One of the many great things about the NCAA tournament is that it provides college basketball fans with matches that otherwise wouldn’t happen.
We’re getting one of those Saturday.
With Indiana and Kentucky both winning their Round of 64 games — easily, it should be pointed out — a rivalry that has been dormant will once again take center stage in the Round of 32.
The Hoosiers and Wildcats, who play their home games just three hours apart from one another, first met in 1924 and played every year between 1969 and 2011. But what was an annual tradition for 43 years came to a screeching halt after the 2011-12 season. Tom Crean wanted to continue the series in Bloomington and Lexington. John Calipari wanted to play at big neutral sites to prepare his team for the NCAA tournament. Even a compromise in which Indiana offered two games in Indianapolis and one game apiece in Bloomington and Lexington was rejected.
“I didn't want to play home and home,” Calipari explained after his team advanced Thursday night. “I told them we would play two years in Indianapolis if you want. I didn't want to play home and home. I didn't want to go there (to Bloomington), and they didn't want to have to come to us. So that ended the series.”
[MORE BIG TEN: Hoosiers blow out Chattanooga to advance in NCAA tournament]
And so the teams haven’t played since that 2011-12 season.
But oh what a couple of matchups that season featured. The regular-season edition ended with Indiana hitting a buzzer-beating, game-winning 3-pointer to take down then-No. 1 Kentucky. Then the two met again in the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats exacting their revenge in the Sweet Sixteen en route to winning that season’s national championship.
It’s been four long years since those meetings, but the bracket has rewarded college hoops with another meeting in Des Moines.
To make this happen, both teams had to win their respective Round of 64 games, and boy did they. Indiana throttled Chattanooga, shooting a jaw-dropping 64.9 percent in a 25-point rout. Yogi Ferrell turned in his first double-double of the year with 20 points and 10 assists, leading five Hoosiers to score in double figures. Indiana came a point away from 100 and dropped at least 90 points for the eighth time this season. Kentucky, meanwhile, nearly beat Stony Brook by 30, limiting the Seawolves to 26.3-percent shooting and getting five double-figure scoring performances, as well.
[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Hoosiers gear right here]
With Kentucky on a six-game winning streak and Indiana winners of six of its last seven, these two teams are red hot right now. That’s part of what made this rivalry so great in the first place. These are two of college basketball’s more storied programs with 13 NCAA tournament championships between the two of them.
“I think it's a great rivalry,” Crean said. “There has been a lot of great history with Indiana and Kentucky over the years, and we've been privileged to be a part of it. There's been a lot of tremendous games. Obviously it's a rivalry because of the history of it, because of the proximity of the two states, but because the two basketball teams have been good when it's been at its best. So I would say that's the biggest thing.”
With Nos. 4 and 5 seeds in this year’s Big Dance, adding a 14th will be an uphill battle, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a battle of two great teams coming up Saturday. It is. Indiana won the Big Ten regular-season championship, and Kentucky won both the regular-season championship and conference-tournament championship in the SEC. And that makes this edition of the rivalry real exciting because, as it always is in the NCAA tournament, everything’s on the line for the best teams in the country.
“Every game you play in this tournament is like a rivalry game. Everybody is going to play with high energy,” Calipari said. “I said after the game, my opinion, Crean is the national coach of the year for what he did. It's not that they won the league. It's that he had his best or one of his best — Yogi is probably his best player, but one of his best players out for the year (James Blackmon Jr.) and they had to adjust to how they play. What he's done with that team in that league is incredible.”