Everyone knows the story.
The Indiana/Kentucky rivalry, once a staple during the non conference portion of every college basketball season, has laid dormant since 2011, with the exception of a pair of NCAA Tournament meetings in 2012 and 2016. It needs to come back. We’ve written about this before.
The regular season series ended after the 2011-12 season when former Indiana head coach Tom Crean and Kentucky head man John Calipari chose to be stubborn on the conflict of where to play the games. Crean and Indiana wanted the series to stay on campus, while Kentucky and Calipari wanted to move the series to neutral sites, mainly in Indianapolis. The two schools failed to reach a compromise as both coaches refused to budge on their stances, so they decided to discontinue the rivalry.
So why does this matter now? Well, as everyone knows, Indiana fired Tom Crean on March 16. Whenever Indiana hires a new coach, one way for the new coach to win over the fanbase is to resume the series with Kentucky.
While there are many options on where to play the game, there are only a few choices that Calipari will agree on. This eliminates the chances for the series to go back on campus as long as John Calipari is the head coach at Kentucky. In addition to the well known complaints Calipari had after the 2011 game in Bloomington that ended with the Christian Watford buzzer beating three and the court storming that followed the upset of the #1 Wildcats, Calipari flat out hates playing home and home series in general. Since he arrived in Lexington in 2009, Calipari has made a clear initiative to play neutral site non conference games instead of playing true home and road games. This initiative is what in part ended the the IU/UK series, as well as Kentucky’s home and home series with North Carolina. Calipari probably would have tried to end Kentucky’s biggest home and home rivalry with Louisville, but the fact that the entire state of Kentucky would riot against the idea. While Calipari has ended multiple home and home series, he took a huge role in starting the Champions Classic and the CBS Sports Classic, in which Indiana declined to be in the latter. The bottom line is, for the Indiana/Kentucky rivalry to resume, it will have to be on a neutral floor.
It’s not like the Hoosiers and the Wildcats haven’t met on a neutral court before. Between 1991 and 2005, the annual game rotated between Indianapolis and Louisville. The series might have stayed that way too, if a scheduling conflict with Louisville’s Freedom Hall in 2006 didn’t cause the game to be moved to Lexington that year. That 14 year stretch wasn’t the only time that the two teams have played on a neutral court. In all, of the 57 games that have been played, 30 of the meetings have been away from Bloomington and Lexington, with the most meetings taking place in Louisville (13).
While most of the talk for a neutral site game has been to play the game in Indianapolis, I am confused on why there has not been more talk about going back and forth between Indianapolis and Louisville. Being located 105 miles from Bloomington, and 77 miles from Lexington, Louisville is as close of a midpoint between the two schools that there is. This led to sellouts, raucous crowds, and a true 50/50 split when Indiana and Kentucky would meet in Freedom Hall, and that unique atmosphere could be recreated if the series went back to rotating between Indianapolis and Louisville.
Playing in Louisville makes sense for both schools. For Indiana, just getting the rivalry back in any form would be huge for the Hoosiers, who have lacked too regularly big name programs since the series ended (with the 2016-17 season being the exception to the rule). In addition it would help win back the Southern Indiana fraction of the fanbase that has been dwindling. What was once a huge Indiana majority has seen a shift in recent years, as residents in Jeffersonville, New Albany, and other surrounding areas have shifted away from the Hoosiers, and more to Louisville and Kentucky. It has reached the point to where now there is a billboard on interstate 65 a few miles before the Ohio River that has a picture of the Louisville Cardinal Bird and reads “The University of Louisville: Southern Indiana’s sports team.” Bringing the Indiana/Kentucky rivalry back to Louisville would be a great way for the university to try to win back some of the fans that have jumped off the bandwagon.
For Kentucky, the reasoning is obvious. It would add another marquee event with a NCAA Tournament like atmosphere that Kentucky loves to play in during the early part of the season. In addition, John Calipari has always loved to poke the bear that is the University of Louisville. Playing Indiana in Louisville and bringing thousands of Kentucky fans into Louisville’s back yard is an extremely easy way to do this. It would also please the masses of Kentucky fans that live in the Louisville area.
However, there is one huge roadblock to taking the series back to Louisville every other year. When the University of Louisville signed its extremely generous deal with the city of Louisville to be the main tenant in the KFC Yum Center, one of the many clauses that UofL has with the city was that Kentucky would not be allowed to play games in the Yum Center, with the exceptions being if Kentucky was either playing Louisville, or playing in the NCAA Tournament. As a result, after regularly playing in Louisville before the Yum Center was built, the Wildcats have not played a regular season game in the city since December 8, 2010, when Kentucky beat 23rd ranked Notre Dame 72-58 in Freedom Hall.
Unless the University of Louisville is willing to revise this clause in the deal with the city, something that is highly unlikely to be done, Kentucky and Indiana would likely have to settle to play in Freedom Hall. While Freedom Hall is no where as near as fit to host the event as the Yum Center is, it is still a capable hosting spot. The arena was once thought of as one of the premier venues to watch basketball in, hosting multiple Final Fours, the University of Louisville for 54 years, and the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA, among other things. In the past decade or so, Freedom Hall has deteriorated a little bit, as a lot of the larger events now go to the Yum Center. However, Freedom Hall still hosts the World Championship Horse Show, and is home to the Kentucky Derby Festival Basketball Classic each year. It is more than capable to host one additional basketball game every other year, its just a question of whether or not Fred Glass and Kentucky Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart would be willing to play there.
While the best way to resume the rivalry is to rotate between Indianapolis and Louisville, in the end, it really doesn’t matter where Indiana and Kentucky play, just as long as they do start playing again. So whoever Fred Glass decides to hand the reins to the Indiana program to, please: just get this done.