Editor's note: This article would not have been possible without the work of Jon Scott and his excellent Kentucky history site. Most of the information that informed this article were drawn from his work there.
Many fans only remember the Duke-Kentucky series from 1992 on, the famous "Greatest college basketball game ever played." However, there is much more to this series than that one game, and that history goes all the way back to 1930. Many think all that ancient history could not possibly compete with the spectacle that has become the modern rivalry, but that is typical historical blindness that so many of us suffer -- we tend to think that recent history is much more relevant.
The Kentucky Wildcats and the Duke Blue Devils have played 19 times in history. Kentucky has won 11, and Duke has won 8. But before that incredible game in 1992, there were many other contests between Duke and Kentucky, and a casual Kentucky or Duke fan might not realize that the Blue Devils and Wildcats have made an astonishing amount of history together. Duke was Kentucky's first opponent in the now-defunct UKIT. The Blue Devils were also with the Wildcats on the cusp of basketball history when the first all-black starting five won their first NCAA tournament over Kentucky in 1966. But we'll get to that along the way.
Our journey begins way back in 1930 in the Southern Conference Tournament semifinals, a game that Kentucky lost to the Blue Devils 37-32 in a tightly-contested game. From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time:
KENTUCKY WENT DOWN after a gallant scrap but established a tourney record for all time in the matter of shooting foul goals. Fourteen times did the Wildcats have an opportunity for free pitches and fourteen times did they ring the bell. A percentage of 1.000. Angels could have done no better. In addition to this Captain McBrayer, of Kentucky, established an individual tournament record in this respect. In the three games he participated in he also made a 1.000 percentage on fouls, sinking ten out of ten chances.
As an indication of just how hectic the competition was Monday in this game, the two teams were tied eight times during the contest. The speed of the battle was literally breath-taking. The fans were in a constant uproar from the start to the finish. The score was tied at 3 and 3, at 5 and 5, at 8 and 8, at 10 and 10, at 12 and 12, at 14 and 14, at 20 and 20, and at 24 and 24.
Even back before the great Adolph Rupp took the reigns, the Wildcats were making history and the Blue Devils were part of it.
Duke joined the Southern Conference the year before the 1930 game, and the SoCon included most of what is today's ACC and SEC, as well as some other schools that you might be surprised to hear about, including Sewanee, VMI, Tulane, and Washington & Lee
Duke and Kentucky would meet again the very next year in the 1931 SoCon tournament, and this time, the Wildcats would prevail and go on to win the SoCon championship over the N.C. State Wolfpack. The next year, the SoCon would split into the ACC and SEC, and although Kentucky and Duke would meet again in 1932 (a 37-30 victory for UK) that would be their last meeting for 21 years.
The next time Kentucky and Duke met to renew their aborted SoCon rivalry was in the inaugural University of Kentucky Invitational Tournament, which became known as the UKIT. The UKIT would have a long tradition at Kentucky, continuing every year for 36 seasons until 1989, the year that Rick Pitino and his Bombinos ushered out that long-standing tradition. The 1953 game included some of UK's most famous basketball names, including Cliff Hagan, Lou Tsioropoulos, and Frank Ramsey. Both Duke and UK were ranked (UK #2, Duke #13), and Kentucky would go on to win that game 85-69.
Kentucky and Duke would meet four more times in the 1950's, and during that decade, the teams met twice when both were ranked and one time when Kentucky was ranked and Duke was not. Kentucky was 4-1 versus the Blue Devils in the 1950's, with the only loss coming in 1956 in Durham when UK was #3 in the land and Duke unranked.
The rivalry continued into the 1960's, and although the meetings were infrequent and sporadic, each one was pregnant with significance. Three times the two teams met, in 1963, '66, and '69, and every one of them was some kind of tournament game, and two of the three were donnybrooks. In 1963, the Wildcats and Blue Devils were ranked #2 and #8 respectively, and played in the Sugar Bowl Tournament. Kentucky won that one by a basket, 81-79, with Cotton Nash scoring 30 points.
The second meeting of the decade in 1966 saw #2 Duke and #1 Kentucky in their first NCAA Tournament meeting, fittingly enough in the Final Four in College Park, Maryland. This particular game was replete with meaning, as most Kentucky fans know. The winner of this contest would advance to meet Don Haskins' Texas Western team in the NCAA Tournament final, a game that would come to define the racial aspect of college basketball for all time. Neither Kentucky nor Duke had any black players on their squad, but as history reports, it was the Wildcats, narrowly defeating the Blue Devils 83-79, with Louie Dampier and Pat Riley leading the way for the 'Cats, who went on into history as the opponent of the first black starting five to win an NCAA Tournament.
The decade would end with Duke in the UKIT for the second time, another victory for Kentucky. The Wildcats would go 3-0 against Duke for the 1960's, and the first 40 years of Kentucky-Duke basketball would find the Wildcats with a commanding 9-2 lead in the series. After 1969, the rivalry would once again go on a long hiatus, until they met again nine years later in 1978, once again on the biggest stage of all.
