That's the case in volleyball, where even with the addition of two new teams to the SEC, Kentucky still plays Tennessee twice this season, and likely for the foreseeable future.
But in the not too distant future, the Wildcats and the Lady Vols have an early season match up this week, and once again the rivalry will be on display for the entire nation to see. For the fourth straight season, UK versus UT will be televised live on ESPNU at 8 p.m. ET.
As per usual, whenever these two schools get ready to clash, the intensity of the rivalry around the teams and campus ratchets up. Add to it the opportunity to play on national television, and the hype soars through the roof.
Hype has been a buzzword for Kentucky this season, as there was much around the program to begin the year. Expectations were high, but a brutally tough non-conference schedule, perhaps tougher than head coach Craig Skinner initially thought it would be, saw Kentucky drop four of seven matches after the first weekend. Add to that losses to Florida at home and to a hungry LSU team that had yet to play a match in front of its home crowd, Kentucky was left searching for answers.
The Cats have played one of the toughest schedules in the country. That's a fact. But they started the season as a top-15 team nationally, moving up into the top 10 after sweeping their first weekend at home. Then Kentucky hit the road, first in Louisville, then to Ohio University, then to Nebraska. Between the match at Louisville and its latest win over Texas A&M, Kentucky had played nine of its last 10 matches on the road. That's no easy task for any team.
In addition to life on the road, Kentucky has gone up against some of the best competition the nation has to offer. Louisville is ranked 17th. Oregon was ranked 17th when the Ducks and Cats met up in Athens, Ohio. Oregon is now ranked No. 2 nationally and is making a case for the top spot. And then Kentucky went into one of the best atmospheres in all of collegiate volleyball at the University of Nebraska, taking the then No. 1 ranked Cornhuskers to the brink, even while UK was in a bit of a transition.
Kentucky did not win one of those matches. And with a team that started three freshmen at one point this season; good competition may not always translate into better volleyball when those rookies aren't seeing instant gratification.
Off to College State, Texas, went the Wildcats Saturday afternoon; a chance to regroup and refocus on the road. But the Aggies were streaking, and each team looked to be trending in opposite directions. Texas A&M sat at 10-1 (2-0 SEC) on the season and had won nine consecutive matches. Meanwhile, UK had lost four in a row and had lost its first two matches in the conference. On paper, things were only about to get worse for Kentucky.
Luckily for Kentucky, matches are played on the court, and in this case, Reed Arena, a place where Kentucky had tasted success less than nine months ago when the Cats beat the Aggies to advance to the Sweet 16. Maybe those memories and that experience sparked something, because it sure looked like it.
Kentucky was not perfect, but it had success in all facets of the game against the Aggies. The Cats passed well, served tough, and played great defense. They put a whole match together and took down a talented Texas A&M team. But Kentucky didn't win because of Texas A&M. They won because of UK. They took care of business. Kentucky got back to being Kentucky and focusing on itself, rather than the team across the net.
That's what has to happen Wednesday night, rivalry or not.
The planned "Whiteout" and national television appearance are fun and great things for the program, but the team needs to focus on one thing and one thing only: Kentucky.
This match is not about Tennessee. In fact, it could be anyone coming into Memorial Coliseum this Wednesday. This match is just as important as any of the 17 SEC matches left on the schedule. Who is on the other side of the net isn't important when wins are of premium significance at this point in the season.
Maybe that's what this team realized on Sunday, as the Wildcats came out with a new demeanor. Junior right side hitter Whitney Billings described her new demeanor as "free" and "loose." If that's what it takes to put up a stat line of 16 kills, 16 digs, five aces and five blocks as Billings did on Sunday, then everyone needs to play "free" and "loose."
For Kentucky, there are no more marquee matchups left this season. At least they can't think so. There is only Kentucky versus the SEC, every weekend, for the rest of the season. It's up to the Wildcats how this season ends up, and a win over their opponent on Wednesday after their win Sunday would be a great way to begin the rest of the year.