The series between the two winningest programs of all-time has been a long and eventful one, although only in the mid-60's was there a sustained series between the two before the current one. The two have not played enough games and are not geographically close enough to develop a strong rivalry in the classic sense of the word. But UNC and UK certainly have a rivalry, and it is played out from afar, with the 'spoils' being far bigger than most any individual game. Looking at any major achievement list describing basketball history, and Kentucky and North Carolina are often 1 and 2 (and not necessarily in that order). Whether it is all-time wins, All-Americans, tournament appearances, number of weeks ranked #1 etc., the two are always in contention. This is in large part owed to the longevity of both programs (UNC has off-and-on been a powerhouse since the 1920's while UK has consistently been a top power since the early 1930's) and the drive of brilliant coaches who put their respective schools in the spotlight, changing basketball in the South and basketball in general along the way.
Some may not know that both UK and UNC were at one time part of the mega-agglomeration known as the Southern Conference. While the Southern Conference still remains today, it looks nothing like it did at one point in the 1920's. At that time, the league spanned from Maryland to Louisiana and included nearly all of the major southern schools, many which today make up the ACC and the SEC conferences. The league was so big that the teams didn't necessarily play each other in the regular conference season. It was especially difficult in those days before air travel was commonplace to traverse the mountains between the Atlantic Coast and places like Lexington Kentucky so the coastal teams tended to compete with each other, while teams like Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Tennessee honed their own rivalries and the teams of the deep south stayed in that region (and with the exception of some places like Alabama and LSU, largely ignored the sport).
While the conference was basically so large as to be unmanageable (and it eventually dissolved due to this problem), it did have one thing going for it. The people in charge had the foresight to create a post-season tournament where teams from the conference (and in some cases other southern schools) were invited to Atlanta to compete for a title. The prize was the right to be called "The Champions of the South." This was a new concept for college basketball and it was met with great enthusiasm. The teams drew lots and were bracketed accordingly. Games were held from morning until night in a continuous stream of games, usually in the Atlanta Memorial Gymnasium which was apparently not the greatest facility. One story about the gym occurred during a UK game when a player went up for a layup and fell through a hole in the temporary floor which was laid down for the tournament !
Kentucky won the very first title game (and AFAIK the first conference tournament game in college basketball history) staged in 1921, beating Georgia in the SIAA finals. (The SIAA was the forerunner of the Southern Conference). North Carolina, sometimes referred to as the 'White Phantoms' at the time, won the tournament the following year and began a string of impressive title game appearances, winning 4 of 5 Southern Conference Tournament titles between 1922 and 1926.
The first match-up ever between the two schools occurred in 1924. Kentucky was highly regarded, going 13-2 up to that point, however the Tar Heels were having one of the finest years any North Carolina team had recorded before or since. Normally two teams like this would be seeded so that they meet each other in the semifinals or finals of the tournament, however they met in the first round. (Again, the field was determined by drawing lots, not seeding according to record etc. as would be done today) That UNC team, led by All-Americans Cartwright Carmichael and Jack Cobb, thoroughly outclassed the Wildcats and went on to sweep the tournament and end the season undefeated. It was that team which nearly a decade later was awarded an honorary Helms National Title for their achievements.
While technically the two schools were in the same conference, they only met once in the regular season over nearly a ten year span before their next tournament matchup in 1932 in the quarterfinals of the Southern Conference tournament. North Carolina came through with a 1 point victory over a UK team with one All-American in Forest "Aggie" Sale and two more who would become All-Americans later in their career. There's an interesting story of that game in a book about UK basketball which will be mentioned later
After that, the two went their separate ways. Kentucky joined the newly formed Southeastern Conference while North Carolina stayed in the Southern Conference and eventually split off into the ACC. It would be nearly 20 years before the two schools would meet again, a forgettable drubbing of Tom Scott's UNC team by a powerhouse UK team led by 7-footer Bill Spivey. Another nine years would pass before the two matched up again, this time in the UKIT (University of Kentucky Invitational Tournament) with Frank McGuire and his crew going down to defeat despite Lee Shaffer's 22 points. McGuire was very familiar with UK and Rupp, having had a number of high profile matchups with the team from Lexington while he coached St. John's (and McGuire would later compete against UK whiles at South Carolina). UK apparently returned the favor the next year by playing UNC in Greensboro. But it wasn't until the early 1960's when UK coach Adolph Rupp approached newly hired UNC coach Dean Smith with an offer which made the series a regular occasion. This decision by Rupp also helped played a small part in helping Smith catapult into the national scene.