1978. There are a lot of Kentucky fans still around who well remember that year -- the season, it was said, without joy for Joe B. Hall and the Kentucky Wildcats. The 1978 team was the first of two iterations of Joe B. Hall's "Twin Tower" teams, with the two worthies in this one being 6'11"and 6'10" Rick Roby. Along with small forward Jack Givens, this Kentucky front line would come to dominate college basketball.
But Duke had some size of its own in 6'11" Mike Gminsky, and some terrific players surrounding him in Gene Banks, Jim Spanarkel, and Kenny Dennard. The 1978 NCAA Tournament championship game was a terrific ball game closely fought throughout. But the Wildcats would eventually prevail, and Bill Foster's Duke team would bow to the Wildcats 94-88. This play was the cherry on top for Kentucky:
In the very next year, #2 Kentucky would lose to #3 Duke in the Tip Off Classic in Springfield, Massachusetts, in overtime, marking a split in the series for the decade of the 1970's, which would see Duke and UK play only twice.
Likewise in the 1980's, Duke and Kentucky met only twice -- in 1980 in the Midwest Regional of the NCAA Tournament, where #14 Duke would upset the #4 Wildcats 54-55 in a low-scoring affair, and again eight years later where the 1988-89 Wildcats, Eddie Sutton's last and worst team, got pounded by the Blue Devils 80-55 in the Tip Off Classic. In the 20 years between 1970 and 1990, Duke and Kentucky played twice in each decade, four times in total, with the Wildcats winning only the 1978 NCAA Tournament championship game.
The decade of the 1990's represented the halcyon decade of Duke-Kentucky games beginning with the famous 1992 contest, the NCAA Regional Finals in Philadelphia, PA. This game has been extensively written about, and is widely considered the greatest college basketball game ever played. Rick Pitino had finally resurrected the Wildcats from the depths of probation in only 3 years, and Mike Krzyzewski's Blue Devils had reached their modern pinnacle of excellence.
Everybody knows what happened in that game, and to relive its glory is beyond the scope of this article. But for those of you who would like to revisit this masterpiece, here is the ESPN documentary on the game, some of the finest work ever done by the Worldwide Leader:
With the stunning loss, and controversial nature of the 1992 contest regarding Christian Laettner's behavior at one point, Kentucky fans were left with a groaning sadness and sense of mourning which would metastasize into what could be characterized as a genuine lust for revenge. This is the point at which a classic historical rivalry turned mostly one-sided, and intense. Kentucky fans were hot and bothered by the 1992 game for years to come, and the desire to avenge that loss a savage undercurrent in the Big Blue Nation.
1992 saw the spawning of "Duke Hate," not just at Kentucky, but in other places. Many factors played into the phenomenon which has now grown beyond its genesis and spread broadly throughout college basketball. Duke's excellence, combined with the combination of the appearance of elitism, casual disrespect for others as embodied in Laettner's spurning of Aminu Timberlake with his foot, and green-eyed jealousy of Duke's success would spread from Kentucky to practically everywhere not previously imbued with it.
1998 would provide the catharsis that redeemed the still-painful 1992 defeat. Once again, the Blue Devils and Wildcats would meet in the NCAA Tournament Regional Final, this time in St. Petersburg, Florida. Once again, the Blue Devils were favored to win, and once again, the game would be one of inches, even centimeters.
But this time, Kentucky would prevail 86-84, and exorcise the demons of 1992 that had haunted them for six long, agonizing years. The Wildcats, like the Blue Devils in 1992, would go on to claim the NCAA Tournament championship, their seventh.
Kentucky and Duke would meet one more time in the 1990's, that very same year, in fact. In the Jimmy V. Classic in East Rutherford, New Jersey, the #2 Blue Devils would avenge their loss in the prior year's NCAA tournament with an 80-71 victory over the #3 Kentucky Wildcats. Kentucky's record for the 1990's was 1-2, with all but one game holding a national title in the balance.
The one remaining, and most recent, game between these two great programs would be the only game in the first decade of the new century, in the 2001 Jimmy V. Classic in East Rutherford, a game that generally holds relatively little national significance. But this was Duke-Kentucky, with the Blue Devils ranked #1 in the land and the Wildcats #7.
As is more the norm than the exception with these two teams, this was another donnybrook. The Wildcats took the Blue Devils to overtime in a hotly contested game. Jay Williams of the Blue Devils was the hero, scoring 38 points in a remarkable game that at times, had echoes of 1992, even down to a bit of controversy -- a block/charge call on Tayshawn Prince that gave Williams the chance to tie the game for Duke and take it to overtime.
The occasional nature of the games between these two great programs seem to only add to the significance to their renewal, and the fact that Duke and Kentucky seem to appear on the same stage at historical moments in college basketball continues to add to the wonder, legend, and synchronicity, of these two historic programs.
Though the series has been moribund now for 11 years, this inter-conference rivalry has provided not only the greatest game in college basketball history, but some other tremendous basketball games that have largely been hidden in the shadow of the 1992 masterpiece. Its return to the stage tonight in Atlanta is a treat for college basketball fans everywhere, and no matter what the outcome, it will ad one more thread to the unforgettable tapestry of excellence that is the Duke-Kentucky series.