Mark Story: No reason is good enough for Kentucky-Indiana to end

herald-leader sports columnistMay 3, 2012 

Last season, Kentucky and Indiana combined to produce, arguably, the two most memorable games of the 2011-12 college hoops campaign.

The great border rivalry seemed on the verge of returning to the level of its 1970s, early '80s heyday when it crackled with electricity.

So, of course, the powers that be have snuffed it out.

In a move that seemed to catch UK off guard, IU issued a news release Thursday afternoon saying, simply, Indiana will not play Kentucky next season.

Just like that, a series matching schools with a combined 13 NCAA titles that have played each other 43 seasons in a row is done.

The gist of the dispute between UK and IU came down to where to play. Indiana wanted the games on campus. Kentucky preferred neutral sites in Louisville and Indianapolis.

"At some point in time, we had a conversation (with Indiana) that (they) were fine with neutral-neutral, that this was going to work out," Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said Thursday, after a news conference to announce a new contract for UK women's hoops coach Matthew Mitchell. "Then all of a sudden today, (Indiana had) a little bit of a change of heart."

It was a bad day for Kentucky and its basketball rivalries with other traditional titans. Barnhart indicated UK's series with North Carolina also is close to ending.

"I'd say right now that's probably closer to being true than not," he said.

A North Carolina athletics official said the Tar Heels want to continue to play UK but that the two teams will not play next season — which sounds like an indirect way of saying Kentucky has ended the series.

I'm not thrilled about Cats-Heels ending, but UK-UNC does not have the longevity of the Kentucky-Indiana rivalry.

When it comes to who killed the Indiana-Kentucky border war, I'm not interested in the blame game. UK and IU have merit in their positions.

By playing on campus, Indiana makes the valid point that each school's students get to be part of the game. Most who were there say they have never seen a more charged atmosphere than in Assembly Hall when UK visited on Dec. 10.

Yet Kentucky has a viable claim in saying that, by playing at neutral sites, especially if one of the venues is massive Lucas Oil Field in Indy, lots of fans of both schools who cannot get season tickets would have a chance to see a big game.

Barnhart says neutral sites offer the chance to split the tickets 50-50 between the schools' fans and create a unique setting.

"When I came here in 2002, you split the (fans at the) game right down the middle in Freedom Hall," the UK AD said. "I'm telling you, it was a special scene in college basketball."

It is not hard to find the self-interest that underlies Kentucky's and Indiana's negotiating stances.

Wonder why Indiana and Hoosiers Coach Tom Crean are insistent on playing games against UK regularly in Bloomington?

After Christian Watford's buzzer-beater stunned the top-ranked Cats in Assembly Hall last December, the Hoosiers' all-time record against UK in contests played in Bloomington is 11-4.

After Kentucky's rip-roaring 102-90 payback victory over IU in Atlanta in the NCAA Tournament round of 16, Indiana's record against the Cats in games played anywhere other than Bloomington is 13-28.

Wonder why UK feels so fondly about neutral-site matchups with IU?

From 1992 through 2006, Kentucky and Indiana played every year in Louisville or Indianapolis. In those 15 games, UK went 12-3.

UK's Barnhart said John Calipari — who has been treated rudely by rowdy Hoosiers fans in his two visits to Bloomington as Kentucky head coach — was not enthusiastic about going back to Assembly Hall.

"I don't think he was really thrilled about going back to Bloomington, to be honest with you," Barnhart said.

Here at the epicenter of Planet Hoops, it is not always apparent, but college basketball is in trouble. Other than NCAA Tournament games, there are few college hoops contests that excite a national audience.

With UK and IU projected to field top-five teams next season, Hoosiers versus Wildcats in 2012-13 would have been a game that does. Which is why someone needed to go all Henry Clay and come up with a compromise to keep Kentucky and Indiana playing.

So how about a four-year deal with one game each in Lexington and Bloomington (IU gets what it wants) and in Louisville and Indianapolis (UK gets what it wants).

Kentucky and Indiana have managed to play basketball every season since 1969-70. That includes 1971-2000, when UK and its sworn enemy for life, Robert Montgomery Knight, were able to figure out a way to play.

There's no excuse for Kentucky and Indiana not to play in basketball, and not to play every season.

Memo to Crean and Cal: Fix this.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Email: mstory@herald-leader.com.Twitter: @markcstory.Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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