- From Duke-UNC to Gonzaga-Saint Mary's, these are our picks for the best rivalries in college basketball, both then and now.
What is college basketball without rivalries? Rivalries are the Old Faithful of the sport: something you can always count on to excite the fan base and bring out passion, and occasionally ugliness, from both participants. Their outcomes can shape a generation—or more—and divide regions, states and even households. A rivalry game can be the most-talked about event on campus for weeks, or even months, preceeding it.
No matter who you root for, chances are your team has at least one chief rival: the team you under no circumstances want your side to lose to, the one whose fans you’d like nothing more than to see crushed with disappointment at the hands of “the good guys.”
We polled our writers an effort to determine the sport’s richest rivalries, both past and present, that capture the essence of college basketball’s annual battles. The below list is the result.
1. North Carolina vs. Duke
College basketball’s fiercest rivalry pits schools located just 20 minutes apart against each other. The Tar Heels and Blue Devils go all the way back to 1920, when UNC won 36–25 on a January day in Chapel Hill, and they’ve played every year since. Carolina dominated the early days of the series, winning 16 in a row in a span from 1921 to 1928. Since then the rivalry has been on more even ground, with the Tar Heels leading the all-time series 137–111.
The two have met 82 times when both teams were in the top 25, including 39 of the 52 meetings since 1997. Even more impressively, 45 of meetings have been a matchup of two top-10 teams, the most recent being Duke’s 74–64 win in Durham last March. The consistent high stakes for Duke-North Carolina have made their annual regular season home-and-home appointment television, and in the last two seasons we’ve been treated to a third showdown in the ACC tournament. The rivalry has too many memorable moments to list, but a few of its standouts were Duke’s triple-overtime win in ’68; UNC’s comeback in ’74 when the Heels scored eight points in the final 17 seconds; Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins and Matt Doherty’s final home game in ’84 (and the Blue Devils’ ensuing win in the ACC tourney); Tyler Hansbrough's bloodied nose after being elbowed by Gerald Henderson in ’07 and Austin Rivers’s buzzer beater in ’12.
2. Kentucky vs. Louisville
Intra-state rivalries make up the majority of this list, and while the campuses of Louisville and Kentucky aren’t as close as Duke and UNC, their location in a college basketball-crazy state makes the annual Cardinals vs. Wildcats battle always highly anticipated. The all-time series has been a bit lopsided, with Kentucky leading 35–16, but UK’s blowout win in the schools’ most recent meeting last December was the lone double-digit win by either side since John Calipari arrived in Lexington (it was also the first time the Cardinals didn’t enter the game ranked in the top 25 since 2010).
Unlike Duke and UNC, which have never met in the NCAA tournament, Kentucky and Louisville have faced off six times during March Madness, the first of which came in 1951 and the most recent of which came in 2014. The Wildcats have won four of those games, none more important than the 2012 Final Four. That night, an Anthony Davis led-Kentucky team held off its rival in an eight-point win and would go on to beat Kansas in the title game—one year later, the Cardinals cut down the nets.
3. Cincinnati vs. Xavier
The Crosstown Shootout may be college basketball’s spiciest rivalry, with things getting testy between the schools that share Cincinnati on multiple occasions. Back in 2008, six technicals were called during a Xavier win, including both players receiving one after Kenny Frease head-butted Yancy Gates. Then in 2011, a Musketeer blowout ended in an infamous, benches-clearing brawl that had an argument between Tu Holloway and Ge'Lawn Guyn at the center of it. A shove by Dez Wells then set the fight in motion, with the aftermath producing an ugly scene and an irate Mick Cronin, who said in his postgame presser that there was “no excuse for any of it” on either side. “Guys need to grow up.”
That brawl caused the annual game to be moved off-campus to U.S. Bank Arena for the next two seasons, but it eventually returned to the Cintas Center and Fifth Third Arena. This past season, there were some fireworks again when Cronin had to be restrained after Xavier’s win, later saying that the Musketeers' J.P. Macura told him to “eff off" three times over the course of the afternoon. With Chris Mack off to Louisville, the rivalry will have a bit of a different look this winter, but you can bet it will remain just as passionate.
