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A fandom agreement ahead of Saturday’s game

None of us wanted this.

Saint Peter’s v North Carolina Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Look, I get the “UNC’s playing with house money” take, and it’s probably the right one to have, but that doesn’t change the fact that none of us wanted this. It’s been not quite an entire century since the NCAA Tournament became a thing, and nearly half a century since at-large bids became a thing, and somehow, two of college basketball’s most consistently good programs in the last 50 years have never run into each other. Meanwhile, just in the last decade, UNC’s run into Kentucky, UCLA, Indiana, Kansas, Villanova, and Gonzaga, a couple of them multiple times. The Heels have also faced Michigan State, UConn, and Georgetown in the NCAA Tournament within my just-over-a-quarter-century of life — that’s nearly all of college basketball’s historic powers represented. And yet, we’ve never seen Duke, through a combination of the committee creating brackets that nearly always have the two on opposite sides of the bracket so they couldn’t see each other until at least the Final Four and a couple of unlucky bounces, and literally everybody I know who’s been invested in the rivalry has preferred it that way. Duke-UNC is the best rivalry in American sports because it’s even and it’s predictable. The programs are neck-and-neck over the past 100 games, and the stakes never vary: We get two games a year, and sometimes an extra with the ACC Tournament but both programs are usually so good that the conference tournament isn’t that big a deal. Each regular season matchup is the biggest deal of the season for each school’s home crowd and the only thing that tops it is a national championship. It’s a great arrangement between two excellent programs and it creates incredible moments year after year with the promise of more to come every time.

And now, it’s all in jeopardy. The two teams are playing in the most high-stakes game in the history of the rivalry, a ticket to the National Championship on the line. The most I can say is that at least it isn’t for all the marbles; I maintain that such a game would effectively end the rivalry. But a Final Four game is still pretty big, and I don’t think there’s a UNC fan out there, regardless of what they tell you about house money and everything that this team has done since the Coach K send-off being gravy, who isn’t gritting their teeth in nervous anticipation about what this means for the future of the biggest moments of our Februaries and Marches. Or a Duke fan, for that matter. And thus, I have prepared an agreement, of sorts, that I think we can all agree to sign off on to maybe lower the mental stakes a little and keep the rivalry as fun as it can be. And here we go:

1. We’re not going to treat this as possible revenge for Duke’s senior night this year.

There’s no making up for UNC ruining the party at Coach Krzyzewski’s last home game. Krzyzewski brought that upon himself, and all you Duke fans, with the ridiculous pageantry surrounding the game, his refusal to accept the love of his home crowd after the game because he couldn’t accept that things were bigger than an individual game, and, to be honest, this entire farewell tour of a season. Anyways, Final Fours and championships will come again for both these programs, but I doubt we’ll see another retirement tour like this one again.

2. If (knock on wood with me now,) the winner of this game goes on to win the title, this one doesn’t count bonus in the overall program comparison.

UNC has 6 NCAA titles (yes, the Helms title adds a nice little buffer for bragging), Duke has 5. It’s part of that whole evenness I was talking about earlier. We’re not putting an asterisk on one (can you call it an asterisk if it’s a positive note and not a negative?) that included the other on the path just because it was a win-or-go-home game; every single one of those titles included going up against the other, and in fact all 11 of those title seasons have included at least one win against the team’s rival. Sometimes, it even makes or breaks a team’s path. So no, as far as titles go, neither team gets to claim this as a superior one for the numbers’ sake.

3. UNC fans will not use this game, especially if the Heels win, as a referendum on Hubert Davis’ relative coaching acumen to that of Mike Krzyzewski.

Hubert Davis has already joined an exclusive list of coaches by making the Final Four in his first season, and though we’ll have time to question some of the finer points of the job he’s doing after the season’s over, there’s no denying that he’s done a masterful job pulling this team together, getting the Iron Five on the same page to become one of the best lineups in the country since March began, and hitting his opponents’ pressure points on offense and running what he needs to to keep taking advantage of his opponents, including Duke in Durham, where the R.J. Davis-Armando Bacot middle pick-and-roll sliced the Blue Devils the whole second half. Be that as it may, this game is only about this game, and despite Krzyzewski’s best efforts to make it otherwise this year, no individual game is ever really about the coaches involved, and there’s always a healthy dose of luck involved. K’s earned his flowers and plaudits as the winningest coach in men’s college basketball history, and Davis has already written his name in the history books with the promise of more, but has a long way to go. But whatever happens Saturday night changes none of that.

4. For this game only, no mockery.

There’s a lot of ink out there about how UNC-Duke is a rivalry of respect between equals, and while that’s not entirely untrue, the implication — that this respect puts any of us above pointing and laughing at the other side’s foibles, or being generally mean-spirited about the other in our day-to-day lives, or in one of our cases, making dumber-by-the-year jeer sheets for the opponent — is completely off-base. Each win is an excuse for a day of feeling superior, of reliving best moments at friends’ and colleagues’ expense, of relentless needling and, given my audience, probably some web-based schadenfreude. Let’s not do that this time. UNC fans would undoubtedly have a lot to laugh at if they were to send Coach K off with a loss for the second time in a month, this time permanently, but making the Final Four with a one-and-done team is still a pretty tremendous season. And I’m sure Duke fans would love ending an underdog UNC run and skirting as close to the line of Line 1 as they could get, but they also have to respect an 8 seed making the Final Four, let alone this specific UNC squad. Both teams have had incredible years. I think the loser will have earned a dignified exit.

And finally,

5. Fans of the winners limit themselves to 3 trump cards per loved one on the other side.

Playing the other in a national championship, of course, is an ever-renewable trump card, which is why I say it would end the rivalry. And the rivalry is littered with particular instances that hold just a little more power than the usual: 8 points in 17 seconds, the 2005 comeback, J.J. Redick’s Senior Night, 8 Points 8 Miles, and of course Coach K’s Last Home Game come to mind on the UNC side, and Duke’s got Roy’s first home game of the series with Duhon’s game-winning layup, the Austin Rivers game, and the comeback of 2020 that I’m still having trouble getting out of my brain. But there’s no denying that this game is going to hold a little extra juice. This hasn’t happened in the past 50-ish years it’s been possible and is unlikely to happen again within the lifetime of anybody old enough to be reading this.

So I’m going to propose this: for the inevitable pissing matches that we are going to get into with loved ones who practice fandom on the other side of things, we get to use this game 3 times to win, in perpetuity (3 times per person, obviously. I’m not a sadist). We will save them for when our loved ones are being particularly tiresome, or for times in the future when the rivalry feels like it’s not going our way, or whenever you want, but we won’t keep using it. It’s boring and it magnifies the game to exactly the thing we want to avoid. So we’ll treasure the win, but it will not become a part of the permanent banter record, and that’s how it will keep both itself and the rivalry fresh.

And if you’re talking UNC-Duke with strangers, just avoid it altogether. Your side should stand on its own merits the first time you’re bringing it to somebody.

Bring on Saturday, and may the Triangle’s emergency rooms have a night of average-to-below-average traffic free of basketball-induced cardiac events.