clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The beauty of the Indiana-Kentucky rivalry lies in the fear

Embrace Saturday's IU-UK game, because we won't see it again for a long time.

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Moments after grabbing an errant Kentucky inbound pass in the final seconds of Indiana's 73-67 win, Thomas Bryant sprinted over to the Indiana fan section to celebrate, tossing the ball over his head as if he had won a championship.

"This is why I'm here!" he screamed. "This is why I'm here!"

That kind of celebration doesn't happen often in the round of 32, particularly for a No. 5 seed, but it's not often that two Final Four-worthy teams and bitter rivals meet this early in the NCAA Tournament. For that, we can blame the NCAA Tournament selection committee, which egregiously under-seeded both the Wildcats and Hoosiers.

But we can also thank them, because they forced a game that both schools' players and fans have deserved since they stopped playing in 2011.

Bryant's emotion is perhaps the best indicator of the severe lack of Kentucky-Indiana games that we've seen in the past five years. This is a freshman from Rochester, N.Y., with no ties to either Kentucky or Indiana growing up. He didn't have a single teammate who had played in this rivalry. But he knew how big this win was, not just in the context of the bracket, but in the Indiana basketball lore.

That's the kind of game Bryant came to be a part of, and it's what we all came to see. Fortunately, he got to experience it. Unfortunately, nobody else will get to for a while. That's what made this unusually stellar Round of 32 matchup bittersweet.

* * *

Kentucky coach John Calipari was livid upon seeing the Wildcats' potential meeting with Indiana on Selection Sunday, blaming it on an NCAA conspiracy.

"That's how it is," he said. "Every year, the same. You look at some other teams and they got a great path. And we got this."

Whether it's true or not that the NCAA crafts matchups like this one far too early in the tournament, at least the tournament takes the politics out of it all by giving the fans what they want to see. Kansas doesn't like to play Wichita State, but the selection committee made those two teams plays last year. The committee also set up a matchup between petty former rivals Texas and Texas A&M, though the Longhorns got eliminated before it could happen.

Hopefully, the committee will miss-seed Kentucky and Indiana, then pit them against each other, until they agree to resume playing in the regular season. I asked Calipari after the game if the excitement surrounding this one convinced him to bring the series back. "In Indianapolis," he frankly replied.

That's been Calipari's stance ever since the last game in 2011. He wants the game to be held at a neutral site every year. Indiana wants to play it on campus. As a result, they just don't play, and everybody loses.

But even four and a half years after the Christian Watford buzzer-beater that handed Kentucky one of its two losses in a National Championship season, the angst surrounding this game remains.

A rivalry isn't just about a mutual hatred. It's about being so invested that you get more of a high from the other team's loss than you do from your win. It's about the fear that a loss will inexplicably affect your self-worth, even if momentarily.

There is no shame in losing to almost anyone else, including a vastly inferior opponent. Despite the fact that it makes little sense, given the quality of opponent, there is shame in losing this game. The anxiety caused by that shame was evident on both sides.

IU fans talked trash about five-star recruit Skal Labissiere's development, because even if they lost, they could say Calipari can't develop players. Kentucky's band chanted "not a rival," as if a loss wouldn't hurt their feelings any more than any other loss. But before the game even ended, the same band was fearing the implications of a loss.

Indiana is scared to play Kentucky. Kentucky is scared to play Indiana. That's why they don't play — because posturing in the media is a hell of a lot easier than meeting that fear face-to-face every year. But dammit, it sure would be great if they did.

Even beyond the rivalry angle, this was one hell of a game between two — sorry, Indiana — evenly matched teams. It was a one-point game at halftime. Two of the best point guards in the country — Tyler Ulis and Yogi Ferrell — battled for supremacy. Future NBA stars Jamal Murray and Thomas Bryant showed everyone why they were coveted by everyone as five-star recruits.

It was a dogfight from start to finish, as exciting in its own way as the underdog wins of Friday. Play this next year, and it's likely the same thing would happen. Indiana has rising stars OG Anunoby, Troy Williams and Robert Johnson back. Kentucky is bringing in a monster recruiting class. There's no reason to expect a dud, because when these teams are at their best, they will never play a dud.

Add the hatred to the talent, and you have a game for the ages, just like we saw on Saturday.

In any other second-round game, Ulis probably wouldn't mouth "I'm a bad motherfucker" at his opponent, like he did to Ferrell, after hitting a Steph Curry-range three-pointer. In any other game, the Indiana fan in the second row likely wouldn't have lost his voice by halftime, still yelling at the refs until he could only let out air.

That's because, as Indiana coach Tom Crean admitted after the game, this was a unique scenario.

"We're obviously elated to win a game of this magnitude," Crean said, "not just because it's the NCAA Tournament and the round of 32 but because it's against such a great program."

His most satisfying win ever? He wouldn't rule it out.

"I haven't had time to think that way," he said. "It's obviously way up there."

Crean has been to Sweet Sixteens before. He's beaten rivals plenty of times. He's won Big Ten championships. But aside from a potential Final Four run, two of the most memorable performances of Tom Crean's career will be his wins over Kentucky. At least one of Calipari's most devastating losses will come at the hands of the Hoosiers.

That, as we in the business like to say, is peak MARCH. That is why, as Bryant would say, we're all here for this sport. It's a shame we don't know if we will ever see it again.

* * *

NCAA Cinderella: Northern Iowa is cruising after a remarkable turnaround

Be sure to subscribe to SB Nation's YouTube channel for highlight videos, features, analysis and more