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Who is Kentucky Wildcats’ biggest rival?

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Much has been made about the Louisville rivalry but that wasn’t always the case

Mississippi State v Kentucky Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Some are saying the Kentucky rivalry with Louisville may suffer with the departure of Rick Pitino.

While some rate the rivalry high on the list of all college sports rivalries, that has not always been the case. Before the yearly series with UL started it was Tennessee that was UK’s number one rival. And that was the case for a very long time.

Between March 1966 to January 1985 Kentucky’s record against Tennessee was 18-17. That was UK’s big rivalry before the governor pressured the Cats into playing Louisville every year.

The Cardinals had won the “Dream Game” in the NCAA tournament and the rivalry was being pushed hard by Louisville fans and the Louisville sports media. Rupp had refused to play in-state schools saying it would be bad for their programs. It probably did hurt Louisville in the long run as they dropped out of national contention after a string of losses to UK.

But without a doubt it was Ray Mears that set the Volunteers up to give UK a run for it’s money. Mears was 15-15 lifetime against Kentucky having beaten Rupp’s Runts and the Super Kittens during their senior year when Robey, Givens and Phillips played a big role on the team as freshmen.

That 1975 victory by the Vols was fueled by the “Ernie And Bernie Show” which was Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King. King was maybe one of the best players to ever play the game. He was hampered by injuries as a pro but he had a great deal of talent. He was also a 3 time SEC Player Of The Year playing 2 more years after the 1975 season.

The UT game always generated lots of passion on both sides during the 60’s and 70’s especially. It was a conference game which gave it added importance. One example of the way UK fans felt about the Vols took place in Lexington in 1975 at Memorial Coliseum.

UK students brought a large number of oranges to the game with the intent of throwing them on the floor if things didn’t go well in the game. Of course the administration got wind of the plan and made it very clear there would be severe punishment for anyone involved in throwing things on the court.

The UK vs. UT rivalry goes back much further than the 60’s and the Ray Mears era. In the first half of the 1940’s the series was nearly split evenly with UK winning 7 games and UT winning 6. Going back to the pre-Rupp, early days of the sport Tennessee once had a streak going where they were 14-8 against the Cats.

Kentucky has played UT more than any other SEC school by a wide margin - 222 games. And UT has the most wins of any SEC team against the Cats = 69 wins. The Vols also have the highest winning percentage against the Cats = 31%.

Louisville does have a higher winning percentage against the Cats at 32%. But the total number of games is only 50 which is less than a quarter of the games played against Tennessee.

The Vols have been UK’s traditional rival for over 100 years. Truthfully the real rivalry against Louisville started with the 1983 Dream Game. That’s 34 years - just about a third of the time UK has been rivals with UT.