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Nothing Like It

By Kristi Chartrand


Plenty of sports fans across the country have said it: College basketball starts in March.

Don’t get me wrong, there aren’t too many things in sports more exciting then 64 teams competing for one championship. After all it’s called March Madness for a reason. But personally, I think the fans holding out on their hoops are missing the games that exemplify what college basketball is really all about. The games where even the volume of a Dick Vitale rant seems justified: Rivalries.

ESPN dedicated their hoops coverage last week to rivalry games, and appropriately called it, “Rivalry Week”. I called it, “A great week to be a couch potato”. We should be thankful to ESPN and the modern wonder of cable television for the privilege to see all these games. You know not everyone can be Andy Katz or Dick Vitale, who by the way attended the following games last week: Syracuse-UCONN, Kentucky-Florida, Duke-Carolina, and Arizona-Stanford. Now that’s a good job to have.

But thanks to picture-in-picture I saw EVERY game ESPN (ESPN2 also) televised, and cranked the surround I kind of felt like I was there for all of them. Ok, so it’s not exactly the same, but it was still fun.

Rivalries are contested on AND off the court. For the fans, it’s a chance at bragging rights. No fans relish the opportunity to gloat more then the faithful of Kansas and Missouri. It’s a rivalry as intense and bitter as they come, and that’s no secret to the fans, coaches, or players. I’m not sure I have the right words to explain how hotly contested this one is. It did make me ponder…when Bill Self was hired as new KU head coach in April, were his final instructions from the Chancellor  “…and Bill, one more thing, make sure you beat Missouri”? It’s entirely possible coaches have these rivalry clauses or incentives in their contracts. I wouldn’t be surprised. I do know that on February 2nd, KU fans wanted nothing more then to add to the misery of Mizzou’s already disappointing season. There was plenty to cheer about in Lawrence as the Jayhawks took it to the Tigers 65-56. For now Jayhawk fans, brag away, at least until you meet again Sunday, March 7th

For me as a UCONN fan, there’s no other team I enjoy seeing the Huskies roll over more then Syracuse. I have a lot of respect for Coach Boeheim, but in my lifetime I’ve run into some pretty vocal ‘Cuse fans. That would probably explain why with UCONN up 28, I was screaming for the walk-ons to shoot a 3. Winning wasn’t enough. I wanted to brag about a margin of victory over 30!  I only got an 84-56 drubbing. But do you hear that?? Me neither…Silence….at least until the next meeting.

Though the fans are pumped and louder then ever, keep in mind this is not JUST for the fans. You’re disillusioned if you think the players and coaches aren’t in tune with the importance of these games. The coaches probably wish their jobs were always this easy. No Nute Rockney speeches or tricky motivational tactics needed. The kids wake up ready to play these games.

Like UCONN guard Ben Gordon said after the Syracuse game, “it’s just a different feeling when you play these guys (Syracuse).”  The astute Emeka Okafor may have put it best though, “If you can’t get up for these games then you don’t have a pulse”.

You know what? Honestly, you don’t have to be a fan, player, OR coach of the two teams involved to appreciate great rivalries.

As a Big East fan, during the season I concentrate on my team (UCONN HUSKIES) and the rest of the conference. Rarely will I see Cincinnati and Xavier play more then once or twice each during a season. But when the Crosstown Shootout comes around, I have an assigned seat in front of my television. I haven’t missed that game in years and I’ve yet to be disappointed. In fact, Vegas posted the line for that game as the Bearcats by 6.5. Clearly, Cincy has been the better team this season. BUT this is a rivalry game – NO WAY. Sure enough, the Musketeers prevailed at home in a seesaw battle, that guess what? Came down to the last shot….Lionel Chalmers gave Xavier the two point win over their crosstown rivals, 71-69.

Sometimes it’s even more fun to be able to just sit back and appreciate the incredible level of play without a rooting interest.

I felt that way about Arizona-Stanford, a game headed straight for ESPN Classic, this one had it all. Rivalry games have a penchant for the big time play and they don’t get much bigger then Nick Robinson’s buzzer-beater that kept Stanford undefeated. You couldn’t ask for more than this 80-77 thriller offered. The breath-taking finish had me yelling along with Dickie V. The Maples Pavilion crowd was so excited; they were oblivious to the presence of Stanford alum Tiger Woods. Tiger who? But Nick Robinson, he’s the Big Man On Campus.

Rivalry games tend to bring out the best in both teams, and Thursday’s Duke-Carolina game exemplified that. It took overtime to decide, and quite frankly, I could’ve watched this one for about 3 more OT’s. Duke won it 83-81, but BOTH teams really took it to a new level. That was by far the most intense I’ve seen the Tarheels on the defensive end of the floor all season. Of course, that’s excluding the last play of overtime where they allowed Chris Duhon to drive for an easy game-winning layup. This match up just never seems to get old, I’m looking forward to at least one more this season.

Rivalry games have a way of grabbing you and sucking you in. What else could make a grown man get down on his hands and knees begging for someone to stop the ball in the Duke-Carolina game? For the record, that was my husband Thursday night. Not a true fan of either team, but screaming like the building was on fire.

So I’d like to close by giving you my opinion on my top 5 rivalries (these are current, not all-time):

  1. Duke - North Carolina - like I said before, it just never gets old. So much tradition, talent, and success at both schools….and they’re next-door neighbors. It’s the best, no doubt about it.
  2. UCONN - Tennessee (Women) - people would find it hard to argue with this one. These teams are playing for championships and number one rankings every time they lace them up.
  3. Xavier - Cincinnati - I love it. They haven’t played many games decided by more then 10 points.  
  4. Kansas - Missouri - There’s a reason the Big 12 makes sure they play twice every year.
  5. Duke - Maryland - Definitely one of the better rivalries of the last 4-5 years. This one is only going to get better

I know I left out a lot of great rivalries (especially some that take place early in the year), and don’t kid yourself, EVERY school in the country has that one team they want to beat more then any other. The lack of notoriety for the smaller schools doesn’t lessen the impact of a win or the disappointment of a loss.

My closing thought -- pay attention to the schedule, if you see a game, and you hear the talk about a “rivalry” – stop what you’re doing and watch, chances are you won’t be disappointed because rivalries truly are special.

Kristi Chartrand

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