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June 4, 2012

Hoop schedule changes not ending big blue rivalry

Hold on. The rivalry isn't dead.

And changes to the 102-year-old Kentucky-Tennessee basketball border war at the behest of the Southeastern Conference aren't quite going to yield a nuclear winter for these two rivals.




"If I had had my druthers, and I expressed that very early on, yes, we would have liked to continue to play Kentucky annually in a home-and-home for a long, long time." - Dave Hart






With the SEC's expansion to 14 teams following the additions of Missouri and Texas A&M taking effect this fall, changes have been needed across all sports. While most focus has remained understandably on the football slate, basketball also absorbed some significant adjustments.

Yes, there will be an 18-game conference schedule.

Yes, that translates into just one permanent rival for each school --- many of them in-state, such as Tennessee-Vanderbilt --- and no more "divisional" pairings, which already had begun to be phased out with the league's elimination last year of Eastern and Western halves.

Tennessee will still play Kentucky annually; most years, the Vols will still get the Wildcats in Knoxville. And fans won't notice any change to the rivalry this year, as long as the proposed model gets formally adopted as expected. The Vols are tentatively set for their two-game series with Vanderbilt and to keep a pair of games this year against Kentucky.Tennessee and Kentucky have met at least twice annually on the hardwood since 1954.

"If I had had my druthers, and I expressed that very early on, yes, we would have liked to continue to play Kentucky annually in a home-and-home for a long, long time," said UT Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics Dave Hart, who played a key and vocal role in the SEC's ultimate decision to preserve its most storied, longstanding rivalries regardless of divisional barriers on the football side. "But it was obvious as the conversations continued that that was not going to be possible.

"And I think what the conference tried to do, and for the most part it's pretty obvious, is line up in-state rivals for permanent partners to the extent possible."

Indeed UT-Vandy, Alabama-Auburn and Mississippi-Mississippi State were established as permanent, intrastate series. LSU will pick up Texas A&M, Arkansas and Missouri have a natural geographic pairing that's being utilized in both basketball and football; Georgia and South Carolina are relatively close neighbors to pair for basketball; and Florida and Kentucky have been easily the SEC's two most-visible and successful programs for a sustained stretch.

"I can't really argue the logic relative to Kentucky and Florida if you look at the ratio of success; there are two teams who have participated in Final Fours and won national championships within the past decade," said Hart, whom multiple sources told VolQuest.com did indeed lobby the SEC to maintain the biannual rivalry with the Wildcats. "From a pure television perspective, again, it's hard to argue that pairing. Where I think we did come out in really good shape, this will be done in three-year cycles.

"So you've got your permanent partner and a second pod and once everything is finalized and the SEC will release that, you'll see that Kentucky will still come to Knoxville two out of every three years. A lot of people are saying 'Oh, my goodness! We don't play Kentucky twice a year. They're not coming here anymore.' Nothing could be further from accurate as it relates to that."

Hart also praised the retention of Vanderbilt as a permanent rival and pointed to the Vols' overall success in the league-wide scheduling modifications. While Tennessee and Kentucky have met some 214 times on the hardwood, the series cannot match the profile of the Vols' 111-year, 93-game 'Third Saturday in October' series on the gridiron with Alabama, which was preserved.

"When you assess all of the scheduling modification models which were reviewed as a result of conference expansion," Hart explained, "we fared well as an institution. This was a very complex issue. No one had their 'wish list' granted exactly as it was requested. It can't work that way."

The SEC has said that it expects to release full basketball schedules in late-July. It last week released pairings for the SEC-Big East Challenge, which will have Tennessee visiting Georgetown this season. The league also is set to formally announce the half-dozen or so cities who are seeking to host future SEC basketball tournaments in the coming weeks. Louisville, Ky., and Kansas City are among those locales believed to be exploring bids.


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