Rupp (who had met Smith at least once at a coaching clinic (in Germany ?) when Smith was a player), offered Smith a multi-year contract to play a series of games throughout the 60's. This came at a time when Smith had taken over for a UNC program which was at a low point due to some problems with scandals under McGuire. I have never read what prompted Rupp to make this offer, but it may have something to do with the fact that both of them were graduates of Kansas and both had been mentored by the great Forest "Phog" Allen. Although the offer certainly wasn't completely out of charity, no doubt Rupp fully expected to dominate the series.
Smith took the offer and it became clear early on that the series wasn't going to be to Rupp's liking in the way he anticipated. The first game of the series, Smith brought his young Tar Heels to Lexington to play in Memorial Coliseum, where Kentucky held a winning percentage near 90%. Charles "Cotton" Nash was the big scorer for Kentucky, and the Tar Heels set out to shut him down. Yogi Poteet, undersized at 6-1 , was assigned by Smith to guard the 6-5 Nash, however Poteet did a good job of denying Nash the ball, and anytime Nash got the ball inside, he was double-teamed. On the offense, UNC ran a ball-control offense (which was an early forerunner of the 'Four Corners' Smith would perfect later in his career). According to Poteet:
"He [Smith] put in a play two or three days before the game. We called it the Kentucky play. Larry [Brown, UNC's point guard] would bring the ball down the floor and take it into the middle, and the other four players would back out to the corners. Once, Larry drove to the foul line, and I slid in from the corner, and he dished it to me for a basket. That may have been the first Four Corners layup, though it didn't have that name at the time."
With Nash held to 12 points, UNC scored a surprising 88-86 victory over Kentucky, and it was this victory which helped put the young coach in Chapel Hill on the map and solidify his position as coach at UNC. Through the intervening years up until 1975, a great series emerged between the two schools. I'm not sure the reason, but UNC generally chose to hold their 'home' games in Charlotte or Greensboro while UK played two games in Louisville's Freedom Hall while the rest were at Memorial. Because of this, UK never did compete in Carmichael. It should also be noted that the series did not occur every year.
Many great players appeared in this series. On the UNC side it included guys like Billy Cunningham, Larry Miller, Charlie Scott, Bobby Jones, Walter Davis and Mitch Kupchak. On the UK side, it included guys like Cotton Nash, Louie Dampier, Pat Riley, Dan Issel, Mike Casey and Kevin Grevey. But to Smith's credit, UNC won the majority of the games and took a commanding lead in the all-time series record between the two schools. This emergence by UNC over UK in head-to-head matchups dovetailed nicely with UNC's rise to national prominence. It is also noteworthy that beside the first game of the series, most of the games were not nailbiters (at least at the end of the game) as the winning team usually won by a comfortable margin.
Another sidenote is Rupp did take a personal interest in Dean, who would eventually overtake him in the all-time wins category. It's been reported that when UNC would come to town, Rupp would invite Smith over to discuss basketball strategy the evening before the game, a practice unheard of in this day and age.
By 1977, regular season matchups against the Tar Heels was a thing of the past. However UNC and UK did match up in a situation where the stakes were considerably higher. The 1977 Eastern Regional finals were held in Cole Field House and matched the two teams, both ranked in the top 5 nationally. The contest was rough, and left many players ailing. With the second half just begun and UNC holding an 11-point lead, UNC's Phil Ford charged into Larry Johnson and was called for his fourth foul. More damaging than the foul, however, was the fact that Ford was left barely able to raise his arm after the collision. Kentucky had the perfect opportunity to make a run with Ford (who was generally considered one of the best guards in the nation) ailing, but they never were able to get over the hump. John Kuester, a senior, took over the UNC offense and was able to run out the game using North Carolina's now-perfected ball control offense and dash UK's hopes. The difference turned out to be UNC's ability to convert from the free throw line. They hit 33 of 36 tries (to UK's 16 of 18). Kentucky took the loss hard, but it was through defeat that they refocused and the following year, went on to win the NCAA title.
