College basketball and college football each have two rivalries on this list. As high of a level that the game is played at in the pro’s, the rivalries there simply do not have the passion and intensity of college sports. In college, IT ACTUALLY IS more about the name on the front than the name on the back. The fans sitting in the second row aren’t high-powered businessmen trying to impress their clients. They’re college kids, who have done all their sitting waiting in line for tickets for hours (sometimes days) in advance.
The best seats go to the biggest fans, something that professional sports can’t provide, and it creates an atmosphere that pro sports can very rarely replicate. I’ve rooted for the Mets, Jets, and Knicks all of my life and will continue to do so, but I don’t think there was ever a team that I rooted harder for than Maryland basketball for the four years that I was there. The Duke-Maryland game for the ACC regular season title in 2010 was an atmosphere unlike any I've ever witnessed at a sports game, and I'm sure that plenty of people reading this would take a court side seat at a regular season college game over one at a pro game any day.
Why this is on the list:
With that in mind, what you have with Syracuse and UConn are two of the pre-eminent men’s basketball programs since 2001, including arguably the best in UConn, and two of the best coaches ever in college basketball roaming opposite sidelines. Both fan bases come out in droves to every home game, and most road games, and when they both converge on the Garden for the Big East tournament, it’s routinely the most electric game there.
The team that’s routinely been on the winning end of the games between the two has been UConn. Since 2001, the Huskies have 2 national championships, 5 Elite Eight’s, and three conference championships in unquestionably the most consistenly competitive league in the country. I’ve said my piece about Jim Calhoun, and I’m definitely still not a fan of his, but there’s one thing that can’t be denied: he wins.
Almost no major program in America is squeaky clean, and UConn is no exception, but there are plenty of programs that haven’t been able to translate great recruiting classes to national championships. Rick Barnes, Jay Wright, Bob Huggins, and John Calipari are all able to practically have their pick of the top 100 every year, but none have been the last coach standing. Calhoun is one of a handful of coaches in America whose team is always a threat to go all the way simply because of his presence on the sidelines.
On paper, this year’s team was definitely not the most talented in the field (probably North Carolina) or the most cohesive team (Duke or Ohio State), but they got rolling the Big East tournament and just never stopped. Calhoun didn’t have the flashiest 2010 class in the country, but he worked some alchemy with Jeremy Lamb, and turned a lightly recruited kid into a legitimate force in March.
However much I don’t care for Calhoun, he’s damn good at what he does. The biggest compliment that can be paid to him is to look at the 2 championships he’s won since 2001. One in 2004 with an All-America big man, and a lights out shooter at the point, and the other in 2011 with a much younger team lead by a slashing point guard, but with a dearth of post talent. He’s won two championships in two completely different ways, and that ability to adapt is what separates good coaches from hall of famers.
Jim Boeheim is a legend in his own right. The staunch supporter of the 2-3 zone in big conference college basketball. It takes guts to stick to a system that concedes the outside shot at such a high level, and it also takes a brilliant tactician to mold solo man defenders into a cohesive unified zone.
The Orange have routinely played their best basketball once the calendar turns over (2 Big East titles, one runner up). They haven’t had the level of success that UConn has had, with only one championship in 2003. But some of that can certainly be chalked up to bad luck, especially in 2010 where a healthy Arinze Onuaku would have undoubtedly produced a Final Four contending team.
Very simply, if you had to start a college basketball team, there is maybe one name you’d choose to coach it before Calhoun (Krzyzewski) and maybe two or three more you’d run through before getting to Boeheim.
On the surface, it looks like UConn owns this rivalry. They have a head to head advantage (11 -8), and advantages in both Connecticut and at Syracuse. However, the reason that the series is so close, and what adds fire to an above average conference rivalry, is that Syracuse has gotten their series defining wins under the bright lights at MSG.
In 2004, #24 Syracuse knocked off #7 UConn, in 2006 an unranked Orange team toppled the #1 Huskies in OT. The list goes on for Syracuse, all of which lead up to 2009’s marathon 6 OT win over 4th ranked UConn, which was the seminal moment of the rivalry.
Neither team was at their peak of talent or performance. Kemba Walker had a terrible shooting night (4-18) as the third guard on the Huskies, and Syracuse was one year away from putting it all together as a one seed. But this game was the all out war that really defined who the two alpha dogs in the Big East were. Syracuse did end up losing in the finals, but just like when Josh Hamilton lost the HR Derby, nobody remembers who they lost to (except me, Justin Morneau), and nobody cares.
There are plenty of arguments that can be made between these two fan bases: whose Big East Tournament run was better (Gerry vs. Kemba)? Would UConn’s dominant 2006 season have been different if they didn’t get knocked off by Syracuse in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament? Was UConn better than Syracuse in their 2003 National Championship year (UConn beat them twice, by 14 and 13 respectively)?
Overall, in the best conference in college basketball, these two teams have routinely shown their ability to matter not only in the Big East, but on the national stage.
Why this isn’t higher:
I waffled a lot on this decision, because if you ask any Syracuse fan what their biggest game every year is, almost all of them will say Georgetown. Well, similar to the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry, Syracuse-Georgetown has kind of faded into the background. Considering college basketball rosters turn over every two to three years, the problem with Georgetown can definitely be isolated (just like with the Godfather and Home Alone, the third iteration of the same name has been very forgettable).
As much as I think Syracuse-UConn is the top current rivalry, it’s certainly not a cut and dry subject because of the parity in the Big East. There’s so many good coaches and so much talent that it’s almost impossible to have a sustained dominance. A lot of people still believe it’s Georgetown-Syracuse, or that it could be Pittsburgh-UConn, or maybe Villanova-Syracuse, or the interstate rivalry of Villanova-Pitt.
Personally, I’m going to say that it’s the two teams in the conference who have captured national championships. Could an argument be made that Villanova, Pitt, or Louisville is in the mix? Yes, but those cases are weakened significantly by those teams’ inability to win the big one.
From this point forward, with one notable exception, both teams in every matchup have won at least one championship. Syracuse satisfies this clause, but mainly because they won the recruiting lottery with Carmelo Anthony. If not for Kevin Durant, Carmelo would be regarded as the best one and done player ever to play college basketball.
He helped to turn around a 21-13 NIT team from 2002, and turn it into a 30-5 national champion in 2003. The other players on that team were definitely important (Warrick’s block in the corner was what sealed the game against Kansas) but I don’t think anybody denies that without that one year of Carmelo’s brilliance, Syracuse wouldn’t have cut down the nets, and might not have even made the tournament.
Both teams have had their down years. UConn was an NIT team in 2007, and lost to San Diego in the first round in 2008 (although the Price knee injury definitely didn’t help). Syracuse has been an NIT team three teams; in 2002, 2007, and 2008 (although a 24-11 record in 2007 makes me question why they didn’t make the field).
Really, the biggest reason this isn’t higher is that Syracuse hasn’t done enough to separate themselves from the rest of the Big East. UConn is the best Big East team of the past ten years, which can’t be argued. Syracuse’s win in 2003 puts them at #2, but without another Final Four or Elite Eight, Pitt and Villanova still are close in their rear view mirror.
If Syracuse is able to turn the return of Kris Joseph, Scoop Jardine, and Bradon Triche, as well as the arrival of Rakeem Christmas into a deep tournament run, then it’s official: UConn-Syracuse will be THE Big East rivalry.