The men’s basketball rivalry between Duke and North Carolina might be the best in all of sports. Yes, there is Red Sox vs. Yankees, Cowboys vs. Redskins, or Lakers vs. Celtics. But Tobacco Road has two major advantages on these games.
First, the two universities are right next to each other — only eight miles apart. Secondly, the game frequently has an incredible impact on the national championship level. From 1988 to 2001, either Duke or North Carolina appeared in every Final Four except for 1996. The fact that the two teams managed to reach the pinnacle of college hoops with such regularity is simply remarkable. Over the past few seasons, the prestige of the rivalry has clearly declined. But it now appears that college basketball’s greatest game will return to glory in years to come.
One of the obvious reasons for the downfall of the rivalry is Duke’s recent dominance of North Carolina. Duke has won 11 of the last 12 games, including a 21.2-point average margin of victory over the last five times the two ACC rivals clashed. Just last night, nationally ranked No. 9 Duke knocked off North Carolina 83-74.
But this can’t be the entire reason for the rivalry’s decline. After all, there have been times in the past where one team dominated the other, and the game did not suffer. Before Duke’s recent run, North Carolina defeated Duke in the 1998 ACC Championship, capping a streak where the Tar Heels took 10 of 12 from the Blue Devils. Even in 1995, when Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was out for much of the season and Duke finished 13-18, it never seemed like the rivalry lost its fire. In fact, the 1995 game at Cameron Indoor Stadium was phenomenal, with Duke’s Jeff Capel hitting a half-court shot, forcing the game to double overtime where North Carolina prevailed 102-100.
The rivalry may only seem to have taken a hit because of the recent ascension of the rivalry between Duke and Maryland. In 2001, Duke and Maryland played four exceptional games that allowed their grudge matches to eclipse the tradition rivalry. Despite the fact that Duke and North Carolina split the ACC regular season championship and battled for the ACC tournament title in 2001, nothing could compare to the Duke-Maryland games from that year.
The first Duke vs. Maryland game that season featured Duke rallying from a 10-point deficit with 54 seconds to play before winning in overtime at Maryland. In the game played at Cameron Indoor, Maryland came back from a half-time deficit to win, as the Blue Devils’ Carlos Boozer went down with an injury. In the ACC semifinals, Duke was again victorious on a last-second tip by Nate James. Finally, in the Final Four, Duke rallied from a 22-point deficit to win before beating Arizona for the championship. Last year, Maryland took the ACC regular season title from Duke and later claimed the national title. With these results, it is not surprising that Duke-Maryland rivalry has surpassed Duke-UNC in recent years.
Yes, it is true that neither team has been impressive recently. Duke (15-3) has last three straight ACC road games, while UNC (11-10) has lost four in a row. However, both of these teams have great potential.
North Carolina struggled last year because of an inability to recruit. When Dean Smith retired in 1997, long-time assistant Bill Guthridge became the Tar Heels’ coach. Because of his advanced age, Guthridge would likely be retiring soon. This problem made it more difficult to bring recruits to North Carolina. When Guthridge actually did retire in 2000, North Carolina struggled to find a replacement, losing further recruiting opportunities. Now, with third-year coach Matt Doherty firmly entrenched, Carolina should once again be a recruiting power. This year’s freshmen include Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants, and Sean May. Felton demonstrated his potential last night against the Blue Devils; McCants is another story.
Meanwhile, Duke has been incredibly dominant for the last five seasons. In each of these years, Duke has been a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Coach K has never had problems with finding talent. When Elton Brand, Corey Maggette, and William Avery left early for the NBA in 1999, Jason Williams, Mike Dunleavy, and Carlos Boozer replaced them. With the early departure of the more recent triumvirate, Duke brought in J.J. Redick, Shelden Williams, Sean Dockery, and Shavlik Randolph. Just look at Redick’s beautiful shot to end last night’s first half, and it’s clear Duke has a solid future.
Maryland currently leads the ACC, but most of its key players are seniors. With Duke and North Carolina loaded with so much freshman talent, it would appear that the two rivals will be dominant for the next few years.