The next meeting between the two teams occurred in, of all places, the New Jersey Meadowlands. A perfect made-for-TV matchup, the schools were ranked #1 and #2 in the country and both were undefeated. On the team for UNC were Sam Perkins and James Worthy, along with a young freshman by the name of Michael Jordan. Also on that team were a pair of players Matt Doherty and Buzz Peterson who would far in the future cross paths with UK once again. UK had some good players in Derrick Hord and Dirk Minniefield, along with a young Melvin Turpin. However, they were awaiting the return of their All-American, 7-1 Sam Bowie who had yet to play that year while recovering from a leg injury. Unfortunately for UK, the wait would last two years. Without Bowie, the Wildcats were overmatched inside and Doherty did a good defensive job to limit Hord's scoring. The Tar Heels came away with a relatively easy 82-69 victory. James Worthy led the way with 26 points while Sam Perkins added 21 and the freshman Jordan contributed 19. Kentucky was led by Charles Hurt's 18 points.
That game was followed by yet another long drought which lasted throughout most of the 1980's. Only in the late 80's did the two programs get together to iron out a regular series. This time it was the veteran Smith who was helping out the young coach (Rick Pitino) by scheduling a series at a time when UK was trying to get back on its feet from a scandal.
The time-frame was especially tense for UK fans since not only were they trying to recover from severe sanctions, but in the intervening years, UNC was steadily making up ground in the All-Time wins department. In July of 1990, UK announced that they had 'discovered' a win against the University of Louisville from 1914. The game had actually been listed in the UK media guide for a number of years and had always been in the Louisville media guide, but no one had thought to compare media guides and after they did, no one though to add the victory to UK's win total. This discovery was accepted by the NCAA and tied the all-time victory totals of the two schools at 1,479 each. The following year, North Carolina was doing research on their history and 'discovered' five victories and one defeat which had gone unreported. The opponents were the Durham YMCA, the Durham Elks and Duke University. This discovery increased UNC's lead over UK at the time from 7 to 12.
The first game of the revived series was held in late December of 1989 at Louisville's Freedom Hall. Although Kentucky stuck to their strategy or pressure defense and running, UNC simply had too much talent and beat the Wildcats at their own game, 121 to 110. The return game was an eye-opener for UNC, as Kentucky came to the Dean Dome for the first time and nearly came away with a victory. Despite being at a distinct talent disadvantage, UK played a poised game and their press rattled the UNC team into committing a large number of turnovers. Relying on the scoring talents of freshman Jamal Mashburn, UK held an 8 point lead at halftime, but was unable to hold on in the end. Despite the loss, the game was a strong signal that the Cats were on the rebound to national prominence and would be back sooner than later. Sure enough, UK under Pitino was well on their way to grabbing back the all-time victories title from Carolina.
However, just when the series started to get interesting, Pitino pulled the plug (much to many UK fan's disappointment). Citing an overly aggressive non-conference schedule which included regulars like Indiana and Louisville, Pitino asked that the series be cancelled. Smith agreed, however he warned Pitino not to come back asking for a series once he upgraded UK's talent level. Sure enough, the two coaches never scheduled another game. It has been reported that Pitino was indeed interested in renewing the series later in his tenure at UK, but Smith would have none of it.
Despite this, the NCAA has a way of disrupting coaches wishes, and the two were forced to meet again in 1995 in a Regional Final, this time held in Birmingham, Alabama. As with the 1977 game, both teams were ranked in the top 5 in the country. The game featured a balanced and deep UK team on the one hand, while Carolina mainly relied on their two superstars, Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace although they had an excellent supporting cast with players such as Donald Williams and Jeff McInnis.
Kentucky got off to an early start, however the momentum of the game was broken part-way through the first half when Andre Riddick and Rasheed Wallace got into an altercation. UK was never able to push the lead despite Wallace sitting on the bench for the remainder of the half. As the game wore on, Kentucky was unable to hit their shots, going an uncharacteristic 7 for 36 from the three-point line. This, despite largely not being guarded on the perimeter. Smith's stated game plan was to guard Tony Delk from the perimeter but not to concentrate on any of the other perimeter players. This left many of the UK players (many of them excellent three point shooters) wide open from the perimeter. Unfortunately for Kentucky, all of these players had off shooting nights (on the same night) and UK simply did not capitalize. In the end, UK became rattled and could never put together a sustained comeback. UNC was led by Jerry Stackhouse's 18 points along with 18 points from Donald Williams. Much like the 1977 loss, UK was able to regroup from the stinging loss to the Tar Heels and came back to capture the NCAA title the following year.
After Pitino had left Kentucky for greener ($$$$) pastures and Smith retired (having passed Rupp's all-time victory mark), the slate was now clean for the two schools to renew a regular season series (which many fans had long lobbied for). This time the Coach Smith in the series patrols Kentucky's sidelines, while a face from the past, Matt Doherty assumed command of the Tar Heels.
