the only other AAC foes that carry any real name brand cachet, so it’s safe to bet that fans of the Bearcats and Huskies will be circling this match-up on their calendars for the foreseeable future. The series has been especially competitive lately, with each team winning three games apiece since 2011-12. It is also, to date, an unusually respectful rivalry: Mick Cronin has praised it as a “clean rivalry with great games” and a “good blood rivalry,” describing Kevin Ollie as “one of the nicest guys in the world;” those adjectives get thrown around by players and writers as well. UConn athletic director Warde Manuel commented in 2013 that an exciting rivalry between the two programs was essential to the success of their conference. Oh, and the drama on the court is heightened by the fact that both universities are vying for an invitation to one of the so-called Power Five conferences.

•The UC-UConn rivalry benefits from the mutual respect between Cronin and Ollie (Richard Messina / Hartford Courant)

The UC-UConn rivalry benefits from the mutual respect between Cronin and Ollie (Richard Messina / Hartford Courant)

BYU-Gonzaga (TBD): Conference realignment has produced far fewer new prospects for exciting basketball rivalries on the west coast, and this one has, so far, been pretty lackluster. Since the Cougars departed the Mountain West for the West Coast Conference in 2011-12, Gonzaga has won six of eight games – five of them by double figures. The last time BYU notched a resounding victory over the Zags was just before it joined the WCC in the 2011 NCAA Tournament, an 89-67 rout in which Jimmer Fredette scored 34 points. Dave Rose’s teams have been unable to replicate that kind of win since Fredette graduated, a period during which Mark Few and Gonzaga have continued a dominant run in their league. The Bulldogs and Cougars will open and close conference play with each other this season, and it’s unclear whether this BYU team is equipped to regain some ground by pulling off the upset in Spokane on senior night.

(Jack Dempsey / AP)

BYU hasn’t had much success against the Gonzaga since the Fredette years (Jack Dempsey / AP)

Rivalries Preserved

Butler-Xavier: Separated by about 120 miles, these Midwestern programs have squared off 50 times and, luckily for hoops fans, will continue playing twice a year in the Big East for the foreseeable future. I had an opportunity to see Butler visit the Cintas Center in November 2012, under bizarre circumstances. It was the second game of the season for both teams and although Xavier was beginning its first year in the Atlantic 10, this particular game had been previously scheduled and thus was treated officially as a non-conference contest. It had no bearing on the league standings and was essentially a dress rehearsal for a showdown in Hinkle Arena to close out the regular season, but a casual spectator could have easily assumed a conference title was on the line given the intensity. Highly touted transfer Rotnei Clarke gave a subpar performance, scoring only seven points and missing 6-of-7 three-point attempts, one of which elicited a gleeful, R-rated outburst from the Xavier staff on press row. The point of this anecdote is that even as an uninitiated outsider watching a fairly meaningless game, I could immediately sense that the Butler-Xavier rivalry was the real deal.

NCAA Basketball: Xavier at Butler

Butler and Xavier traded close home wins in their first season as conference foes (Brian Spurlock / USA Today Sports)

Georgetown-Syracuse: College basketball recovered a national treasure this past summer when it was announced that administrators at Georgetown and Syracuse had agreed to a four-year alternating home-and-home series beginning in Washington, D.C. during the 2015-16 season. The Orange lead the series 49-41, although the Hoyas won two of three match-ups in 2012-13, the pair’s final season together. Charter members of the Big East, the rivalry came into its own in 1980 when, after breaking the Orangemen’s 57-game home winning streak and spoiling their final game in Manley Fieldhouse, John Thompson Jr. declared into an amplified microphone, “Manley Fieldhouse is officially closed.” The restoration of the Big East’s best rivalry takes some of the sting off of the breakup of the league’s original lineup, and both programs are sure to benefit from honoring their 30-year history of volatile coaching personalities, thrown punches, and fiercely competitive games with national implications. The decision to renew evidently wasn’t much of a surprise to John Thompson III, who said at the time of the announcement: “At no point did we not think this was going to happen.” Everyone is glad that it did.

Georgetown students didn't hold anything back during the last Syracuse game in D.C. in 2013

Georgetown students didn’t hold anything back during the last Syracuse game in D.C. in 2013

Will Tucker (124 Posts)

Kentucky native living and working in Washington, D.C. Fan of tacos, maps, and the 30-second shot clock. Not a fan of comments sections, bad sportswriting.

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