Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will spend the next year chronicling the three teams widely expected to be ranked 1-2-3 in the 2012-13 preseason polls: Indiana, Kentucky and Louisville. The three regional rivals have a combined 15 national titles and 30 Final Four appearances, but never have they entered a season with a monopoly on the top spots in the rankings in the same season.
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Kentucky played Indiana in baseball Wednesday. On campus.
The timing and location of that game brought wry smiles from people in the Indiana University basketball office at Cook Hall. Just days after one of the marquee hoops rivalries in the nation was halted because the Wildcats refuse to continue playing the Hoosiers on campus, there was a UK team showing up at IU.
So somebody from Lexington still is willing to visit Bloomington to compete. And even win, as it turned out. Kentucky took a 12-inning thriller, 6-5.
There will be no basketball thriller between the two traditional (or non-traditional, if you listen to John Calipari) powers during the 2012-13 regular season. While both teams figure to enter the season ranked in the top five and perhaps in the top three, IU and UK will not play for the first time since the 1960s.
"We have one of the great arenas in college basketball history and one of the best atmospheres in the nation right now," Indiana coach Tom Crean said. "Why would we do anything to go away from that?
"Everyone has their own philosophy. You try to see the other's point of view, but you have to stick with your philosophy."
Kentucky's philosophy was articulated by Calipari in what equated to a Jerry Maguire mission statement on the coach's Website earlier this week. He said Kentucky must move away from scheduling non-conference road games and move toward neutral sites to better prepare the forever-young Wildcats for the NCAA tournament. Playing at IU certainly didn't do lasting damage to UK's chances of winning the national title this past season, but Calipari drew a firm line on what he believes future schedules should be like.
It was a grandiose treatise, in which Calipari labeled UK a "non-traditional" program. That runs counter to the Rupp Arena P.A. announcer's pregame declaration that Kentucky has "the greatest tradition in college basketball," but it's not the first time history has been disposable to Cal.
I asked Crean what he thought of the mission statement from his friend and coaching adversary.
"It was interesting reading," he said crisply. "I would've only used two words to sum up our [mission], and I've used them before: It's Indiana."
At Indiana this spring, there is some redecorating going on.
On the wall behind the receptionist's desk in the basketball office is a fresh, frame-by-frame breakdown of the last on-campus shot taken in this rivalry for the foreseeable future. Five pictures show Christian Watford catching, rising and firing the most memorable basket of the 2011-12 season – the buzzer-beater that lifted the Hoosiers past the No. 1 Wildcats, 73-72.
Elsewhere in the office is a newly hung picture of the stormed floor in Assembly Hall, a sea of crimson-clad fans engulfing the court after Watford's basket. Kentucky got revenge in March with more on the line, beating Indiana in the Sweet 16 on its way to the national title, but these days the only IU-UK game suitable for framing in Bloomington is the one that went the Hoosiers' way.
More than any other game, that signaled the return of Indiana as a national contender after years of humiliation – first for NCAA scandal and roster turnover, then for the painful losing it led to. After three consecutive seasons of more than 20 defeats, Indiana came back last season. And the comeback was official when Watford's shot went it.
That December game was one of the most crazed home-court environments I've seen in more than 20 years of covering college basketball. Rebuilding the Assembly Hall atmosphere has been a major project for Crean.
"When we came here, we lost almost half our student body," he said. "Two years ago, we led the nation in student tickets by about 100. Last year, we led by over a thousand.
"That's a big part of our base. Not the monetary value, but the energy value. When you're at a place like Indiana, you count on that student energy. Then we lost it. When you get it back, you certainly don't want to do anything to lose it again. There's a togetherness with [the students].
"You want to have games they're going to look forward to, to get there early in the morning or spend the night outside to get in. I think it's one of those college experiences they're going to remember forever."
It's true that this series was memorable when it was played on neutral courts in Indianapolis and Louisville. The tickets were split 50-50, and it was the closest thing to an Oklahoma-Texas or Georgia-Florida football game that college hoops had. Calipari wanted a return to that setup, and even offered to play every game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indy.
Calipari knows that a 50-50 ticket split is likely to end up with a blue majority in the house. Any house. And he also likes the idea of playing in the target-rich recruiting environment of Indianapolis. That's why he was OK with an annual game there.
"John brought that up to me," Crean said. "You have to look at it. But at the end of the day, we've already got the Crossroads Classic [a four-team doubleheader with in-state schools Butler, Notre Dame and Purdue] up there."
So that's why Crean stood his ground. And that was why, on Tuesday morning, he was in his office looking at video of the Louisville-Kentucky Final Four game.
Not to check out the Wildcats, but to scout the Cardinals.
For a few days, it was bandied about that Louisville – another likely preseason top-five school that's in the neighborhood – might take Kentucky's place on Indiana's schedule. But Crean could put the video away; by midweek, it became apparent that potential matchup will not be on the 2012-13 schedule.
Instead, all three schools are likely to schedule someone safer – to the detriment of college basketball fans who crave great non-conference matchups in great on-campus environments.
"It's disgusting," said Tim Brown, who works for a beer distributorship and was stocking the upstairs bar at Nick's English Hut on Tuesday afternoon.
Bartender Bob Heberstreit feels for the IU students, who may not have a court-storming Kentucky moment of their own.
"If you're a senior here, that game is it," he said. "That's the game you've got to remember in your four years of basketball."
At Yogi's Grill and Bar, they're worried about lost revenue. The place isn't usually packed for a low-profile opponent like it is when a Kentucky comes to town.
"It hurts the fans and the local businesses," said co-owner and general manager Joana Glasscott. "It will definitely impact business."
Even without Kentucky on the schedule, Indiana is in full preparation mode for what could be its most memorable season in more than a quarter-century. Everyone in the basketball program is in achievatron mode.
Seven players graduated last weekend, most with eligibility remaining. Crean was bubbling about the team's grade-point average, saying six players had their highest-ever individual GPAs in the spring and that the team had a 3.0 for the semester.
When he saw guard and stellar student Victor Oladipo entering Cook Hall, Crean bounded up to embrace him.
"I've got to give you a hug for that 3.6!" Crean shouted. "Awesome, man!"
Most of the Hoosiers stayed on campus for the first summer-school session, which started Monday. Three – Watford, Remy Abell and Maurice Creek – are home for the first session and will be back in Bloomington for the second. That's when the highly touted freshman class is expected in as well.
"This is a time when some players can get a job," Crean said. "They can earn some money while still taking a couple of courses and working out."
Outside of Crean's office, balls are bouncing in the gym. It's the sound the coach loves hearing during the offseason. It means his players are working on their games on their own.
Oladipo and Will Sheehy were in the gym Monday night hoisting shots. Freshman Cody Zeller took his last spring-semester exam Friday afternoon, then reported straight to the gym to work out and was there until after 9.
"These guys are locked in," Crean said. "It's a different culture in the classroom and the weight room right now. We're trying to nail every detail of their game.
"There's no way to quantify the struggle and hard work it took to get the program where it is now. You lose players, you lose games, you lose crowds – that's when you realize it's so precious. There's no part of the experience you take for granted. None."
Another thing you can't take for granted: seeing Kentucky and Indiana play every year. That sad reality has intruded upon Blomington's building excitement for 2012-13.
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