The Kentucky and Indiana basketball series as we know it is dead after the central figures from the two historical programs failed to bridge their philosophical differences about the future of the series.
The home and home set-up was sticking point in Indiana-Kentucky continuation
The finality of the seemingly inevitable outcome came Thursday in the form of an Indiana press release, which seemed to catch Kentucky by surprise. Although the two schools were having difficulty finding a common ground UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart said he believed negotiations were ongoing.
“I guess they're putting that out there as a final conversation, so we'll go on from there, do what we have to do,” Barnhart said. “They wanted to play the game on campus. At some point in time, we had a conversation that we were fine with neutral-neutral, and that was going to work out. Then all of a sudden today, there was a little change of heart.”
The two border programs have one of college basketball's most vibrant non-conference historical rivalries, having played for 43 consecutive seasons dating back to 1969-70. The games were played on campus – with the exception of three NCAA Tournament games and two neutral site affairs in Indianapolis - until the 1991-92 season when it shifted to an every other year rotation between Indianapolis and Louisville. It returned to the campus format in 2006-07.
The existing contract between the schools ended after the 2011-12 season, leaving the possibility for discontinuation. Both programs made their positions clear, leading to a stare down where neither party was willing to blink. For Kentucky, the reasoning was simple: coach John Calipari wanted to move the game back to a neutral site format, a stance that was supported by Barnhart.
“John wanted to go back to, I don’t think he was really thrilled about going back to Bloomington to be honest with you,” Barnhart said. “I think he wanted to go back to the neutral-neutral scene, and that’s OK.
“It's disappointing for that not to continue. It wasn't an unwillingness to play on our part. We wanted to play. We just felt like there were a couple of things that gave us a chance to play that game back in Jefferson County, put it in Louisville and then return it up to Indianapolis or whatever the other neutral site they wanted to. I guess they did not want to do that.”
The suspension of the rivalry comes after a wildly entertaining pair of games between the two last season. The Hoosiers scored a 73-72 victory in Bloomington on Dec. 10 when Christian Watford's buzzer beating three-pointer found the bottom of the net. Kentucky got its revenge with a 102-90 victory in the Sweet 16 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Both teams are expected to be Top 10 squads in 2012-13.
When asked whether the chaotic scene after the Hoosiers' win in Bloomington played a role in Kentucky's decision to seek a return to neutral site games Barnhart deftly side-stepped the issue.
“No, I’m not going to go into that,” Barnhart said. “I think just going back to the neutral. The other piece for us—when I came here in 2002, we split that game right down the middle in Freedom Hall. I’m telling you, it was a special scene in college basketball.”
Few rivalries in college basketball have as much passion or fanfare attached to them as Kentucky and Indiana, a scene that played out during those games in the RCA Dome and Freedom Hall. Tickets were split 50-50, with half of the venue being cloaked in blue and the other in red. A who's who of college basketball history have etched their names into the lore of the rivalry.
Barnhart said he understands there may be backlash from fans who think the two schools should have figured out a way to compromise.
“That’s their thoughts, and I appreciate that,”Barnhart said. “It wasn’t that we didn’t want to play the game. We wanted to play the game, but we wanted to play at a neutral site and just go that route. I’d say the fans that have participated in that game at Freedom Hall for years saw how much fun it was. I can remember … the first time I went in there and that thing was divided down the middle, it was one of the more electric scenes I’ve ever been around.
“Now we went on-campus, and it was nice, but having said that, IU every other year only 100 of our fans get in there. We get 100 tickets – 50 behind the bench and 50 up top. So a lot of our fans are getting left out. In the alternate years, our fans are getting locked out of that game. I would’ve at least liked to have the opportunity to have half our fans every year have a chance to go to the game.”
Barnhart also conceded the series with North Carolina is unlikely to return for 2012-13 but the Cats do have neutral site showdowns scheduled with Duke and Maryland, as well as a road game against Louisville and a likely road game in the Big East/SEC Challenge.
“There’s plenty of folks that would love to play Kentucky, and we’ll figure that out,” Barnhart said. “We won’t be without a schedule, I can assure you that.”
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