By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Illinois still needs a nonconference basketball opponent for its annual game at the United Center this December. Meanwhile, down at Kentucky, John Calipari’s national championship Wildcats just broke up with Indiana, their longtime nonconference foe from the Big Ten.
So, can anyone say rebound relationship?
I, for one, would like to see the Illini try to sweep in after this shattered relationship between IU and UK and attempt to broker their own multi-year basketball series with Kentucky. Such a measure not only could help catapult the Illini back into the national hoops consciousness, but it would also rekindle a once-bitter basketball border war that’s simply been dormant for far too long.
On Thursday, news broke that Indiana and Kentucky would not renew their expiring basketball contract because of a dispute over where the games should be played. Kentucky wanted to move the series back to rotating neutral site venues in Louisville and Indianapolis – where the games were played from 1991 to 2005. Indiana, meanwhile, wanted to maintain the status quo since ’06 and keep playing the games on the schools’ respective campuses.
“While we understand that such neutral site games could be quite lucrative, we think the series should be continued as it is, home and home,” Indiana athletic director Fred Glass said on Thursday, stating the Hoosiers’ case. “Playing on campus enables our students to attend these marquee games which we believe is a great component of the overall college experience.
“Playing in the historic venues that are Assembly Hall and Rupp Arena is also a tremendous experience for our student-athletes.”
At Illinois – where playing each year at “The House that Michael Jordan Built” (aka the United Center) is also considered a tremendous experience – scheduling a similar neutral-site series shouldn’t be an issue. That’s perhaps particularly true considering how the Illini still have a huge hole in their 2012-13 schedule that needs to be filled with a high-profile opponent to face at the UC.
Opponents, of course, don’t get any more high profile than Kentucky.
This week, new Illini basketball coach John Groce said the Chicago date is the only one not yet filled for the Illini’s upcoming slate and acknowledged that Alabama is one of several teams in discussion.
“We’re trying to finish up that game,” Groce explained. “We have a couple of leads … There are a lot of possibilities and (Alabama) has been one interested, but there are several others and none, at this point, are far enough along to iron out the details.”
My suggestion then is to strike while the iron is hot with Kentucky.
To be sure, Illinois already has a 2012-13 schedule that’s plenty stiff with a trip to the Maui Invitational (where the field includes North Carolina, Texas, Marquette and Butler) along with nonconference games against Gonzaga (in Spokane) and Missouri (in St. Louis), as well as a to-be-determined foe for the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
Adding Kentucky to that mix would make things all the more difficult in Groce’s first season. But scheduling the Wildcats for, say, a four-year series rotating between Chicago and Louisville would be more about making a statement for the future of the Illini program than it has anything to do with present.
By being able to circle Kentucky on the schedule, Illinois would get a chance to gauge itself against the best each December and boost the program’s profile in front of a national audience. As for Kentucky’s impetus to link up with Illinois, well, I imagine that Calipari wouldn’t mind the exposure that a game in Chicago would provide him – and his recruiting interests – every other year for the next few.
Beyond all that, re-launching the Illini-Wildcats rivalry – which has been slumbering for almost 30 years – is just long overdue. Illinois and Kentucky have met 15 times throughout history, with the Wildcats winning 11 of those games. However, the two schools – who happen to share a state border – haven’t faced each other since 1984 when Kentucky tipped Illinois 54-51 to advance to the Final Four by winning the Mideast Regional championship.
Which was played at Rupp Arena in Lexington.
Yes, that’s right. Twenty-eight years ago, Kentucky beat Illinois in an Elite Eight game that was played on the Wildcats’ own home court. Not surprisingly, the game included controversy when Kentucky guard Dicky Beal appeared to travel with less than 20 seconds left and the Wildcats leading, but no call was made.
After that bitter loss – which took place just three months after the Wildcats nipped Illinois 56-54 loss in a Christmas Eve battle in Champaign – Illinois head coach Lou Henson and the rest of Illini Nation were far from pleased about the game’s circumstances.
Largely because of the game, the NCAA went on to institute a rule stipulating that no team can play on its home floor during the regionals, which was then expanded to include the entire tournament.
In college basketball, ill will can last for an awfully long time. But, by now, 1984 is an eternity ago. And, come this December, I’d love to see Illinois-Kentucky finally bounce back into action.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.