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Tar Heels head to New Orleans playing with house money

Eight-seed UNC has the least pressure of any team in the Final Four.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament East Regional-St. Peters Peacocks vs North Carolina Tar Heels Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Normally, the week of a UNC/Duke game has my stomach tied in knots. My feet sweat. My heart pounds. I can’t get comfortable.

Despite this Saturday’s historic Final Four contest looming over the week, an unfamiliar feeling has washed over me. Calmness. Serenity. Peace. What could be causing this?

Yesterday, Al talked about perspective. I am blessed to have never faced the kind of health scares that he has overcome with aplomb. This good fortune, combined with my lack of emotional maturity and inability to put a game played between teenagers into its proper perspective, make watching games with Duke a true dance with the devil. It rocks my spirit, shakes my faith, and makes me explode in rage before cackling with delight. All of these emotions mixed in a blender like so many drink specials from Linda’s.

But before what many in the nation are calling the biggest game in college basketball history, I am positively tranquil. Why? Because just like Hubert Davis’s Tar Heels, I am playing with (emotional) house money.

Carolina, as a #8 seed playing in Fort Worth, TX—a mere 90 miles from Baylor—was never expected to make it out of the region. Not with Kentucky, Purdue, and UCLA in its way. Thanks to some plucky Peacocks, UNC didn’t have to battle two teams that had beaten the Tar Heels in neutral venues earlier in the season, but you have to be as lucky as you are good to make it to a Final Four. Anything past the second round, expectations-wise, was a complete bonus. North Carolina is the blue blood that wasn’t supposed to make it to New Orleans.

Duke, on the other hand, is on a march of their own. With Coach K’s pending retirement tour, it almost feels like a jazz funeral, except nobody’s dancing. Yet. We know how important this Tournament run is for Duke. We know their expectations were set in concrete from the moment K announced his farewell tour. It’s championship or bust.

Carolina fans have had their thirsts quenched for the next decade after ruining K’s Senior Night. Don’t let any dookies tell you otherwise. They’ll claim that it was just another regular season game, but we know that is a bald-faced lie. K controls every single breath that program takes. He approved the pregame ceremony, the postgame ceremony, the design of his “Only 1 K” logo festered all over his campus, arena, and player shirts. The only thing he couldn’t control was a Tar Heel offense that scored 55 points in the second half. K was counting on a coronation. Instead, he got a Will Smith slap to the face, the sting still sizzling on his cheek.

Coach K, the Duke program, and their fans have to chew on that L for the rest of their lives. Beating Carolina in the Final Four won’t erase that loss. It won’t replace it, either. For the next hundred years, Duke and Carolina will go to more Final Fours, win more championships, and win and lose head-to-head contests against each other. But K will never be able to erase the shame of that game. It is chained in steel with his ESPN produced self-adulation spectacle, programming as inauthentic as his PR firm branded “Brotherhood.” If he tries to whitewash that inconvenient history, remind dookies that he interrupted part two of his pathetic birthday party to tell his fans to be quiet, and that the loss was “unacceptable.” Is this something one does when a poor result doesn’t bother them?

On the exact opposite end of that emotional spectrum sits UNC fans. They won a game no one was expecting them to. They ruined K’s party in front of 90 of his former players. They catapulted themselves into the NCAA Tournament, and used the momentum to smash recent boogeyman Virginia for the second time this season, dip out of the ACC Tournament to Virginia Tech so the Hokies could keep K from winning the ACC Tournament, and plow through a daunting East Regional. If you told me before ACC play began that Carolina could reach a Final Four and go no further, I’d have snapped your hand off. Anything afterwards? Gravy.

Duke is burdened by the weight of expectation, foisted upon themselves by the Leader of Men. Carolina, under the patient and loving care of Hubert Davis, is floating on air. Would I cherish another win over Duke and a shot at an eighth national championship? Of course! Would I be devastated if they lost to Duke? Absolutely not. The joy in watching this team is not like watching a 2012-type juggernaut stomp through the field, or a 2017-style redemption tour. It has been about growth, improvement, and victory through harmony. My heart is already full.

On Saturday night, Duke and Carolina will square off for a shot at a national championship. The Tar Heels may lose, and that’s okay. We’ll be alright, and we’ll be right back. This season is already a success beyond our most reasonable hopes. We could win. And that will make this season legendary.