Sunday, September 28, 2003

Memphis, UC to keep rivalry


College basketball insider

By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The University of Cincinnati's anticipated move to the Big East Conference in 2005 is loaded with positive implications for the Bearcats, but even progress sometimes comes with a down side.

OK, there's not a lot that UC will miss about Conference USA, but there is at least one thing. When the Bearcats leave, they will be leaving behind their rivalry with Memphis, one of their most cherished.

UC and Memphis started playing each other in basketball during the 1967-68 season when Memphis joined the Missouri Valley Conference. Except for a five-year break while UC left the league to become an independent, the two schools have met every season, through the MVC, the Metro Conference, the Great Midwest Conference and C-USA.

In fact, it was UC and Memphis that stuck together to leave the Metro and form the Great Midwest. Originally, Louisville was also part of the deal but at the last minute opted to remain in the Metro. UC and Memphis went ahead without the Cardinals.

The good news is there's a chance UC will continue to play Memphis in a nonconference game every season even after the Bearcats leave C-USA. Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson said he has talked to UC's Bob Goin about it. He also wants to continue to play Louisville.

"From a scheduling standpoint, that makes some sense," Johnson said. "From a fan-interest and television standpoint, it would make sense as well."

UC leads the series with Memphis 33-27. Both schools have taken turns dominating, with Memphis winning 11 in a row from 1981-82 to 1986-87. UC has had the upper hand lately, having won eight of the last nine. The Tigers won last season in Memphis.

The rivalry heated up in 1991-92 when UC beat Memphis four times, including an 88-57 thrashing in the Midwest Regional final that sent UC to the Final Four.

Over the years, Memphis fans have ridden UC coach Bob Huggins hard. In the early days of Huggins' tenure, a well-dressed, middle-aged male fan constantly yelled insults at the UC coach, referring to him as "Higgins."

One year, when the Bearcats landed at the Memphis airport, they were greeted by a group of Memphis fans, who followed Huggins and the team through the concourse to the baggage claim, with the lights from a TV crew in Huggins' face the whole way. The next year, a bus met the UC team on the tarmac. Last season, when Memphis beat UC at the Pyramid, Huggins was peppered with insults, but afterward some of the same fans who had been abusing him asked for his autograph. Huggins obliged.

"He kind of plays along with it," Johnson said. "He plays to the crowd. There's been some great games, and it's a great rivalry because of that."

---

E-mail bkoch@enquirer.com




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