The first game, held in the Dean Dome, found Kentucky at a particularly critical time. Although the season was still early, UK was reeling from poor offensive execution and were saddled with a 1-3 record. Having dropped out of the top 25 ranking, the game on paper looked like a blow-out in favor of the Heels. Not a cheerful situation for Kentucky fans, especially since UK was on the tail end of a 16-6 all-time series record with UNC and with UK not having beaten UNC for over 25 years.
The game was a blow-out, however it was Kentucky which did the damage. With Cliff Hawkins shredding the UNC defense with his penetration and previously-unknown Marquis Estill exploding for 19 points, UK rolled to an easy victory and went on to salvage the season. This year, the Tar Heels arrive in Lexington to play again UK in Rupp Arena for the first time. This time, the onus is on the Tar Heels who come into the game with a 1-3 record and having dropped out of the poll. Will it be a reversal of the fortune UK experienced in Chapel Hill or will UK continue to make up lost ground ? Stay tuned.....
As for the series between the two heavyweights, only time will tell how long this one will last.....
A couple of posts-scripts
Transfers and Near-Misses
With two high profile schools, there are bound to be recruiting battles between the two. UK and UNC have off-and-on had a few run-ins, although not all were typical. For instance, everyone is familiar with Jason Parker, a player who was set-in-stone to go to UNC, but somehow ended up being turned out of UNC, when UK was more than happy to pick him up. Parker would be the first player ever from the state of North Carolina to sign with UK.
There was also the case of Makhtar Ndiaye , who when looking for a school to transfer out of Michigan, considered both UK and UNC. UNC 'won' the battle, but when it was all said and done, UK certainly breathed a sigh of relief they didn't win that battle.
In the early 90's, Clifford Rozier was part of a highly touted recruiting class at UNC, but became disenchanted and decided to transfer. He was seriously considering UK, but due to a minor recruiting violation which occurred when Sean Woods drove Cliff to a party in Louisville (which was further from campus than a prescribed distance the NCAA stipulated), UK decided to drop the recruitment of the big man. Rozier ended up signing with Louisville where he had some big games against UK on the way to some All-American honors.
There's also the case of Rex Chapman, the school-boy legend who was torn between playing for UK and playing for UL, a place where the style of play at the time was a better fit for his skills. Chapman ended up signing with UK where he had a brilliant, yet short career, before bolting for the pros. At the time of his recruitment, Dean Smith made a pitch for Chapman to come to Chapel. Smith's pitch was no doubt as a third option which would allow Chapman to remove himself from the intense pressure of the Bluegrass, as whichever school he chose, he was sure to disappoint the fans of either UK or UL. How strongly Chapman considered UNC is unknown, however if he had signed with the Tar Heels, it would have been a huge blow to UK at the time, both from a talent standpoint but more important from a psychological standpoint.
Some of the biggest battles for players occurred over guys who didn't suit up for either team. Kevin Garnett being a recent example of someone who was recruited heavily by both, but ended up bypassin college altogether for the NBA. Tracey McGrady, who prepped at nearby Mount Zion academy in Durham may have been another player who UK (and UNC ?) recruited, but went pro instead.
One important recruit was Ralph Sampson, who both UK and UNC fans maintain was close to announcing for their respective schools, but ended up staying close to home when he signed with the Virginia Cavaliers. If the 7-4 Sampson had signed with UK, it would have formed one of the most intriguing front-courts in basketball history as Kentucky already had a committment from another highly regarded big man, 7-1 Sam Bowie. As it was, Bowie became injured and was sidelined for two years. Kentucky could have sorely used Sampson's inside presence during that time. UNC, on the other hand, was saddled with competing against Sampson (who became one of the most dominating players in ACC history) and Virginia on a regular basis.
At around the same time as Sampson's recruitment, UNC and UK battled over James Worthy, who went on to All-American status as a Tar Heel and helped UNC win a national title in 1982. Worthy was bound for Carolina, but had a relative who played at UK and gave the Wildcats serious consideration.
I'm sure there were other battles over the years I'm unaware of. Going back a long way, there is the interesting story of James Jordan. The first All-American named Jordan at UNC, James was on campus at Chapel Hill in the mid-40's as part of his obligation to the armed services. He played under Ben Carnevale and helped lead the Tar Heels to the 1946 NCAA championship game, garnering All-American honors along the way. When Carnevale decided to leave for another school, Jordan also decided to leave.
