Best College Basketball Rivalries
Fierce rivalries are a hallmark of college sports, with schools that have battled each other for decades and fanbases with legitimate hatred towards the other side. Let’s take a look at some of the best college basketball rivalries in the country:
Duke vs. North Carolina
We start with arguably the most famous rivalry of them all: Duke and North Carolina. Two storied programs dominating the ACC and often the entire country, with campuses separated by just ten miles. Students and fans look forward to these two match-ups all year long and the games are among the most hostile environments in the country. There’s nothing quite like this rivalry in college basketball, the gold standard for which all others compare.
Louisville vs. Kentucky
The hatred between these two fanbases is undeniable. Kentucky and Louisville fans cannot stand each other and the games between the two programs – just once per year as they play in different conferences – reflect that on the court. It helps the rivalry that both teams are usually among the top tier in the sport when they come together. This is another rivalry that occurs in other sports but really shines on the hardwood.
Cincinnati vs. Xavier
The Bearcats and Musketeers are based just three miles apart from each other in the city of Cincinnati, and every year they meet in the Crosstown Shootout game. Cincinnati is historically the better program while Xavier has made its way into the upper echelon more recently, and these matchups always bring out the best (or worst) in both. Look no further than the bench-clearing brawl that ended the 2011 game to indicate how fierce the rivalry between these two basketball-crazed schools is.
Indiana vs. Purdue
Certainly the most intense basketball rivalry in the Big Ten, Indiana and Purdue have been battling each other since 1901. Purdue holds the edge in the head-to-head match-ups while Indiana has had far more national success, including five NCAA National Championships. These conference foes usually play twice a year and the games – and fanbases – are always wild. No matter how the season is going for each team, players always step up for the rivalry game.
Georgetown vs. Villanova
These two historic Big East programs have a long-standing rivalry, filled with plenty of memorable match-ups along the way. But this rivalry jumped to the next level with the 8-seed Wildcats made an improbable run to the National Championship Game in 1985, where they faced off against Patrick Ewing and the top-ranked, heavily-favored Hoyas. In a game for the ages, Villanova won their first NCAA title 66-64 and etched the rivalry into the history books.
Kansas vs. Kansas State
These in-state and conference rivals face off twice a year and, despite Kansas‘ supremacy over Kansas State overall and especially in recent years (the Jayhawks have won 89 of the last 101 matchups as of the 2020-21 season). Things are always heated, sometimes boiling over into the “extra-curricular activities” that fans love to see in rivalry games. KU and K-State have played each other nearly 300 times, stretching all the way back to 1907.
Michigan vs. Michigan State
Another pair of in-state and in-conference foes, the Michigan Wolverines and Michigan State Spartans have one of the better rivalries in the Big Ten. The state of Michigan is heavily divided in fandom between the two schools and the tension is most prevalent on the hardwood and gridiron every year. The teams have played nearly 200 times since their first meeting in 1909 and the series is more even than most other rivalries on this list.
The Philadelphia Big Five (Penn, La Salle, Saint Joseph’s, Temple & Villanova)
There are five prominent Division I basketball programs in Philadelphia and any games amongst them are sure to provide the pageantry and drama that people love about college sports. The group features Villanova from the Big East, A-10 foes La Salle and Saint Joseph’s, Temple from the AAC and Penn from the Ivy League. Villanova has been the most successful program recently on a national level, though Temple actually has more total wins in its’ program history. All five times don’t always meet each season, but whichever teams have the best record against the others are considered the champion for that year (Villanova and Temple lead the way here, as well, though all five have won or shared the honor at least 11 times).
New Mexico vs. New Mexico State
One of the better in-state mid-major rivalries, the New Mexico Lobos and New Mexico State Aggies play each other every season in the non-conference schedule. Known as both the Rio Grande Rivalry and the Battle of I-25, the two schools compete in all sports and whichever cumulatively wins more games in a given year is declared the champion. On the hardwood, the men’s basketball teams have played more than 200 times dating back to 1894 – with the Lobos holding a head-to-head advantage.
Marquette vs. Wisconsin
The two premier major-conference programs in the Badger State, both Wisconsin and Marquette have proud basketball traditions and have been facing each other for over 100 years. Outside of MU’s dominance in the 1970s, the series has been pretty even with one or both teams often coming into the game ranked in the top 25. Another great thing about the rivalry is that it is played on campus, switching back-and-forth between Milwaukee and Madison each year.
Illinois vs. Missouri
The Braggin’ Rights game features geographic rivals Illinois and Missouri meeting up each year in St. Louis, a neutral location with easy access for both student bases. The two programs first faced off in 1932, but the rivalry became annual in 1976 and moved from campus to STL four years later. The middle ground location provides for a unique environment, with rowdy fans scattered throughout the stadium rocking their orange or gold team gear.
Gonzaga vs. Saint Mary’s
Gonzaga may be the gold standard of mid-major college basketball, but WCC-foe Saint Mary’s has been the most successful in toppling the mighty Bulldogs since the turn of the century. The Zags hold a commanding lead in the all-time series, but the Gaels have a number of signature wins of late – including the 2019 WCC Tournament title game. The two top mid-major programs on the West Coast always leave it all on the court and are often appointment viewing for fans of the game.
Arizona vs. UCLA
The two most prominent programs in the Pac-12, both in terms of historical success and nationwide brand recognition, Arizona and UCLA are usually at or near the top of the league standings which means these are often important match-ups for each. With 100+ matchups since their first in 1923, Arizona/UCLA is one of the best rivalries in the Pacific Time Zone featuring great storylines and players (including dozens of future NBA stars from both schools).
Princeton vs. Penn
The Ivy League has a number of great rivalries, but from a basketball standpoint it is Princeton/Penn that rises above the rest. With over 200 match-ups since 1903, it is the third-longest consecutively played rivalry in the country and features two schools located less than an hour apart that compete in everything (including academics). What’s unique here is that the Ivy League is considered a one-bid conference, where only the league champion will go to the NCAA Tournament. When these two teams are in the mix for that single spot (which is often the case) the games just get that much more intense.
Fordham vs. Manhattan
There are a number of rivalries amongst the NYC mid-majors but the Battle of the Bronx between Fordham and Manhattan is perhaps the most storied of them all, going all the way back to 1912. The two programs used to be in the same league, playing each other more than once, but with Manhattan in the MAAC and Fordham in the A-10 the schools have kept the rivalry going as an annual non-conference game since 1990. Intimate gyms, fierce competition between often evenly-matched teams, city pride on the line… all ingredients for an exciting rivalry.
Richmond vs. VCU
The Capital City Classic is rivalry game between the VCU Rams and the Richmond Spiders, currently played twice a year as both programs are members of the Atlantic 10. The two biggest programs in Virginia’s capital have been playing each other since 1976, with it being a non-conference match-up for most of its history. Both schools were in the CAA from 1995-2001 and are now league foes again as of 2012. Among the better mid-major programs on the East Coast, the games bring much fanfare amongst supporters of both schools and are often among the better MM match-ups of the season.