On the hunt for post-realignment rivalries

July, 11, 2013
7/11/13
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In 1985, Philadelphia Inquirer photographer Tom Gralish won a Pulitzer Prize for his photo essay on the Philadelphia homeless. Gralish's work, composed in black and white, was stark and haunting, but for different reasons than you might expect. Not once in the piece were his subjects treated as victims. Instead, the panhandlers were funny, boisterous, defiant and philosophical. They found romance in rootlessness; they felt purity in survival. As Gralish would later say: "They saw themselves as the last free men."

It strikes me, as we head into the home stretch of our Realignment Reality week, that college basketball fans could relate. (Stay with me.)

We fans like to think of sports as essentially pure, free from the messy and confusing nature of day-to-day life, a world apart from the distressing politics and economics that dominate our lives from birth until death. They are not. They are as beholden to money as anything else. If the past three years of conference realignment have taught us anything, it is this: When the fight card pits nostalgia versus cash, cash always wins in a knockout.

Once you can wrap your head around this fact, it's a lot easier to shrug at the casual manner in which realignment has gutted some of the most enjoyable, most heated, most psychologically-invested rivalries of the past 50 years. Money always wins.

Beyond spending as much time as possible watching the actual basketball itself -- my favorite remedy for just about everything, with the possible exception of "The Big Lebowski" -- the best we can do, I'd wager, is to try to look on the bright side. There are always new rivalries to be formed.

In that spirit, let's see if we can scout out a few worth watching in the years to come:

Duke vs. Syracuse

This one is awesome enough on its face: Duke and Syracuse are both really good at basketball. Now that they're in the same league, they're guaranteed to play at least once a season, and any combination of familiarity and excellence is a guarantee to produce healthy, thrilling distaste.

There's much more to it than that. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is the winningest coach in the history of college hoops. Syracuse's Jim Boeheim ranks No. 2. The men are friends, frequent USA Basketball colleagues, cheap dinner companions, and fellow enthusiasts of acerbic wit. But they are also obsessive competitors, and you can bet that for however long both of them have the chance to coach against each other in the coming years -- Boeheim is 68, Coach K 66 -- there will be a little something extra on the line.

The men might be similar, but the schools are vastly different. Syracuse is a private research institution that nonetheless feels like a state school,* and plays its hoops in a cavernous football arena; Duke is an elite private institution with the world's best boutique gym. Syracuse feels (from afar, at least) tightly woven into the culture of the community around it; Duke's looming Gothic facades might as well be Hogwarts. About 40 percent of Syracuse's 2010 class hailed from New York state; roughly 90 percent of Duke students come from somewhere that isn't North Carolina. These are the kinds of sociocultural and perceptual differences that breed hatred beyond basketball. They are fuel for the rivalry flame.

There is also the matter of regional rivalry. That seems weird to say, given that one school is 45 minutes from the Canadian border and the other is 350 miles south of the Mason-Dixon Line. But there is a reason Duke is sure to schedule at least one nonconference game in the New York/New Jersey area every season: There are a lot of Blue Devils alumni in the Northeast. In the past five years, Syracuse has made a concerted effort to market itself as "New York's college team."

If it were just as simple as "two really good programs suddenly in the same conference," then we could just as easily look forward to the North Carolina-Syracuse rivalry. But a great rivalry has to be about much more than that. Duke-Syracuse has all the makings.

Memphis vs. Cincinnati

Another benefit to conference realignment: rivalries reborn! The Millennials among us might not remember it too well (OK, guilty as charged), but in 1991-92 Memphis and Cincinnati joined UAB, DePaul, Marquette and Saint Louis as charter members of the Great Midwest Conference. (That's just a a fantastic name, by the way. I've been giving the new American Athletic Conference a tough time lately, but the more I think about it, the more I've come to believe that pretty much any conference nomenclature sounds completely silly if you think about it for longer than five seconds.) The six-member GMC was short-lived; it merged with the Metro Conference in 1995, which both Memphis and Cincinnati had left in the first place, to form Conference USA. Ah, realignment. Never change.

