Monday, February 8, 2010
Who is NU’s Biggest Basketball Rival?
So it’s Rivalry Week on the ESPN family of networks this week. Games featured include Duke and North Carolina, Syracuse and UConn, and Purdue and Michigan State. This got me thinking about the basketball rivalries which include Northwestern. Who is Northwestern’s biggest basketball rival? The quickest answer is Illinois. That’s possible. Another quick answer is that NU hasn’t had enough success in basketball to sustain rivalries like they have in football against teams like Iowa and Wisconsin. I refuse to believe this. Northwestern might not have a great deal of basketball success, but they’ve been a pain in the neck for enough teams that at least a couple regular opponents have to be considered rivals. I’ve looked at a few factors such as how competitive games have been, how often the teams have met, and what type of relationship fans seems to have. As a result, I’ve come up with four potential candidates for NU’s biggest rival. They might not be Duke-UNC, but NU does have rivals.
Rival #1: Illinois
Illinois makes this list in large part because they are the only other Big Ten team in state. Also, because of this fact many families and friends in Illinois have connections to both Northwestern and Illinois. This creates some friendly (perhaps even sibling) rivalries which can make attending these matchups fun. On the other hand, I find that the rivalry with Illinois tends to be somewhat relaxed because of these connections. Their simply isn’t the bitterness that exists between other rivals. The other fact is, disappointing as it is for NU fans to admit, NU has struggled against Illinois even when the Wildcats have had respectable teams. The win over Illinois on January 23rd gave NU just their 3rd win over the Fighting Illini in the last 11 years. Northwestern has some poor records against conference foes over that time, but only Ohio State and Michigan State have been more successful than U of I against NU since the 1998-99 season.
Rival #2: DePaul
I’d really argue strongly for DePaul as NU’s biggest rival if the Blue Demons hadn’t dropped NU off the schedule this year. Sure, the teams are going to meet again next season, but I don’t think Indiana and Kentucky are likely to take time off from their rivalry anytime soon. If NU and DePaul want to be serious about their rivalry they need to play. It was a big deal to me when NU and DePaul seemed to recommit to playing regularly in the early 2000s and for the sake of college basketball in Chicago they should stick to that commitment. What I like about the argument for this rivalry is that it has been relatively close recently. The teams have split their last 6 meetings. Also, the two teams have a legitimate postseason history, having met in the NIT three times. DePaul has won two of three, but each has been close. In addition, at least from my personal experience, NU and DePaul can become a rivalry in the stands as well. I remember being somewhat horrified as a youngster when my mother got into a war of words with two drunken DePaul fans who were taunting Evan Eschmeyer during the 1999 NIT game at the Rosemont Horizon.
Rival #3: Wisconsin
This would be more of a rivalry if NU could win in Madison, but then again nobody wins in Madison, so maybe it doesn’t matter. The fact is NU has given Wisconsin a ton of trouble in Evanston over the past decade. Even NU’s losses have more often resembled this year’s tight battle to the wire as opposed the 2008 game which served as Wisconsin’s coronation as Big Ten Champs. This rivalry also gets extra points for NU winning over Wisconsin fairly consistently in the mid-1990s. Wisconsin was NU’s victim twice during the run to the 1993-94 NIT, including a memorable game in Evanston when NU guard Kip Kirkpatrick looked down future NBA-star Michael Finley. Also, during his brief stay in Evanston, Geno Carlisle led NU to a couple victories over the Badgers.
Rival #4: Iowa
If I had to vote (and I actually did in the poll above) I’d vote for Iowa. Some of that might be pent up anger over their way their fans often dis NU in football, but I think during the Steve Alford era this became a pretty decent basketball rivalry. Not only did NU finally breakthrough with a win in Iowa City in 2004, but the ‘Cats and Hawkeyes played a number of down to the wire games which resulted in NU wins. Michael Jenkins became an NU legend for beating Iowa, but people forget his heroics were sandwiched around a buzzer beater from Vedran Vukusic and an improbable off the bench shot from Evan Seacat which helped NU to victory when he hadn’t played in weeks. After each of those games, the Iowa fan base seemed to go crazy with frustration at their loss. In the last two years, the tables have somewhat turned. We NU fans have been the one’s feeling the frustration with a 1-3 record against the Hawkeyes. Last year’s loss in Iowa City was among the most frustrating for NU fans in a season of tough losses. The year before, when NU was desperately seeking a Big Ten win, was even worse as NU blew a double-figure lead thanks to Iowa starting pick apart the 1-3-1 zone. If NU doesn’t pull off the victory Wednesday night, the frustration level will probably hit a new high for NU fans.
Those are my thoughts. What does everybody else think? Comment and vote in the poll.