Kentucky and Kansas have long been creme de la creme programs in men’s college basketball, of course. Because it was Kansas alumnus Adolph Rupp who made UK basketball into a statewide obsession in the commonwealth, UK and KU have always been linked.
For most of their existence, however, what Kentucky and Kansas were not was true rivals. The basis for that was the same reason that Kentucky and Florida are not football rivals.
Of the first 17 men’s hoops meetings between Kentucky and Kansas, the Wildcats won 16 of them.
Rupp went 4-0 against his home-state school. Joe B. Hall, Rupp’s successor, rocked and chalked the Jayhawks, going 12-1 against KU.
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You don’t have a rivalry when the same team essentially wins every game.
One man has changed that.
When Bill Self became Kansas head coach before the 2003-04 season, the Jayhawks’ all-time record against the Wildcats was 3-19.
Under Self, the worm has mostly turned. Going into Tuesday night’s 9:30 p.m. meeting between No. 7 Kentucky (2-0) and No. 4 Kansas (1-0) in the State Farm Champions Classic at Chicago’s United Center, Self is 5-3 as head coach of the Jayhawks vs. UK.
Yet giving Kansas some head-to-head success against Kentucky is only part of what Self has done to make UK-KU a viable college basketball rivalry.
At the time of Self’s hiring, Kansas was no threat to Kentucky’s cherished standing as the program with the most wins in men’s college hoops history.
As the 2003-04 season began, the Jayhawks were third on the all-time wins list, 48 victories behind the first-place Wildcats and seven wins behind then-second-place North Carolina.
Now, Kansas is the main threat to eclipse Kentucky in all-time victories. Going into Tuesday night, UK has 2,239 wins with Kansas now second at 2,218. That gives KU an 11-win advantage over third-place North Carolina (2,207) and a 101-win margin over fourth-place Duke (2,117).
KU has made up 27 wins on UK since it employed Self.
Since John Calipari was hired by Kentucky in 2009-10, UK has won at an 82.6 percent clip (251-53). Amazingly, the Wildcats have gained only three games in that time on Kansas (248-48).
Self, who will turn 55 on Dec. 27, has one of the more fascinating coaching résumés in college basketball history. This season, the Jayhawks will try to win (or share) their 14th consecutive Big 12 title.
In an era of roster instability and uber parity, that streak is one of the most impressive achievements in major American team sports. It certainly justified Self’s election and subsequent induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this year.
Yet if Self deserves the mantle of best regular-season coach of this era in men’s college hoops — and he does — his NCAA Tournament record has almost as many holes in it as a golf course.
Self and KU claimed the 2008 NCAA championship with a late rally that broke the hearts of Memphis and its coach at the time, Calipari.
Kansas made the Final Four again in 2012, falling in the finals to Calipari and a heavily-favored Kentucky led by Anthony Davis. So even as Kansas has had the upper hand on Kentucky since Self’s hiring, the Wildcats still won the most important game played between the two.
However, Self’s NCAA Tournament record is filled with Elite Eight heartache (2-5 in region finals).
Self has done more to put magic into March for mid-majors than about any coach. His Kansas teams have lost NCAA Tournament games to Bucknell (2005), Bradley (2006), Northern Iowa (2010) and VCU (2011).
Hypothetical question: If Self were the coach at Kentucky, with the exact same record he has at Kansas, could he have survived all the NCAA tourney disappointments?
Even with a national title, I’m not so sure.
Regardless, when UK and KU tip off Tuesday night, the reason the game will get hearts pumping is that Bill Self has made Kansas something it had never before been in its mostly glorious basketball past.
That is a legitimate rival to Kentucky.
Then and now
This is how the men’s college basketball all-time wins list stood when Bill Self was hired as Kansas head coach before the 2003-04 season:
1. Kentucky 1,849
2. North Carolina 1,808
3. Kansas 1,801
This is how the men’s college basketball all-time wins list stands now:
1. Kentucky 2,239
2. Kansas 2,218
3. North Carolina 2,207