Anyway, it was in the early '90s, in the GMC, when Memphis and Cincinnati managed to pack in some truly rivalry-worthy stuff. In 1991-92 the Tigers, led by Anfernee Hardaway and David Vaughn, met the Bearcats in the inaugural GMC tournament and again during their thrilling Elite Eight run, losing to a sublime Nick Van Exel both times. Hardaway and Van Exel met again in 1993, when Memphis upset the No. 4-ranked Bearcats 68-66 to notch the program's 1,000th win. The fact that there is no video of this game on the Internet is a shocking crime against humanity. In 1995, Memphis clinched the final GMC regular-season title over the Bearcats (thanks to 33 points from Michael Williams) on the road, and the rivalry continued on into Conference USA.

If you think either of those basketball-obsessed cities forgot about any of that, you'd be wrong. That bodes well for the future, by the way: Memphis and Cincinnati are large metropolitan areas that, despite having professional sports franchises, nonetheless eat, breathe and sleep college hoops.

Memphis vs. Louisville

OK, so this doesn't really count: The return of the Memphis-Louisville rivalry -- exponentially more heated than Memphis-Cincinnati -- will last just one year in the American before Louisville sets off for the ACC. But I had to mention it anyway, because before we all wept for Kansas-Missouri and Syracuse-Georgetown, the Cardinals' departure from C-USA last decade put a hold on a blood feud dating back to 1967. Fortunately, these two teams put each other on their nonconference schedules the last couple of seasons, and it's likely we'll see that again going forward. But still, it will be fun to add a little intraconference hatred to the mix.

UCF vs. South Florida

Neither of these programs are likely to excite basketball fans individually. Historically, neither has been very good, or even all that concerned with trying to be good, at this funky roundball thing. Maybe that's just a fact of life. But the new American Conference configuration should keep them both in the same digs for a while to come. Here's hoping that the rise of collegiate basketball in Florida in the past decade, the inherent regional familiarity and state-school ties, and the massive student bodies (nearly 110,000 enrollees between them) make for an increased focus on the basketball side of things -- and, as a result, increased success.

Butler vs. Xavier

This one isn't totally new -- the Bulldogs did enjoy a one-year stopover in the Atlantic 10 before both teams jumped to the new Big East this summer -- but it has the potential to be awfully good. For one, there is a bit of shared coaching history: Ohio State coach Thad Matta left Butler in 2000 to move to Xavier, and his eventual successors (new Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens, Arizona coach Sean Miller) moved on to become immensely successful in their own right. They really are natural enemies. Alongside Gonzaga and Memphis, Butler and Xavier are the marquee non-Power Six programs of the past decade, and they're poised just a couple of hours apart on I-74. Now both affiliated with something that looks like a power conference if you squint hard enough, they will no doubt be prospecting in many of the same talent-rich areas of Indiana. This could be a thing.

Pittsburgh vs. Virginia

Pittsburgh and West Virginia don't exactly get along. Never have. Why not extend that to West Virginia's eastern cousin? Sure, the geographic intensity might not be as immediate -- Morgantown sits just south of the Pennsylvania border, while Charlottesville is a five-hour drive -- but with Pittsburgh such a consistent hoops force, and UVa on the rise under Tony Bennett, who's to say what the relationship might become? At the very least, the slow-paced Cavaliers look best poised to prevent Pitt from totally grinding an otherwise finesse-first ACC on the glass in seasons to come.

Oakland vs. Detroit

Oakland's move from the Summit League to the Horizon is a step up in general, but it also lays the groundwork for a sneaky-fun city-suburbs dispute in the greater Detroit area.

Pacific vs. Saint Mary's and/or Gonzaga

Think it's going to be tough for Butler to move to the Big East without Brad Stevens? Imagine being Pacific, which just waved farewell to the greatest coach in its history (and one of the sport's most annually underrated), 25-year veteran Bob Thomason, on the eve of a move from the Big West to the West Coast Conference. The good news? If Pacific can rise a notch or two to the level of its best WCC competition, it will be not only a perfect fit for the WCC, but also an excellent candidate to form rivalries with Saint Mary's to its west and Gonzaga to its north.

It might be a stretch, but that's the case with a few of the entries on this list. But hey, if conference realignment can toss rivalries aside so easily, who's to say new ones can't grow just as rapidly in their wake? Let's hope so, anyway.

[*Correction: An earlier version of this post described Syracuse as a state school, not a private institution. My mistake. -- EB]

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