The halfway point in conference play will be breached by both No. 5 Duke and No. 10 UNC when they face-off in the first of at least two season meetings on Wednesday night in Chapel Hill. The scheduling date is not a coincidence.Serious college basketball fans can tell you who won the Maui Invitational. They remember catching the bulk of the 24-hour tip-off marathon in November and have thoroughly enjoyed the first six weeks of conference play. For the rest of the sports world, the hoops season begins after the Super Bowl, and the showdown between the Tar Heels and Blue Devils could just as easily be labelled the “Tip-Off Classic.” It’s being played three days after Super Bowl XLVI for good reason.
There are more than a few college basketball diehards who object to the fact that The Battle of Tobacco Road is the sport’s defining series and rivalry, but it’s an established status that won’t be challenged anytime soon.
The public’s biggest problem with Duke-UNC — aside from the fact that it’s shoved down their throats, pulled out and then shoved back down at least one more times every winter — is that the claimed “hatred” between the programs doesn’t seem genuine. There doesn’t appear to be the same history of pure vitriol between the players, coaches or (most importantly) fan bases like there is with Kentucky-Louisville, Kansas-Missouri or even Cincinnati-Xavier. Roy Williams did once say he’d rather beat UNC’s in-state rival than eat … but he was talking about NC State. When it comes down to it, there’s almost too much respect between the two programs for a culture that’s always thirsty for a fight.
Detractors view Duke-North Carolina the same way the general public views a presidential primary. These two have their differences and they act like they legitimately hate each other when on television, but they’re essentially the same dude chasing the same top prize. Still, everyone watches and everyone picks a favourite because the importance of the game/election in the grand scheme of things is readily apparent.
The main reason Carolina-/Duke succeeds — in addition to having the advantage of playing its games during a period when flipping over to football isn’t an option — is because of the success of each program.
Hate the fact as much as you want, but the name “Duke” is still more synonymous with college basketball than any other in the game. Fans gripe about the Blue Devils constantly popping up on their television, but it’s a nuisance they wouldn’t be plagued with if people didn’t want to watch them play … even if replacing “play” with “lose” makes that sentence more accurate.
North Carolina, meanwhile, has been the sport’s top program for the past decade, winning national titles in 2005 and 2009, and crashing another Final Four in 2008. In the same way their rivals from Durham are known for “grit” and “teamwork,” the Tar Heels have earned the reputation of possessing the country’s top talent, future professionals also happy to achieve the highest level of success during their sometimes brief stay in college.
The result of the dueling philosophies is an unrivalled combination of sustained success. The last 128 times these two have played, at least one has been ranked in the Associated Press Top 25. The last time neither was ranked by the AP was on February 27, 1960. But even then, North Carolina was No. 12 in the coaches’ poll. The last meeting where neither was ranked in either poll was February 25, 1955. In all, UNC has owned a national ranking in 105 of the past 129 meetings with Duke, and the Blue Devils have also been ranked in 84 of those matchups.
In evidence that will strike a stronger chord with those not impressed by deep history, either the Blue Devils or Tar Heels have been a No. 1 seed in every NCAA Tournament since 2004. Oh, and then there are the seven national championships and 16 Final Four appearances over the past 20 seasons.
Individual success of the highest order doesn’t always translate to great series games, but that has not been the case here. Remarkably, the combined score of the past 75 “Battle of the Blues” comes out to 5,858-5,857. Duke leads by a point. Jeff Capel’s buzzer-beater, Tyler Hansbrough’s bloody face, Chris Duhon’s length of the court drive for the game-winning lay-up; these are moments that even the most casual of college basketball fans are familiar with, and that’s why the series gets top billing.
People will watch a Yankees-Red Sox game even if New York has won seven straight over Boston, and they’ll watch Ohio State and Michigan play on the gridiron even if neither team is ranked. Would the public care about Duke vs. North Carolina if the teams were bad or the games became consistently one-sided? There’s no way to know right now because the series won’t stop delivering.
High-profile teams playing extremely competitive games is an unrivalled recipe for success in the sports world. It’s the reason the Duke-North Carolina rivalry is the “face” of college basketball, and why Wednesday night’s game ushers in the sport’s unofficial second season.
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