march madness

What Are the Biggest Rivalries in College Basketball History?

What are the biggest rivalries in college basketball? originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

To be the best, you have to beat the best and Mike Krzyzewski has certainly done that in his 41 years at Duke. He’ll have one more chance to go out on top at Cameron Indoor as he ends his regular season career against rival North Carolina on March 5.

The Blue Devils currently sit atop the ACC and rank seventh in the nation. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels are tied for second in the conference and looking to spoil Coach K’s final farewell at home. When the teams met earlier this season in February, Duke handily beat UNC 87-67. While the betting sharks might lean toward the Blue Devils, no one can ever be counted out in this legendary rivalry.

In honor of Coach K’s final Carolina-Duke showdown, here are 10 of the best rivalries in college basketball:

Duke-North Carolina

Head-to-head: North Carolina leads 141-115

Let’s set the stage. The granddaddy of all college basketball rivalries. Eleven NCAA Championships and 39 ACC Championships between these two teams puts them in an elite class. But what makes this rivalry so fierce?

Separated by a mere 10 miles along Tobacco Road, the matchups between these two blue bloods have become a staple of college basketball more recently characterized by the sideline showdown between Coach K and former Tar Heels coach Roy Williams.

Coach K’s finale at Cameron Indoor will pit him against a familiar foe, Carolina head coach Hubert Davis, who served as an assistant with the Tar Heels since 2012 before being elevated to head coach this season upon Williams’ retirement. Davis, a former Tar Heel himself, went 6-8 against the Blue Devils throughout his four-year college career.

Michigan-Ohio State

Head-to-head: Ohio State leads 101-73

While it doesn’t always get the same attention as the matchup on the football field, there’s no love lost between these basketball teams.

While each team only has one National Championship to their name, they pose a consistent threat to the top of the Big Ten.

These teams have met 187 times, but 13 games were vacated due to recruiting violations by both teams in the 1990s and early 2000s. Those games included seven wins by the Wolverines and six by the Buckeyes.

Kentucky-Louisville

Head-to-head: Kentucky leads 37-17

For much of the 20th century, this rivalry wasn’t much more than the occasional matchup between Kentucky schools. However, a 1983 meeting of these teams at the NCAA Tournament gave rise to a tradition of matching up every year since.

The stakes only got higher when Rick Pitino, head coach of the Wildcats from 1989-1997, took over the Cardinals in 2001. Both schools won national championships under Pitino, but the 2013 Louisville title was eventually vacated after reports of a sex scandal regarding recruits came to light.

The history of this rivalry is also marked by primetime matchups, including a 2012 meeting between the two Kentucky schools in the Final Four, with the Wildcats getting the better of the Cardinals en route to a National championship.

Cincinnati-Xavier

Head-to-head: Cincinnati leads 51-38

Dubbed the Crosstown Shootout, these two schools make UNC-Duke look like a long-distance relationship. 

With less than three miles separating the two campuses, this matchup brings hometown rivalry to another level. ESPN’s Jay Bilas said it best when he described the matchup as a display of “outright passion and civic division.”

That passion and division were on full display in 2011, when the teams engaged in a bench-clearing brawl. With 9.4 seconds remaining, the Musketeers had a comfortable 23-point win in their pocket, but the intense competitiveness between the teams remained. A bit of a trash talk between Cincy’s Ge’Lawn Guyn and Xavier’s Tu Holloway quickly turned into a fight that resulted in the game ending immediately and three players being ejected.

A decade later, fans of the rivalry showed goodwill in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and got creative to foster this competitive energy -- the Crosstown tipoff. A $1,000 tip on a $54 takeout order accompanied with the note “Go Xavier!” quickly spiraled into a competition of who could leave the bigger tip. Restaurants in the Cincinnati area went on to attribute numerous tips in the $100 and $1,000 ranges to the rivalry.

Indiana-Purdue

Head-to-head: Purdue leads 124-90

Where else would a basketball rivalry emerge but the Hoosier State?

While Indiana has more hardware with five NCAA championships to Purdue’s zero, the Boilermakers continue to have their number in the head-to-head matchup, and it’s unlikely their luck will change this season. 

IU, currently sitting in the bottom half of the Big Ten, is set to wrap their regular season in West Lafayette against the No. 4-ranked Boilermakers, led by freshman Jaden Ivey, on March 5.

UConn-Notre Dame/Tennessee (Women)

Head-to-head: UConn leads Tennessee 16-9 and Notre Dame 39-13

I could probably write a whole paper about the number of rivals UConn head coach Geno Auriemma has amassed in his 37 years with the Huskies, but for the sake of time, I’ll stick to Pat Summitt and Muffet McGraw. 

At the time of her retirement in 2012, Summitt had won 1,098 games, the most of any coach in college basketball. She’s since been surpassed by two women’s coaches and three men’s coaches, including Coach K, the all-time leader. However, the head coach of the Volunteers was not shy about her distaste for UConn and Auriemma, specifically, eventually electing to cancel the annual matchup between these teams after accusing Auriemma of shoddy recruiting practices. 

Meanwhile, the Irish make the cut based on recency bias. Over the past decade, UConn has only lost 15 times, seven of them to Notre Dame. The Irish also hold a 4-3 record over the Huskies in the NCAA Tournament over the past 10 seasons.

UConn remains top dog, but Auriemma probably breathed a sigh of relief when McGraw hung up the heels in 2020.

Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s

Head-to-head: Gonzaga leads 73-31

The Zags are the undisputed kings of the WCC, but every once in a while they meet their match in Saint Mary’s.

The Bulldogs hold a record 27 West Coast Conference Tournament Championship appearances -- 19 wins and eight losses. Meanwhile, the Gaels are the only other team to crack double-digit championship appearances, resulting in four wins and nine losses. 

Their rivalry contends with the best of the entire West Coast.

Kansas-Kansas State

Head-to-head: Kansas leads 202-94

Nicknamed the Sunflower Showdown, this intrastate matchup hangs with the best of them. Not unlike the IU-Purdue rivalry, a basketball-crazed state continued to rally around its two biggest schools as they square off on the hardwood. 

This rivalry, which was first contested in 1907, peaked in the 1950s as both teams established themselves perennial contenders on the national stage. Over the second half of the 20th century, the Wildcats struggled to keep up, eventually giving up 31 straight games to the Jayhawks from 1994 to 2005. Despite Kansas historically owning the series, the Wildcats have put the rivalry back on the map in recent years as a consistent top-25 program. 

Michigan-Michigan State

Head-to-head: Michigan leads 95-87 (not including seven Michigan wins vacated due to recruiting violations)

Michigan had long winning streaks throughout the first half of this rivalry, but recent history has belonged to Tom Izzo and the Spartans. While some of Michigan’s vacated wins came at the beginning of Izzo’s tenure as head coach, he currently holds a 31-14 advantage over the Wolverines.

The rivalry is even at the center of one of the biggest recruiting scandals in NCAA history. While on an official recruiting visit with the Wolverines, Mateen Cleaves and then-Michigan player Maurice Taylor were involved in a car accident that opened Pandora’s box and revealed the intricate web of recruiting violations by booster Ed Martin and the Michigan basketball program. Cleaves, a native of Flint, Mich., eventually went to Michigan State and was even drafted by the Pistons in 2000.

Penn-Princeton

Head-to-head: Penn leads 126-113

Harvard and Yale might dominate the Ivy League today, but Penn and Princeton remain the original juggernauts. They won 19 of the first 20 Ivy League Championships, with Cornell serving as the lone exception after winning the inaugural title in 1988.

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