Mark Story

If U of L basketball wanes, who becomes UK’s hottest rival?

North Carolina and Coach Roy Williams ended Kentucky’s season last year with a 75-73 victory in the NCAA Tournament round of eight. All-time, the Tar Heels lead their series against UK 24-15.
North Carolina and Coach Roy Williams ended Kentucky’s season last year with a 75-73 victory in the NCAA Tournament round of eight. All-time, the Tar Heels lead their series against UK 24-15. Associated Press

Given the federal investigation that hangs over college basketball, no university whose men’s hoops program recruits from the top of the prospect pool can feel secure about its future.

Yet no school has more reason to feel unsure about its hoops future presently than Louisville.

Already, U of L has vacated its 2013 national title and is on NCAA probation due to the “strippers/escorts for recruits” scandal.

Louisville is also implicated in the FBI investigation into shady financial dealings in the world of college hoops recruiting. Allegedly, a U of L assistant coach was in the room when representatives from Adidas agreed to make a six-figure payment to secure the services of recruit Brian Bowen for the Cardinals.

In the best case scenario, Louisville will hire a coach who can restore Cardinals basketball from the ashes left behind by the scandals of the Rick Pitino era. In other words, a coach who can do for U of L what Pitino did for probation-impacted Kentucky in the 1990s.

Better Rick Pitino Louisville shirt
After a series of scandals ultimately led to the downfall of Rick Pitino as Louisville head coach, U of L needs to hire a head man who can do for the Cardinals program what a much-younger Pitino did for Kentucky. In 1989, Pitino inherited a scandal-plagued Wildcats program and helped UK basketball rise from the ashes to one of its greatest eras of success. Associated Press

Yet it is also possible that U of L hoops is about to enter a fallow period.

If so, who then becomes UK’s hottest rival?

Here are 10 candidates ranked on their suitability to fill a potential “rivalry void” for Kentucky:

10. Indiana

Series history: UK leads 32-25.

Rivalry rationale: In the 1970s and early ’80s, Cats vs. Hoosiers was the most fierce non-conference rivalry in college basketball.

Alas, UK and IU have not met in a regular season game since 2011-12. It will likely be left to the next Kentucky head coach to restore what was once a white-hot, border-state rivalry.

Archie Miller
Starting in 1994-95, Indiana has lost double-digit games in 19 of the past 24 seasons. First-yer Hoosiers Coach Archie Miller is trying to restore the Hoosiers to college basketball’s elite. Nati Harnik Associated Press

9. Ohio State

Series history: UK leads 11-9.

Rivalry rationale: Historically, the Buckeyes have caused Kentucky heartache, eliminating the Wildcats from the NCAA Tournament five times. Current OSU head man Chris Holtmann, the ex-Jessamine County High School guard, has energized the Buckeyes’ program in his first season.

Problem is, Ohio State and Kentucky do not play in the regular season other than meeting every three years in the CBS Sports Classic. That’s not enough to sustain a rivalry.

Chris Holtmann
Former Jessamine County High School guard Chris Holtmann has had a stellar first season as Ohio State head coach. Historically, the Buckeyes have been a thorn in the side of Kentucky, having eliminated the Wildcats from the NCAA Tournament five times. Paul Vernon AP

8. West Virginia

Series history: UK leads 16-5.

Rivalry rationale: The Mountaineers hung one of the most painful defeats of the John Calipari era on UK when WVU upset the Wildcats in the 2010 NCAA Tournament round of eight.

Still, even if the teams started to play every year, Bob Huggins and Calipari seem too friendly for a heated rivalry.

Bob Huggins
As West Virginia head coach, Bob Huggins is 1-4 against Kentucky - but the one win, an upset of No. 1 seed UK in the 2010 NCAA Tournament round of eight, sent the Mountaineers to the Final Four. Ray Thompson Associated Press

7. Arkansas

Series history: UK leads 31-11.

Rivalry rationale: When the Razorbacks entered the SEC in 1991-92, Nolan Richardson and the Hogs were formidable challengers to UK for league supremacy, but eventually “slipped back.”

Current boss Hog Mike Anderson started out like he was going to make Arkansas vs. Kentucky great again by winning three of his first four against the Cats. He has since lost six in a row to UK.

Mike Anderson
As Arkansas head man, Mike Anderson is 4-7 against Kentucky and has lost his last six meetings against the Wildcats. Vasha Hunt Associated Press

6. Michigan State

Series history: UK leads 13-11.

Rivalry rationale: The Spartans have knocked Kentucky out of three Final Four trips, going 3-1 against the Wildcats in NCAA Tournament round of eights.

However, the teams only play once every three years in the State Farm Champions Classic. Plus, the Spartans have their own off-the-court issues.

5. Florida

Series history: UK leads 100-39.

Rivalry rationale: During Billy Donovan’s heyday with the Gators, Florida beat Kentucky seven games in a row from 2005 through 2008.

Michael White is off to a promising start in Gainesville, but we still don’t know what the natural level of the Gators’ program without Donovan as head coach will be.

Chris Chiozza square
Florida guard Chris Chiozza has helped Gators Coach Michael White sustain UF basketball at a high level since Billy Donovan left Gainesville for the NBA. Mark Humphrey Assoicated Press

4. Kansas

Series history: UK leads 22-9.

Rivalry rationale: The competitive friction between UK and KU in future years is apt to come from the all-time wins race, where the Jayhawks (2,241 wins) entered play Saturday only 17 games behind UK (2,258).

Head-to-head, Jayhawks Coach Bill Self is 6-3 vs. Kentucky. Kansas was 3-19 vs. the Cats before Self.

3. Tennessee

Series history: UK leads 153-71.

Rivalry rationale: UT has historically been more SEC irritant than true threat to Kentucky.

Since Rick Barnes joined the Rocky Toppers, UT is 4-2 against UK — but can Tennessee sustain that success long enough to become a genuine rival to Kentucky?

Rick Barnes
As Tennessee head man, Rick Barnes is 4-2 against Kentucky, including a season sweep of the Wildcats in two games this season. Crystal LoGiudice Associated Press

2. Duke

Series history: UK leads 12-9.

Rivalry rationale: Kentucky and Duke are linked by five memorable NCAA Tournament meetings. Christian Laettner’s famous 1992 buzzer-beater not withstanding, UK has won three of those, including the most recent in 1998.

Christian Laettner
Christian Laettner celebrated after his famous buzzer beater lifted Duke past Kentucky 104-103 in overtime in the 1992 NCAA Tournament East Region finals. Lexington Herald-Leader file photo

Under Mike Krzyzewski, Duke has become the program that brings out the green-eyed monster in (many) Kentucky backers. That has only been enhanced by Coach K’s successful push into the one-and-done recruiting market where UK and Calipari once dominated.

1. North Carolina

Series history: UNC leads 24-15.

Rivalry rationale: Back in the day, Dean Smith went 13-3 vs. the Cats and Carolina is the only team on this list with a winning record against Kentucky. Last year’s Luke Maye buzzer-beater that ended Kentucky’s season made UNC 3-1 against UK in NCAA Tournament region finals.

Luke Maye
Luke Maye’s game-winning shot for North Carolina against Kentucky in last season’s NCAA Tournament round of eight made the Tar Heels 3-1 against the Wildcats in region finals. Charles Bertram

Presently, UK and North Carolina play only every three years in the CBS Sports Classic, but there have been stretches when the schools played annually.

If Louisville hoops fades, Carolina-Kentucky would seem the best immediate bet to rekindle the fires of a true rivalry.