- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Realignment ruins everything. That is the typical and typically warranted and, yes, somewhat childish response to the past two years of TV-rights-induced conference realignment, a phrase I can no longer even type without wincing. I just winced. See? I wasn’t lying.
When we complain about realignment, we are mostly complaining about a loss of traditional rivalry games, the kind we have always taken for granted as part of the sheer awesomeness of regular-season college hoops. But it doesn’t have to be this way! It is possible to live in a post-realignment world without losing great rivalries left and right.
Brigham Young and Utah have kept up their longtime hate-fest despite BYU’s move to the West Coast Conference and Utah's to the Pac-12. Underrated city rivals Belmont and Lipscomb have committed to playing twice a year, even though Belmont is leaving the Atlantic Sun for the Ohio Valley. VCU and Old Dominion appear likely to continue their Virginia-based rivalry even as Shaka Smart relocates his lads to the bright lights of the Atlantic 10.
It’s like John Lennon once sang: All we are saying … is give continued antipathy a chance. Something like that, anyway.
In the spirit of traditional hatred and ongoing distaste, then, here’s a brief list of the rivalries we’d like to see continued in nonconference play, despite the impending realignment moves that threaten them. Here’s to these schools finding ways to overcome their abandonment issues in time to keep up some of the most enjoyable abhorrence college hoops has to offer:
Kansas-Missouri: When Indiana and Kentucky recently failed to renew their 40-year-old series, with both putative top-five programs failing to agree on neutral or campus sites for the game, it couldn’t have been more poorly timed … unless it was Kansas-Missouri. This rivalry burns deep in the culture and psychology of both states -- this offseason alone, it is being waged in elementary school public address systems and at the Missouri DMV -- and reached its apex in 2012, when the Jayhawks and Tigers gave us two of the best, and most purely hate-filled, games of the season. Now, thanks to Missouri’s move to the SEC and KU's retributive discarding of the series, 2012’s games might have been its last. There are few rivalries in the country worth preserving like this one, a century-old feud with ties to guerilla warfare in the states before and during the Civil War. It would be a shame to lose it forever.
Syracuse-Georgetown: “Manley Field House is officially closed!” That was the phrase uttered by John Thompson Jr., the original shots fired when Thompson’s Hoyas toppled Jim Boeheim’s Orange for the first time in 57 games on Feb. 13, 1980 -- a last-second win that ended with Thompson grabbing the microphone and closing down Syracuse’s beloved old building with that taunt for the ages. Since then, it’s been all hate all the time, a tradition reignited of late by the Internet’s ability to deliver directly that hatred to an opponents’ eyeballs. (For years, one of the most popular SU fan sites was entitled “Hoya Suxa.”) As you know, Syracuse is moving to the ACC; Georgetown is holding on for dear life in the mangled Big East. Annual conference supremacy will no longer be on the line, but at this point the rivalry is too good on its own merits to not remain a part of our yearly college hoops diet.
Syracuse-Connecticut: Similar story, with only slightly less anger to go around. Thanks to frequent mutual excellence, as well as two very large fan bases in two of the few places in the northeast where college sports reign supreme, Syracuse and UConn have developed plenty of healthy animosity over the past few years. If the Huskies can’t join up with the Orange in the ACC -- they may or may not be trying to do so -- let's hope Syracuse can find a spot on its busy schedule for another old Big East foe.
San Diego State-UNLV: This one doesn’t boast long-term history, mostly because San Diego State has only recently become nationally relevant, but no matter: The depth and breadth of the hatred between these schools has metastasized into something truly worthy of continuation in the coming seasons. Just check out the comment wars on any Mountain West article on ESPN.com if you don't believe me. San Diego State hoops will soon be a member of the Big West (while football competes in the Big East) -- but let’s hope it does everything it can to keep its burgeoning showdown with UNLV on the yearly docket. As SDSU forward Jamaal Franklin said in February: “It’s big, it’s really big.” May it ever be so.
Pittsburgh-West Virginia: West Virginia is off to the Big 12. Pitt is joining the Cuse in the ACC. At risk is a rivalry dubbed the Backyard Brawl, one of the few contests in the country that means as much on the gridiron as the hardwood, and vice versa. The basketball rivalry was first played in 1905, and it retains some of the most intense fan environments in the country -- especially when things kick off in the ever-rowdy burgh of Morgantown, W.Va.
Pittsburgh-Villanova: Folks my age or younger might not remember it, but this intrastate rivalry existed prior to the formation of Big East, when the schools were members of the long-forgotten Eastern Eight Conference. The Pittsburgh-Philly dynamic has burned on since, highlighted by moments like the schools’ mutual recruitment of forward Doug West in the 1980s, or Nova guard Scottie Reynolds’ last-second shot to beat Pitt in the 2009 Elite Eight.
Texas-Texas A&M: No Texas-based rivalry will ever be as big as its football counterpart, and far fewer tears will be shed over the loss of the Longhorns-Aggies basketball rivalry, but loath as Texas A&M fans are to admit it, this game frequently has been more nationally relevant on the court in the past decade. Texas has thrived under Rick Barnes, while A&M steadily established itself as a consistent Big 12 contender under Billy Gillispie and then Mark Turgeon. The big-time intra-Texas matchups that resulted galvanized both fan bases in a way non-football-related matters rarely do. With A&M SEC-bound, that cachet is almost certain to be lost.
VCU-George Mason: The Rams have already made strong indications that their rivalry with Old Dominion will continue after they relocate to the A–10, but there are no such indications around VCU’s other main Virginia-based rival, the George Mason Patriots. Virginia’s growing basketball scene has much to do with the recent excellence of Mason and VCU, the two CAA (or former CAA) programs with recent Final Four notches on their belts. Now that the CAA isn’t a factor, can these two mid-major darlings maintain their rivalry in the nonconference season? Let's hope so.