By Dave Wischnowsky-
(CBS) Come this evening in front of a rabid crowd in St. Louis, Illinois will defend its border against Missouri during the two schools’ annual Braggin’ Rights game.
Three weeks from today, Illinois will defend its border against Wisconsin. The following month, it will stage a border battle against Indiana, and then cap that with another one vs. Iowa in March.
Yes, from south to north and east to west, Illinois butts heads in basketball with its state border rivals each and every season. Except, of course, for one notable exception.
It’s been nearly 30 years since the Illini and the Wildcats last faced off in a basketball game – the highly controversial 1984 NCAA Mideast Regional Championship. But I’m here today to say that it’s high time for Illinois to add a new “Border War” rivalry with its other downstate neighbor and schedule a series with John Calipari & Co.
Earlier this week 670 The Score, Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas spoke about Illini efforts to connect with Windy City sports fans, saying: “I said the minute I walked in the door, ‘We need to be the king of Chicago.’ I really should have said that we need to be the king of the state. Chicago’s obviously within the borders of the State of Illinois. We came out with the theme ‘Our State. Our Team.’ But we’ve got to do more in Chicago.”
I offered my own suggestions last month, but what better way to get people buzzing in the city than by scheduling Kentucky for, say, a four-year basketball series rotating between the United Center Chicago and the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville?
Earlier this week, the Champaign News-Gazette’s Loren Tate reported that Thomas has said that both high-profile foes Notre Dame and Marquette have both rebuffed Illini overtures about a game in Chicago for years. Kentucky, meanwhile, saw its longtime celebrated – and heated – nonconference series with Indiana end this year after the schools could not come to terms on a new contract.
So, my suggestion to Thomas is, why not offer the Wildcats a new Big Ten rival? One that it’s played 15 times throughout history (Kentucky leads Illinois 11-4) and is located just across the Ohio River.
By being able to circle Kentucky on the schedule each December, Illinois would get a chance to gauge itself against the one of the nation’s best each season 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.
It’s been far too long since the once-bitter rivals last squared off
In March 1984 when a Final Four berth was on the line. The Wildcats won by edging the Illini 54-51 in a game that was played on Kentucky’s home court.
Yes, that’s right, the 1984 NCAA Regional Championship – featuring Kentucky – was held at Rupp Arena in Lexington. Not surprisingly, the outcome was shrouded in controversy when Wildcats guard Dicky Beal appeared to travel with less than 20 seconds left, but no call was made by the officials.
After the bitter loss – which took place just three months after the Wildcats nipped Illinois 56-54 during a Christmas Eve battle in Champaign – Illinois head coach Lou Henson and Illini fans were none too pleased about the tournament game’s circumstances.
And largely because of the blowback, the NCAA went on to institute a rule that no team can play on its home floor during the regionals, which later was expanded to include the entire tourney.
Now, to be sure, ill will can last for an awfully long time in college hoops. But, by now, 1984 is an eternity ago, and the Illinois-Kentucky border has been caught up in a Cold War for too long.
There’s never been a better time to heat it up again.
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.