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Kentucky vs. Indiana: A Fan’s Take

The traditional power-house schools square off in the Sweet 16 on Friday. This fan explains why it is the must-see game of the tournament thus far.

December 10, 2011. The day that is still fresh in the minds of Big Blue Nation.

That was the day Indiana’s Christian Watford hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer in transition, giving the Hoosiers the 73-72 win, while also giving the No. 1 ranked Wildcats their first and only loss of the regular season.

It is widely regarded as ‘the’ best game of the college basketball season. ESPN even went as far as to create a commercial glorifying the moment, causing the players of Kentucky to grit their teeth and hope for another chance to right that wrong. Well, they’re going to get it.

Top seed Kentucky will take on the Indiana Hoosiers this Friday night in a Sweet 16 match-up giving college basketball fans another chance to watch two elite programs go at it one more time. This is the Rocky Balboa/Apollo Creed type rematch. We get to see if Indiana’s win was a fluke, or if Rocky Balboa really is as good as he looks.

However, let's first take a look at the epic basketball tradition that these two schools share with one another.

The Kentucky/Indiana rivalry is very underrated and doesn’t get mentioned enough by sports fans and sports media. These two teams combine for 12 NCAA Championships, 22 Final Four appearances, and have played each other every single season since 1969, with Kentucky holding the head-to-head record at 31-24.

There is no love lost between these two programs. Legendary Indiana coach, Bobby Knight, has been under storm recently for failing to mention the name “Kentucky” or Kentucky’s Anthony Davis when asked to name the top five teams and top five players of college basketball during ESPN’s 'Mike and Mike' show. Knight has also been ridiculed for refusing to show up to College Game Day any time the show is located in Lexington, Ky.

In spring of 2011, Knight came under storm when he was heard in a video discussing the Kentucky’s 2009-2010 squad, stating "Kentucky, year before last, started five players in the NCAA Tournament games that had not been to class that semester,". These statements were proven to be erroneous. Knight later issued an apology via ESPN.

Some say Knight’s and Indiana’s resentment of Kentucky, all goes back to Kentucky upsetting undefeated Indiana in the 1975 NCAA Regional Final, ending the Hoosiers’ 34-game win streak. It was the only loss Indiana suffered in two years as Knight and the Hoosiers went on to an undefeated National Championship season in 1976. Indiana fans haven’t forgotten that NCAA Tournament loss in 1975 and Kentucky fans have not forgotten the heartbreaking loss earlier this season.

But one can’t help but be reminded of the 1995-1996 season in which Kentucky lost early in the season to Massachusetts.

They later went on to win 27 straight games, going undefeated in conference play, before losing in the SEC Championship game to Mississippi State; vindication towards the one team that beat them in regular season (Massachusetts), and then proceeded to win the NCAA Championship.

Fast forward to 2012. Kentucky lost early in the season to Indiana, won 24 straight games, swept conference play, before losing in the SEC Championship game, and has a chance at revenge against the team responsible for their one regular season loss. Can history repeat itself?

This time around, Indiana will not have the luxury of playing at home in front of the crowd of Assembly Hall. They will have to find success away from home which has not always been the easiest thing to do for head coach Tom Crean’s young Hoosiers squad.

In that December 10th match-up, Indiana shot 60% from 3 point range, and got two quick fouls on Player of the Year candidate, Anthony Davis, causing him to get a total of four fouls and to only play 24 minutes while only scoring 6 points; well below his 14.3 points-per-game average.

The hostile crowd rattled the young Kentucky stars and Watford’s three-pointer put a dagger in the hopes of the Wildcats faithful of an undefeated season. But that was at home. Indiana also has two other wins over top five ranked teams.

They beat Ohio State at home on New Years Eve ,74-70, where pre-season All American, Jared Sullinger, picked up four fouls and was limited to just 29 minutes of action. Sound familiar? The Hoosiers then knocked off their third top five ranked team, Michigan State, at home yet again, 70-55. The Hoosiers also, picked up a win at home against then ranked number thirteen, Michigan, 73-71.

But let’s examine what happened when the Hoosiers traveled away from home against ranked opponents. Despite previously beating Ohio State by four points at home, the Hoosiers got smacked around by the Buckeyes 63-80 on the road and this time, Jared Sullinger wasn’t in foul trouble and played nine more minutes than their previous meeting. When Indiana played Michigan State on the road, they lost 65-80. Indiana also lost on the road to #22 Michigan 56-68 and to #12 Wisconsin, 71-79. In fact, Indiana didn’t beat a single ranked team away from home this season.

Both teams are not the same as they were only nine games into the season when they last played.

Kentucky’s freshmen Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist have all improved tremendously while Indiana has proven they can beat anyone on any given day.  Tom Crean’s squad can pull out close games as they showed the nation by scoring the final seven points in their 63-61 second round win over Virginia Commonwealth.

This Indiana team is leading the NCAA Tournament in three point shooting, but Kentucky’s length just gave the Big 12's best three point shooting team, Iowa State, fits from the perimeter, causing them to go 3 of 22 from behind the arc.  Indiana’s Achilles' heel has been on the defensive side of the ball this season. They rank 123rd in scoring defense and 136th in field goal percentage defense.

During their first meeting, Anthony Davis got four fouls and Kentucky went 2 of 7 from three-point shooting. Davis has not got 4 fouls since the first game against Indiana and the Wildcats just went 10 of 22 from the perimeter in their second round win over Iowa State.

Friday night’s match-up has the makings of a classic that will be discussed by college basketball fans for years. Kentucky is seeking its 8th national championship in school history and Indiana is trying to prove to the world they’re back by hoping to get to their first Final Four since 2002.

So I ask…can history repeat itself? Don’t count on it. 

Photo Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS