You might’ve heard something about it, but last year’s three — but really the last two —North Carolina-Duke men’s basketball games were rather notable.
In the final game of the regular season, UNC went in Cameron Indoor Stadium and defeated the Blue Devils in what was their legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final home game. After the ACC Tournament came and went without the two meeting, it seemed like that was the last time a Tar Heels’ team would face Coach K.
However, that is not how things played out. The stars aligned and just a few weeks later, the two teams were suddenly set to be opponents in the Final Four. The Krzyzewski final tournament run narrative was already in full force, but then suddenly, you had the first ever NCAA Tournament meeting between the two rivals narrative thrown into the mix.
As we all know, UNC also won that game, giving us Tar Heel fans a lifetime of schadenfreude. There were plenty of jokes about how Carolina has “won” the rivalry forever with the win. Some Duke fans have tried to deflect by mentioning the fact that the national title game didn’t go as hoped, the fact is there will never be another first NCAA Tournament meeting between the two, and never will that game also double as Duke’s legendary coach’s final game. Carolina will hold that fairly big trump card for a long while.
However today, we sit a little more than a day away from the next meeting between the two. While the manic feeling of “needing to win” isn’t quite as high as it was on April 2nd, it still feels pretty high. Sure, the Cameron and Final Four wins of last year are still things we can and should joke about as Tar Heel fans, there truly isn’t any complete “winning” of this rivalry.
For one, tomorrow’s game is an important one just for both team’s seasons. Neither has been particularly impressive this season, and come into this game unranked despite starting the year at #1 and #7 respectively. Both teams are still projected as NCAA Tournament teams, but both could use a win to raise their seeding, and just generally help their seasons. This game doesn’t have the status of both being Top 10/Top 15 teams, like many have in the past, leading to maybe not as much hyped buildup as it otherwise would’ve had. However, this game still matters in the context of the season.
Besides that, there’s still, you know, rivalry stuff. Even if Saturday does go poorly, UNC fans certainly aren’t going to stop making jokes about last season. However, they’ll be a little harder to make stick if Duke fans can reply “yeah, well we won the game.” No, a February meeting isn’t the same as one in the Final Four, but in general, you would prefer Duke fans have no ammunition.
Even beyond that, it’s still Duke. No, we don’t have the history of facing a Jon Scheyer coached team like we did a Coach K one, but it won’t take long to be reminded of the dislike of the team in general. The first time a 50/50 call goes against UNC and the camera cuts to a Cameron Crazy dressed like a Sesame Street character celebrating, even the “we’ve won the rivalry forever” UNC fans will quickly start to think “oh, right.”
No matter what happens on Saturday, the memories of last March and April can’t be erased, but a loss would still be quite annoying.