One of the great things about college basketball is players, coaches and fans don't have to wait until the NCAA Tournament for important and emotional games. Sure, March Madness is terrific, but what makes the season so much fun are weeks like the one that opens up Monday night.
ESPN dubs the next seven days "Rivalry Week." And the games from Connecticut to California will certainly make the week more than interesting during what some coaches call the "dog days" of February.
So, what makes a great rivalry? Well, true college basketball rivalries usually have any part of these three components: geography, tradition and the teams' successes.
This week, matchups such as Syracuse-Connecticut, Saint Joseph's-Villanova, Missouri-Kansas, Kentucky-Florida, Arizona-Stanford ... and yes, Duke-North Carolina, certainly define a true rivalry.
But what makes each so compelling, is the fans' emotional stock in a single game. No matter what the rest of the season may bring, winning this one game (or sometimes two meetings) gives students and players braggin' rights for another 12 months.
In the case of Duke-North Carolina, the schools proximity to each other just adds to the fire. Just eight miles apart, these Tobacco Road rivals seem to have been playing forever, the last 51 meetings coming in the ACC.
What makes any game that features the Tar Heels and Blue Devils on the same court extra special, however, is the basketball excellence each has enjoyed for the better part of their basketball histories.
As Cincinnati head coach Bob Huggins told me recently, "It's not a rivalry if one team wins all the time." Such is the case when Cincinnati and Xavier hook up in the Queen City each year. No matter who's ranked, favored or on a roll heading into the game, neither team feels safe.
This week, the Bearcats will be the team with more to lose on paper. But, while Xavier may not have enjoyed the success of Cincy to this point, a victory Tuesday night certainly wouldn't be a shock to those in the arena.
While rivalries like Duke-UNC or Xavier-Cincinnati show up on Rivalry Week each year, there are countless other rivalries that hold as much importance without qualifying for national headlines.
Take the annual Providence-Rhode Island encounter. It happens in the nation's smallest state, yet holds as much intensity as any I've been part of in two decades of coaching. In fact, I may be the only person in the history of the rivalry to have coached at both schools.
Talk about finding yourself in an awkward position ...
I was an assistant at Rhode Island in 1980-81 and spent three years as a Friars assistant under Rick Barnes between 1989 and 1992. Let me tell you why this turned into a "lose-lose" proposition for me.
First of all, the Duke-Carolina or Kansas-Missouri rivalries have nothing on the Friars and Rams when it comes to bitterness and intensity. Rhode Island, being the smallest state in the Union, makes it feel like everybody knows everybody. To make matters worse, Providence College -- with its Big East lineage -- treats URI like its little brother. And, finally, one player, single-handedly, took the vitriol of the rivalry to an entirely new level.
Sly Williams, a star for Rhode Island in the late 1970s, and later a first-round pick of the New York Knicks, originally committed to Providence College. Legend has it that he was driving from his hometown, New Haven, Conn., to start his freshman year when he mysteriously turned off Interstate-95 and onto Route 138 and ended up attending URI. Friar fans never forgave him, and the intensity of the games he played against the Friars at the Providence Civic Center made a European soccer match seem like playtime at your local Montessori school.
I could relate to Williams when I arrived at Providence. As soon as I became a Friar, all of my Rhode Island friends turned on me. But, whenever we lost to URI, my Friars friends wouldn't speak to me for weeks. The Providence-URI game would be talked about all year long and it became a tough game for the players because of the emotion involved in the game every time they suited up. Thankfully, it appears two classy coaches (Tim Welsh and Jim Baron) have put the game in a little better perspective than it used to be.
Another rivalry I enjoyed being part of was that between Ohio University and Miami (Ohio) University when I was an Ohio assistant under Danny Nee. For those who don't follow MAC basketball closely, these are two of the oldest schools in the Northwest Territory. Ohio University was founded in 1804, while Miami was founded five years later. (For you non-history buffs, the Northwest Territory is the land which is now Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, et cetera, from the Colonial era of our country.) Anyway, the tradition of this rivalry goes back to shortly after Dr. James Naismith nailed the peach basket up at the Springfield YMCA.
For the players who arrived on campus, they knew Miami was a big game. They just didn't know why. But, the older players made sure the freshmen understood winning this one game was as important as a MAC championship. Of course, it helped add fuel to the rivalry that both teams fielded solid teams each season. Ohio University and Miami University each won multiple MAC championships in the early- and mid-1980s, as the road to the title usually went through Oxford or Athens, Ohio. We had to contend with Miami's Ron Harper, at the time, and had no idea he would enjoy a lengthy NBA career.
Another small rivalry (and I use "small" loosely) I have the pleasure to be part of as a head coach was that between Manhattan College and Fordham University. I looked forward to our annual "Battle of the Bronx" with Fordham, which was all of two or three miles down the road. (Although it could take 45 in Major Deegan Expressway traffic to get to each school.)
The two school's gyms remain smaller than most college gyms. The atmosphere was hot, I mean hot. The crowds are loud and obnoxious, basically Yankee fans in the offseason. Fordham games were a "two-shirter," and I always had an extra shirt at halftime ready to change into. (My wife banned blue shirts because they showed the perspiration easier.) In fact, after one game at Fordham's Rose Hill campus, a sportswriter thought my players threw me into the showers as a celebratory ritual. No, it was just another hard day's work in a rivalry win.
By the way, I used to laugh when a Jaspers fan would say, "I don't care if we go 1-26 as long as we beat Fordham." Yeah, right.
For teams this week, the most important thing to keep in mind is, while it is truly not just another game, you have to keep a rivalry in perspective. A win is a little sweeter than normal and a loss is a little more bitter. But, there is a lot of season left and there's little time for celebration and mourning. And there's always next year, if not the conference tournament, to get even.
Fran Fraschilla spent 23 years on the sidelines as a college basketball coach at Manhattan, St. John's and New Mexico before joining ESPN and ESPN.com as an analyst last season.