Benner/Sports and Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Indiana University and Opinion and Sports Business

BENNER: Let's hope Indiana-Kentucky rivalry won't be gone long

May 5, 2012

In the Kansas City area, the thought of the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri no longer competing in basketball is, well, unthinkable. Except it’s going to happen, because Missouri has left the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference and school officials stubbornly refuse to see any reason to schedule a non-conference game to keep the rivalry going.

That is as absurd as Indiana University not playing the University of Kentucky.

Oops. Bad example.

Also unthinkable but apparently in the offing, the Hoosiers and Wildcats are going their separate ways, ending—or at least interrupting—a hoops rivalry that dates back to 1924 and has been played on an annual basis since 1969.

IU’s Tom Crean and UK’s John Calipari say they are fast friends off the court, but that friendship evidently does not transcend to what happens between the baselines.

Crean insists he wants to keep the series going, but only if it continues in the schools’ home venues, Assembly Hall in Bloomington and Rupp Arena in Lexington.

Calipari insists he wants to keep the series going, but only if it returns to a neutral-floor venue such as Indy’s Lucas Oil Stadium, where the seating capacity would be equally divided among Hoosier and Wildcat fans. That’s a throwback to the years when the series alternated between the RCA Dome here and Louisville’s Freedom Hall.

For those who recall, it was quite a sight, especially in the Dome, where you could literally draw a line down the middle separating the Crimson-clad Hoosier faithful and the Go Big Blue Kentucky Nation.

Now, up front, I must admit I have little regard for Kentucky, other than wanting to see it lose … in basketball, field hockey, you name it.

It’s something I’ve grown up with since I was a child. I root for two teams: Indiana, and whoever’s playing Kentucky.

What about Purdue? Sorry, but I have too many great Purdue friends and too much admiration for the many Boilermaker coaches, athletes and administrators I’ve come to know, and cover, over the years.

If, for example, Purdue were playing Kentucky, I would want the Boilers to win by 50.

I know it’s irrational for an adult to feel the way I do about a particular institution, but it has become part of my DNA. When both of our daughters were looking at college choices, I told them they could go to any school in the country and we would figure out a way to pay for it. But if they chose Kentucky, they were on their own.

That said, I don’t want my alma mater to avoid Kentucky. I want Indiana to play the Wildcats in basketball. I even regret that the football series was cast aside because the programs were not only close geographically, but also historically in their struggle to sustain any kind of success.

But basketball-wise, it’s just too good, too passionate, too intense a series to let it pass into history, except for a potential NCAA tournament matchup now and then.

My experience with the Ohio River rivalry dates back to 1970, when I was a senior at IU and Kentucky came to play in IU’s pre-Assembly Hall venue, what we then referred to as the “new fieldhouse.”

I watched George McGinnis go for 38 points and 20 rebounds. But I also watched—aghast—as McGinnis called a timeout just a nano-second before his teammate John Ritter launched, and hit, what would have been a game-winning 60-foot shot. Instead, the Hoosiers, who already had blown a seven-point lead in the last five minutes, lost in overtime.

A year later, however, the Hoosiers made up for it. It was Bob Knight’s first season at Indiana and the Hoosiers won in double overtime at Freedom Hall behind the greatest single-game performance in series history: Steve Downing’s 47-point, 35-rebound effort.

I guess the point is, there is a lot more to Indiana-Kentucky than Christian Watford’s shot or Kentucky’s NCAA tournament victory over the Hoosiers in March.

Let’s face it: Indiana, by going the Kentucky route and hiring a serial cheater in Kelvin Sampson, relinquished its part of the equation in keeping Hoosiers/Wildcats one of the nation’s most anticipated early-season games.

Now Indiana is back and Kentucky isn’t going anywhere.

Neither, then, should the rivalry. Whether it’s played in Assembly Hall, Rupp Arena, Lucas Oil Stadium or on the moon, this series needs to remain.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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