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Kentucky Wildcats at Indiana Hoosiers: A Rivalry in Serious Need of Renewal

Indiana's Cody Zeller is trying to lead the Hooisers back into the national rankings.
Indiana's Cody Zeller is trying to lead the Hooisers back into the national rankings.

Let's face it, folks; the Indiana-Kentucky basketball rivalry just ain't what it used to be. This once-virulent rivalry has become very much one-sided in the last 20 years with Kentucky on the top side. That has left a proud Hoosier faithful, who were very much in charge of the rivalry in the 1970s bitter and yearning for a renewed competitive series that many Kentucky fans have never really known.

Kentucky and Indiana have played basketball against each other, on and off, since 1924. There have been some big gaps in the series, so it isn't as if this is the oldest rivalry in Kentucky's pantheon of rivals, but at one time, it was unquestionably the most intense. The early games were apparently marked by physical play on both sides according to reports, but it is in the 1970's where the game became a staple on the schedule of both the Wildcats and the Hoosiers. Since 1969, the two teams have met in battle at least once each season.

The game went from home-home to neutral sites in 1991 and stayed that way until 2005, when it went back to home-home. Kentucky is leading the series as of today 31-23, and the series really hasn't been truly competitive since about 1993. Since 1994, Indiana has only won the game 4 times in 17 tries.

This rivalry has many great story lines, most of them involving major upsets by both teams, two legendary and outspoken coaches, and one serial NCAA violator that was responsible for Indiana's most recent victory over Kentucky as well as setting the IU program back half a decade with his reckless NCAA lawlessness.

But to truly appreciate how the modern rivalry began, and to some extent, ended, you have to go back to 1969, the beginning of the modern series. Kentucky would win that year, and the following year. And then Bobby Knight took the coaching job at IU in 1971. From that day until the 1976 season, Indiana would only lose a single game to the Wildcats in seven meetings. But that game is a Kentucky legend.

From 1974 to 1976, Indiana only lost one college basketball game. Normally, when teams go on runs like that multiple national championships are the result, and during that period, IU absolutely dominated the college basketball world. But one team interrupted that two-year run of perfection, and that team wore Blue and White.

The setting was the NCAA Mideast Regional Final, 1975, in Dayton, Ohio. Coming into that game, the Hoosiers would be on a 34-game winning streak, and the #1 ranked team in America. Joe Hall's Wildcats would be ranked #5, with the makings of a nascent national champion in the person of Rick Robey and Mike Phillips competing as freshmen, both of whom would have a major hand in the outcome. Kentucky would go on to win that game in overtime to advance to the Final Four and send Indiana back to Bloomington, lamenting what could have been a two-year undefeated run.

After that untimely defeat, the Wildcats quickly became public enemy #1 to the Hoosier faithful after a long stint on the short end of the rivalry. The Hoosiers would pull a big upset in 1993 against then #1 Kentucky, and the Wildcats would return the favor in 2002. There have been a total of six overtime games in this rivalry series, the most against any major non-conference Kentucky rival.

From 1975 on, the series became Wildcats-dominated with occasional Hoosier victories sprinkled in every few years. But during the Bob Knight years, the Hoosiers were almost always ranked among the nation's elite, and despite the Wildcats' undeniable success, this was a game that Kentucky couldn't take for granted. Ten years later, though, this happened, marking the beginning of the slow and painful decline of Bob Knight's tenure at Indiana that would encompass 15 more years and innumerable lapses in judgment:

In 2000, Bob Knight was removed as head coach over alleged player abuse, and his assistant, Mike Davis, elevated to the position of head coach. Mike Davis managed only one victory against Kentucky in his final year as head coach in 2004. Mike Davis made great theater of the rivalry, and definitely intensified it with his "I hate Kentucky" comment in 2001.

Then, this happened:

Since that stupefyingly wretched coaching performance that arguably cost his team the game, Davis would have only the 2005 Hoosier victory on his slate as head coach versus Kentucky during his six-year tenure that ended in 2006.

But even all the Davis theatrics could not rescue the rivalry. After Davis left, Kelvin Sampson came from Oklahoma to take the reigns of the storied Hoosiers. He managed only one victory, against the Billy Gillisipe-coached Wildcats in 2007 before leading IU into the NCAA maw, where their program was chewed up and spit out a bloody mess.

After hiring Tom Crean to replace Sampson, the Hoosiers have been on a gradual path to improvement that culminated in the matriculation of Cody Zeller to Bloomington, brother of North Carolina Tar Heels star Tyler Zeller. With Zeller and the maturation of some early fine recruits, IU has finally reached the point where they are once again competitive on the national scene and on the verge of entering the top 25 for the first time since 2007.

This year, the Hoosiers are desperate for a victory and think they have the team to pull it off against the top-ranked Wildcats. If so, it could well renew a rivalry that has become moribund due to its current one-sidedness.