Duke vs. UNC preview: The most important week in North Carolina sports history

Saturday’s national semifinal matchup in New Orleans between Duke and North Carolina means “everything” in the storied rivalry.

College basketball is engrained in the culture of North Carolina.

Corporate events in the state of North Carolina aren’t planned until the upcoming season’s schedule has been released. TVs are hauled into classrooms to watch the ACC Tournament and NCAA Tournament in March.

That level of interest is part of what makes both Duke and North Carolina such successful programs, and also what makes their rivalry so intense.

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The two historic programs have faced off 256 times since their first meeting in 1920. Somehow, after decades of pivotal matchups and unforgettable moments, their 257th meeting will be the biggest and most important to date.

North Carolina’s blowout victory over this year’s March Madness Cinderella, Saint Peter’s, on Sunday afternoon solidified the first-ever meeting between the Tar Heels and Blue Devils in the NCAA Tournament.

Duke punched their ticket on Saturday night in a 78-69 victory and dodged questions about a potential third matchup with North Carolina after the game. UNC did the same, with both Hubert Davis and Armando Bacot deflecting questions postgame.

Duke-UNC rivalry reaches new heights

Though each program is putting on a front that they haven’t looked ahead to the matchup, college basketball fans had it circled once both reached the Sweet 16. There wasn’t really any momentum behind that thought at the time, though, because there have been a number of potential Duke-UNC showdowns in the NCAA Tournament that were foiled along the way.

Most recently, in 2019, the most popular national championship game pick in brackets submitted to ESPN was Duke-UNC. Both programs made the Sweet 16 that season, too, but both teams fell short of the Final Four.

Once both made the Elite Eight this past weekend, though, all bets were off. The two appeared to be on an inevitable collision course — one that even the boldest of prognosticators wouldn’t have predicted just a few weeks ago.

North Carolina lost at home to Pitt on Feb 16, trailing the Panthers by as many as 21 points. It did not have a Quadrant I victory until late February.

Meanwhile, Duke was dominant in November but looked rather pedestrian after, losing to Florida State and Virginia while narrowly avoiding disastrous losses to teams like Clemson, Louisville and Wake Forest.

North Carolina’s turning point

Then came the regular-season finale.

The Tar Heels, who lost by 20 to the Blue Devils in their first meeting, looked like a completely different team on March 5, scoring a 94-81 victory over the Blue Devils to spoil Mike Krzyzewski‘s final home game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. North Carolina took pride in that win.

It served as a turning point for Hubert Davis’ squad, as they have looked virtually unstoppable since, playing with the purpose and energy that seemed to escape them during the season’s first 30 games.

On the flip side, the result appeared to be another nail in the coffin for this “soft” Duke team that didn’t want to play defense and struggled to meet the moment. That narrative has certainly changed with its play in the NCAA Tournament, and the Blue Devils credit that loss as giving them the focus needed to go on this run.

Most notably, though, it laid the groundwork for the emotions that will go into Saturday’s Final Four matchup.

Eyeing the rubber match

Duke wants revenge. Durham has become something of a one-and-done factory in recent years, yet Paolo Banchero & Co. have a chance to forever etch their place in Duke lore. After missing the NCAA Tournament last year, it looked like this group may squander the promise it showed in wins over Kentucky and Gonzaga back in November, but now it’s delivering.

“For me, it means everything,” Wendell Moore said after beating Arkansas. “I preach it all week, but for me it’s been a three-year wait. You come to Duke looking to get to moments like this, and unfortunately for me those first two years that moment was taken away. … This moment right here is definitely pretty special to me.”

Meanwhile, this North Carolina core has struggled with the same obstacle over the last two years. After missing the NCAA Tournament two years ago, falling in the first round last season and spending most of this season on the bubble, they wanted to put UNC back in the national picture.

“People kind of pushed North Carolina to the side and saying how we were done and all this and that,” Bacot told reporters after beating Saint Peter’s. “And I’m just so glad to make it to the Final Four, finally, and kind of cement myself. We’re not done yet. But just cement myself and us as a team, me and Leaky, specifically, to be able to say we won.”

Davis has been adamant about wanting this group to “create memories” this season, and that really started with the win at Cameron Indoor. Former UNC players flocked to social media to celebrate this core and the victory, gloating they would have the last laugh in their last matchup against Coach K.

But the college basketball gods had other ideas.

A perfectly even rivalry

The Carolina-Duke rivalry is special because of its evenness. They are 53-53 in their last 106 matchups and have both scored 8,261 points in those games.

North Carolina has six national championships while Duke has five. UNC has won 2,294 games while Duke has 2,214 program victories. The Tar Heels have won the most ACC regular-season titles while the Blue Devils have the most ACC Tournament titles.

With all of the ebbs and flows of each program, there is always a counter. UNC fans could counter Duke’s 2010 national title by pointing to their 2005 and 2009 titles. Duke could take solace in their 2015 title when UNC won it again in 2017.

But neither has an NCAA Tournament victory over the other — it’s remained the elusive trump card in this heated rivalry.

It took 83 NCAA Tournaments — 36 since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 — for Duke and Carolina to meet at this stage. Who knows how long it will take for them to meet again, if ever?

That thought — that “sheer terror,” as a UNC fan told me — is currently crippling both fan bases. The winner of Saturday’s game will have a semi-permanent upper hand in a rivalry where no one has had an upper hand in decades.

In a state where college basketball means everything, the upper hand in the sport’s biggest rivalry is everything.

Saturday’s game is everything.



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