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College Basketball Rivalry Spots

   by Bryan Leonard - 02/11/2008

There are many different kinds of rivalry games in college basketball. The one most talked about is two teams in the same conference. They meet twice during the regular season, and many times again in conference tournament play in early March. Duke/North Carolina and UConn/Pitt would be two obvious examples.

But there are other kinds, too. Teams in the same state or the same geographic region can develop a rivalry. Rivalries can also be tied in, from a handicapping perspective, as a BIG game on the schedule, or one that has extra meaning. Defending national champion Florida, for instance, may be rebuilding, but don’t tell that to Tennessee and Arkansas, two teams that recently thumped the Gators. After watching Florida win two straight titles, beating the Gators often means more than beating other teams, even if they are retooling.

Early in the season, Florida had to play a non-confernce game against Ohio State. There is no regular play between the teams, but it is a non-conference game with far more importance for the players than many other games – it was a rematch of the national title game. It was also a test to see how good both teams were against a top-flight opponent. Ohio State got revenge, of sorts, in a 62-49 win. In short, it's not just like any other game, it has extra significance, even if it's outside of conference play.

It's not just with big-name programs, either. It happens all the time with lesser-known schools, you just have to know how to identify it. A team creeping into the Top 20 for the first time in years, for instance, could face one of these big games the next time they play a quality opponent. If you find players talking about how they want to prove that they deserve their high rank against a strong team, that shows that the upcoming tilt has great importance to them.

I used a similar angle last season when Gonzaga played Stanford. It was more of an emotionally-focused game for Gonzaga, but one that was an emotional down spot for Stanford, a perfect handicapping mix. At the time, Stanford was riding high as they recently entered the top 25 with victories over conference rivals USC and UCLA. The UCLA win was very impressive as they trailed the Bruins 37-25 at halftime only to dominate the second half.

Stanford proved themselves in that big game. However, the break in the schedule found them stepping out of conference to host Gonzaga, before they headed back into Pac 10 action against Cal, Washington State and Washington. They had revenge for a 4-point loss at home to the Bears, as well. In the extremely tough Pac 10 conference, those games mean more than playing non-conference Gonzaga.

The Zags, on the other hand, had been pointing to the Stanford game as a big one against a team from a power conference. The Bulldogs get little competition in their own league. With bad teams Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount (yawn) on deck, it was clear Stanford would get Gonzaga's full attention.

Gonzaga has a history of not backing down from playing tough schools as evidenced by their early season schedule. In recent years they traveled to Georgia and Virginia, as well as facing Texas, Duke, North Carolina, Butler and Nevada on neutral courts. The Zags not only covered but won, 90-86 as a dog. The key is to identify these situational rivalry or big game spots before they happen, both in AND out of conference.

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