4. Indiana vs. Purdue
It’s about time the Big Ten joined the party here. Indiana-Purdue is another historic in-state clash in an area that lives and breathes hoops, and the extremely passionate rivalry has been marked by a number of incidents. There was the debated Isiah Thomas sucker punch on Roosevelt Barnes in 1981, a game after which Hoosiers coach Bob Knight invited Purdue AD George King to come on his TV show ... only to bring out a, uh, donkey in a Purdue hat to represent the rival school when King declined. Four years later, the Boilermakers were in town for one of the most infamous moments in college basketball. Knight, angry about a call and after getting a technical, threw a chair onto the floor and left to an ovation, creating an instant flashpoint in the rivalry.
Knight’s counterpart on the sideline for much of his tenure was longtime Boilermakers coach Gene Keady, and the two teams went back-and-forth in the ’80s and ’90s. In 1991, after Purdue won both of the previous year’s matchups, Knight was secretly taped during a practice giving an expletive-laced rant that included the line “I’m f------ tired of losing to Purdue.” Nowadays, the rivalry remains circled on both schools’ calendars, and starting in 2018–19 the Big Ten made it a protected one (meaning the schools will have a home-and-home every season), one of just three in the conference.
5. Kansas vs. Kansas State
The Sunflower Showdown is a historic rivalry that goes way back—all the way back to 1907, to be precise. And while the Jayhawks lead the all-time series comfortably at 196–93, the Wildcats have had their runs, including winning 21 of 31 in an 11-year span from the early ’70s to early ’80s. Yet when Frank Martin took over the ’Cats in 2007–08, he inherited a team that had not defeated its in-state rival at home since 1983—a stretch of 24 straight losses to KU in Manhattan. But that year the Wildcats had Michael Beasley, a freshman phenom who went on to be the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft. Before the sides met that season, Beasley famously said, “We’re going to beat Kansas at home. We’re going to beat them in their house. We’re going to beat them in Africa. Wherever we play, we’re going to beat them.”
He turned out half-right—Kansas State finally ended its home drought with an 84–75 win on Jan. 30, 2008, which in the process handed the No. 2-ranked Jayhawks their first loss of the season. Kansas would prevail in the revenge game in Lawrence and has only lost three times to the Wildcats since. Nevertheless, the rivalry is looking promising again behind a rising Kansas State, which lost its four regular-season games against Kansas in 2017 and 2018 by a grand total of 10 points.
6. Michigan vs. Michigan State
Another of those new Big Ten protected rivalries is Michigan-Michigan State, a rivalry that goes back to 1909 and is officially led 93–81 by Michigan. The “officially” is due to the fact that seven Wolverines wins in the series were vacated as part of sanctions for a major program scandal discovered back in the ’90s. At the center of the scandal’s unraveling was a car accident that Mateen Cleaves was a passenger in while on an official visit in Ann Arbor, which led to the discovery of Ed Martin’s payments to players. Cleaves, however, would go on to choose rival Michigan State, eventually being named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four and leading the Spartans to the 2000 title.
After a string of 10 straight MSU wins in the series ended in 2003, the rivalry later got a boost when Michigan hired John Beilein in 2007. Beilein got the Wolverines back to the tournament in just his second year, and in 2014 both would make the Elite Eight in the same year for the first time. The last 10 meetings in the series have been an even 5–5, but the most recent three have all gone Michigan’s way.
7. Georgetown vs. Villanova
This is the first rivalry on this list that features schools not from the same state; instead, we’ll have to settle for the same region. Any talk of the old Big East rivals has to start with the 1985 national championship game, widely considered one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history. The John Thompson Jr.-coached and Patrick Ewing-led Hoyas were going for a second straight national title and entered the game 35–2; No. 8 seed Villanova was a major surprise to even be in the final after entering the tournament 19–10.