Jordan approached Adolph Rupp about transferring to UK. Despite being an All-American, Rupp tried to talk Jordan out of it, saying he didn't believe he was capable of playing the more up-tempo style Kentucky employed. Despite the resistance, Jordan came to UK anyway and played (sparingly) on some of the most talent-laden teams in college basketball history. When people say UK was so good in the late 40's that they had All-Americans sitting on the bench, it was no joke. Jordan was one of them, and not the only one. He probably also holds some type of distinction by being on an NCAA-runner up team (UNC in 46), an NIT-runner up team (UK in 47) and an NCAA Champion (UK in 48). His career certainly makes for an interesting trivia question.
Altercations and Misunderstandings
While the series hasn't consisted of a huge number of games, there have been some notable tense moments regarding UK, UNC players and in some cases the referees. Most remember the altercation between Andre Riddick and Rasheed Wallace in the 1995 NCAA Regional Final in Birmingham, where referee Tim Higgins made one of the most boneheaded decisions ever. Higgins stopped play for at least five minutes to settle the combatants down and to review the tape at length. He then proceeded to call a technical foul on Walter McCarty (?) (a player similar in looks to Riddick [at least to Higgins apparently]), someone who wasn't even involved.
But that wasn't the only tense situation. In the 1977 showdown, again in the NCAA Regional Final, Dean Smith and UK player Rick Robey had a confrontation on the court after a particularly physical foul on UNC's John Kuester. Dean ran out onto the court to confront Robey. In the exchange, Robey claims Smith called him a 'cheap son of a @#%$.' Smith denies the accusation, however he later apologized to Robey over the incident when Smith coached Robey in the World University Games.
While that confrontation is fairly well known, perhaps less known (and one which might help explain Dean's reaction in the 1977 games) is that in a game prior in 1975, Smith also took exception to what he thought was overly physical play by Robey when UNC's Mitch Kupchak went to the ground clutching his stomach. Smith became incensed and started pointing and shouting at Robey during the game. As it turned out, it was not Robey but another player Dan Hall, who apparently was part of the play, although UK claimed Kupchak flopped.
With these memorable incidents, maybe it's not surprising that these strange events actually goes much further back than the mid-70's. Remember the 1-point game from the 1932 Southern Conference tournament, won by UNC by a single point ? There's a passage in Russell Rice's book (Big Blue Machine) with an interesting letter concerning that game. In the book, Rice often devoted chapters which consisted entirely of letter Rice received from players, coaches, etc. with their recollections of past events. Although the opponent is not identified by name in the passage, based on the information presented and by process of elimination, it is only the UK-UNC game which fits. Here's the excerpt:
Frank Lane, a noted baseball executive, was also a nationally known basketball official who "called" many games involving UK teams. He told the following story about a game involving the University of Kentucky in the early 1930s:
I believe the oddest decision I ever witnessed in any kind of contest occurred in a basketball game in which Kentucky participated and, possibly, ultimately resulted in the Wildcats losing a very important contest. Because it is only human to err and the fact that the chap officiating that game is a very high-class gentleman, I refrain from mentioning in which particular game this rather dubious decision was made as it might identify him. However, it did not occur at Lexington so but a few of the Wildcat adherents witnessed the faux pas in question.
During this exciting and hotly contest game wherein any single play might have been the margin of victory or defeat, a Kentucky try for goal late in the game missed, and Aggie Sale and "Dutch" Kreuter "followed up" the unsuccessful shot. Sale was just a trifle ahead of the Newport Dutchman and was actually trying a shot for the basket when Kreuter's big mitts, in a belated attempt for the ball, slammed across "Aggie's" arms. "Hacking - two shots," rang out the official's voice, synchronizing with a shrill blast from the protesting whistle.
Sale perched himself on the foul line preparatory to pitching the fouls when the captain of the opposing five, awakened to the situation that neither he nor his teammates had fouled, asked who committed the infraction. The referee, still expectantly waiting for Sale to start the foul-throwing, casually pointed out the offender - Kreuter !
The referee then realized the fact that he had awarded two free throws because of a Kentucky player fouling (?) another teammate - of course, he knew this could not be. But the argument ended, which no one in the audience ever has gotten the straight of, with the referee calmly but firmly walking to the other end of the floor and giving Kentucky's opponents a free throw - which was made ! Quite likely Kentucky's amazed team said something untoward as to the official's eyesight or judgment that may have caused this penalty, but just the same the Wildcats lost the game by one point. No, this was not in the last few seconds or minutes of play when the odd decision was made - there was still about 10 minutes to play - but this point, the margin of the Wildcat's defeat, was certainly very pertinent no matter when the weird ruling occurred.