Some things must change before Kentucky agrees to resume playing Indiana in hoops

·4 min read
AJ Mast/AP

Speaking to a gathering of Indiana fans this past Wednesday at Huber’s Orchard and Winery in Borden, Indiana, Hoosiers Coach Mike Woodson said he has reached out to Kentucky’s John Calipari about restarting the dormant UK-IU men’s hoops rivalry.

“Over the years that was a helluva game,” Woodson said, as quoted by the Indianapolis Star. “(A renewal) might not be (played in) Bloomington-Lexington. However we’ve got to get it done, I’ll take it.”

Had the IU hoops brain trust of Fred Glass and Tom Crean expressed such flexibility in 2012 — when the Wildcats-Hoosiers series broke down in a dispute over playing sites after the border rivals had played in 43 straight seasons — college basketball would not have lost one of its most tradition-rich, non-conference rivalries.

As you will recall, Indiana in 2012 — fresh off its upset of No. 1 Kentucky in Bloomington on Christian Watford’s buzzer-beater — insisted on home-and-home.

However, UK’s Calipari had been rudely treated by IU fans both times he had taken Kentucky teams to the venue now known as Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. So while he was willing to renew Kentucky-Indiana on neutral courts on a two-year contract, he was unwilling to play in Bloomington.

“I don’t think (Calipari) was really thrilled about going back to Bloomington, to be honest with you,” Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said on the day in 2012 when IU announced that the Wildcats and Hoosiers would not be playing.

Now that we’ve gone 10 full seasons without a Kentucky-Indiana regular-season contest, how much appetite is there for the series to return?

In the same story that contained Woodson’s comments about wanting to play UK, Indianapolis Star writer Matthew Glenesk referred to Kentucky as “the opponent most IU fans want to see on the schedule.”

Among the Big Blue Nation, there seems to be a generational split about resuming the Wildcats’ rivalry with the Hoosiers.

Those old enough to remember the crackling electricity that animated the Kentucky-Indiana series when Joe B. Hall’s Wildcats and Bob Knight’s Hoosiers waged annual holy wars against each other in the 1970s and early ‘80s, seem to have strong feelings about bringing the border battle back.

Conversely, younger UK fans, many of whom came of age as Kentucky was defeating Indiana 12 times in 14 meetings between 1991-92 and 2004-05, don’t appear to have the same investment in the return of the rivalry.

Kentucky leads its all-time series with Indiana 32-25. In Bloomington, UK is 4-11 vs. IU. In games played anywhere else in the world, the Wildcats are 28-14 vs. the Hoosiers.

That might have been the underlying reason why, in 2012, then-IU athletics director Glass and then-Hoosiers head man Crean were so adamant about wanting the Wildcats to play on Indiana’s home floor.

Interestingly, Kentucky’s advantage over Indiana is only 5-4 in the nine most recent meetings. That includes UK’s 73-67 loss to Crean and IU in the 2016 NCAA Tournament round of 32 in Des Moines, Iowa.

Looking to the future, as the flagship universities in neighboring states — which are also two of the few states where college basketball has, historically, been the preeminent sport — Kentucky and Indiana need to find a way to play.

However, two things need to happen before the series returns.

The primary task Woodson needs to achieve before the rivalry resumes is to elevate the Indiana program out of a profound, decades-long descent into mediocrity. From 1994-95 through the present, Indiana has produced an astounding 23 double-digit loss seasons in 28 years.

If UK-IU is to ever again mean what it did in the 1970s, both programs need to be among the nation’s elite. Indiana, instead, has become a cautionary tale for how an all-time great program can be lost to persistent ordinariness.

In back-to-back years, Kentucky is coming off the worst season (9-16 in 2020-21) and worst NCAA Tournament loss (85-79 in overtime to No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s in 2021-22) in its modern history. As a result, one hears disgruntled Cats’ fans say “we don’t want to become Indiana.”

Woodson, a late 1970s Hoosiers star and former Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks head man, needs to show he is the one who can finally return his alma mater to national hoops relevancy.

If he does, fans on both sides of the Ohio River will become stoked over a Wildcats-Hoosiers renewal.

Meanwhile, UK’s Calipari just doesn’t seem to have much enthusiasm for playing Indiana. Resuming the Cats-Hoosiers series seems best left to the next Kentucky head coach, whenever that transition might occur.

Bottom line: UK and IU should play hoops and should play every season.

However, having gone a full decade without Kentucky and Indiana competing in the regular season, the renewal needs to be timed just right so that a resumed Wildcats-Hoosiers rivalry has a chance to become something close to what it was at its best.

That time, alas, is not yet here.

One thing keeps crushing John Calipari and Kentucky in recruiting

The biggest game of the 2022 Kentucky football season will arrive early

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting