UK Men's Basketball

Fan Fare: Ranking UK-UNC among most anticipated Rupp matchups

Kentucky forward Terrence Jones had his shot blocked by North Carolina forwards John Henson, left, and Tyler Zeller as the Tar Heels defeated the Wildcats 75-73 on Dec. 4. Jones said Kentucky lacked defensive cohesion in the teams' first matchup.
Kentucky forward Terrence Jones had his shot blocked by North Carolina forwards John Henson, left, and Tyler Zeller as the Tar Heels defeated the Wildcats 75-73 on Dec. 4. Jones said Kentucky lacked defensive cohesion in the teams' first matchup.

The buzz for Saturday's Kentucky-North Carolina showdown started in the seconds after the Cats beat the Heels in last season's NCAA Tournament to go to the Final Four.

It accelerated when Carolina stars Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller and UK standout Terrence Jones all announced they were not leaving early for the NBA.

Now, it is T-minus six days until No. 1 UNC meets No. 2 UK in Rupp Arena and lower-level tickets are selling for as much as $3,250 apiece on the web site of one ticket brokerage.

The question on the floor is whether Saturday's hoops Armageddon between basketball blue bloods Kentucky and North Carolina is the most anticipated UK game played in Rupp since the venerable barn opened in 1976?

I ran that by a panel of longtime UK basketball observers.

Tom Leach: "It's got to be up there," says the radio play-by-play voice of UK men's basketball and football. "It's got to be about as tough a ticket as there has ever been at Kentucky, which is saying something."

Oscar Combs: "I would be hard-pressed to think of a game bigger than this one," says the founder and former owner of the UK sports specialty publication, The Cats' Pause.

Joe B. Hall: "In terms of anticipated games, yeah, I'd say this game is as hyped as any at this point," says the former Kentucky head coach.

A caveat: An anticipated game is one that gets blood pumping the second it comes out on the schedule. Not all big games are marked by such immediate anticipation.

Some of the more memorable UK games in Rupp — the 1981 season finale in which the Cats kept LSU from finishing undefeated in the SEC; the 2003 contest when Tubby Smith's Cats ran a No. 1-ranked Florida out of town, to name two — did not emerge in importance until the season was well underway.

Here is my ranking of the four most anticipated UK games ever played in Rupp Arena.

4. A 'TurnCat' returns

Rick Pitino took UK to its modern golden era in the 1990s. Then, after a failed stint with the NBA's Boston Celtics, he rocked the Kingdom of the Blue by signing on to coach UK's hated intrastate rival, Louisville.

From the moment Pitino announced that he was going red, wondering what the Pitino reception in Rupp was going to be like was a statewide obsession.

When the game came on Dec. 29, 2001, wrath was in the air in Rupp. The signs ranged from the somewhat clever — Benedict Arnold wore red, too — to the classless: We Didn't Like You Either, Joanne (a reference to rumors from Pitino's UK stint that his wife did not care for living in Lexington).

UK's 82-62 beat-down of its former coach wasn't much of a basketball game. It was cathartic for a fan base whose feelings had been hurt.

"That Pitino first game, that was big," Hall says. "The signage and all the hype that went before that game was awesome."

3. Super Sunday

This will sound quaint to those who have come of age now, when almost all UK games are televised, many nationally. But it used to be a humongous deal to play on national television.

When it was announced that Kentucky, with twin towers Melvin Turpin and Sam Bowie, was going to play Houston with star big man Akeem Olajuwon (he hadn't yet added the "H") on 1984's Super Bowl Sunday (Jan. 22), the hype was immense.

It was old school UK vs. the remnants of Phi Slamma Jamma.

With Turpin and Bowie facing Olajuwon, it was the best big man matchup in Rupp history.

No. 3 Kentucky beat No. 4 Houston 74-67.

"The only game that even comes to mind (as rivaling UK vs. UNC this season) is that Houston game from 1984," Combs said. "Playing on Super Bowl Sunday, that was huge back then."

2. Dream Game revenge

Kentucky and Louisville went from 1959 until the 1983 NCAA Tournament without playing each other. Then, with a berth in the '83 Final Four at stake, the Cats and Cards fought a stirring battle that was not settled until U of L won in overtime.

The Dream Game, as it was dubbed, created so much pressure for more that UK was forced to abandon its policy of not playing other in-state schools in the regular season.

When the 1983-84 schedule came out, not only was Louisville on it, the Cards were the Cats' season opener in Rupp.

Raising the anticipation even more, Kentucky big man Sam Bowie was returning to action in the game after missing two full seasons with leg injuries.

When the game came (Nov. 26, 1983), UK was ranked No. 2 in the country, U of L was No. 6.

Kentucky fans got exactly what they desired: A 65-44 Cats beat-down of the Cards.

"That was a big, important game," says Hall, the winning coach in the contest. "It was the first regularly scheduled game and we were coming off a loss to them. That game, it had the feel, really, of kind of a showdown."

1. Blue bloods

It's easy to get caught up in the now and let the present obscure the past. Yet even allowing for that effect, Saturday's meeting between the Wildcats and the Tar Heels has a viable claim to be the most anticipated Kentucky game ever played in Rupp Arena.

Let us count the reasons why:

Barring unforeseen upsets of an epic nature, it will pit unbeaten teams ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the country.

It is a next-season rematch of an NCAA tourney game that determined a berth in the 2011 Final Four.

The talent on display will be immense. Think Barnes, Henson, Zeller, Marshall, McAdoo for the Heels. Think Kidd-Gilchrist, Jones, Davis, Lamb, Teague for the Cats. There could be 10 or more future NBA players

And it is Kentucky vs. North Carolina, two of the marquee names in basketball at any level.

"As big as I think that Houston game was, I don't know that I can put it over this one with it being No. 1 vs. No. 2," Combs says.

Says Hall: "The game will have to be played to determine whether it is one of the biggest or not. But in terms of the (pre-game) hype, it has to be one of the biggest."

All things considered, I'd say THE biggest.