Playing at Rupp Arena in Kentucky, the Wildcats made 22 of 28 of their shots in a 66–64 win, their 78.6% field-goal percentage still standing as a Final Four record (there was no three-point line yet). Georgetown has never been back to the national championship game and is currently mired in a rebuild (with none other than Ewing as its coach), while Villanova’s recent dominance is well documented. The two still play yearly as surviving members of the Big East, and while the Hoyas dominated the series in the latter half of the 2000s, the pendulum has swung to the Wildcats, which have won 11 of the last 12. With the added narrative of Ewing in charge in D.C., college hoops waits for the day when these two are back on more even ground to re-spark old flames.
8. UConn vs. Tennessee women
The August news that the UConn-Tennessee rivalry will resume in 2020 was thrilling news for women’s college basketball fans, and with good reason. This rivalry, which has lain dormant since 2007 due to a feud between Hall of Fame coaches Geno Auriemma and the late Pat Summitt, was a huge deal not just in women’s basketball, but college basketball in general. Auriemma and Summitt created plenty of headlines on their own, like before the two met in the 2003 title game, when Auriemma told the Hartford Courant that Summitt’s new friendship with Villanova coach Harry Perretta was “nauseating” and said Perretta “dumped me for the evil empire.” “I think you learn more about Geno from this than you do about Pat or Harry,” Summitt said in response.
The two schools met in the NCAA tournament a whopping seven times in 12 years starting in 1995. Four of those came in the national championship game—all won by UConn—with another two coming in the Final Four and one more in the Elite Eight. Players like Rebecca Lobo, Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings, Diana Taurasi, Candace Parker and more all experienced the rivalry, which the Huskies lead 13–9. But when it resumes in 2020, the Lady Vols will be riding a three-game win streak in the series.
9. Indiana vs. Kentucky
Like the rivalry right above it, this isn’t a series that’s currently ongoing, but unlike UConn-Tennessee, there’s unfortunately no renewal in sight. Indiana and Kentucky may both appear higher on this list with other schools, but there’s no denying this rivalry was great when we got it (it even produced a 1993 cover of Sports Illustrated). In fact, the final scheduled game of the series was an absolute instant classic, with Christian Watford sinking a buzzer-beating three to deliver the Hoosiers a 73–72 win in December 2011 that shook Assembly Hall to its core.
We say it was the last “scheduled” game, because sometimes the basketball gods smile down upon us. Later that year, the two would face off again in the Sweet 16, with the Wildcats getting revenge in Atlanta (yes, Kentucky beat both of its rivals on this list on the way to its 2012 title). Then in 2016, fate would pit the two together again in March, with Indiana prevailing this time in the Round of 32 to send the ’Cats packing. The two haven’t met since, but we’re all hoping this rivalry can continue again, in some form, sometime soon.
10. Gonzaga vs. Saint Mary’s
A West Coast mid-major rivalry rounds out our list. The Zags and Gaels have been meeting since 1955 and have dominated the WCC in recent years, with one of the two winning all 10 of the last regular-season and tournament championships (most belong to Gonzaga). In addition to their two annual conference games, they’ve met in the WCC tournament in eight of the last 10 years. And while the Bulldogs have a firm grasp on the series, leading it 68–30 overall and 16–7 since 2010, Saint Mary’s, powered by its Australian pipeline, has always loomed as a threat—and a benefit.
The success of both schools has become an important part of their résumés, with their two (or three) yearly meetings serving as sometimes their only chance at notching league wins that will get noticed nationally. It has helped the WCC land multiple at-large NCAA tournament bids in six of the last nine years, where both teams have had success. Gonzaga has established itself as an annual contender nationally and made a run to the title game in 2017, and the Zags haven’t lost in the Round of 64 since 2008. The Gaels, for their part, have won at least one NCAA tournament game in three of their last four trips.
Honorable Mentions (in order of votes received):
Georgetown vs. Syracuse
Kentucky vs. Florida
Villanova vs. Xavier
Maryland vs. Duke
Villanova vs. St. Joseph’s
VCU vs. Richmond
Michigan vs. Ohio State
Bill Walton vs. Dave Pasch
Duke vs. Michigan