Duke and North Carolina isn’t just a college basketball rivalry, it’s the rivalry.
It’s the matchup which pulls in the casual sports fan and turns a normal Friday night into must-see television.
This game is at the center of the sports world whenever it hits the calendar. The regular season games never feel regular, but when the stakes are raised, however, so does the intensity.
Whenever asked to describe Duke and North Carolina, the thoughts begin to run through my mind like a fast break.
It’s Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill to Eric Montross, George Lynch, and Donald Williams. It’s Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace to Vince Carter and Antwan Jamison. It’s Jay Williams, Shane Battier to JJ Redick and Sheldon Williams. It’s Raymond Felton, Sean May, and Rashad McCants to Ty Lawson, Danny Green, and Tyler Hansbrough.
It’s Dean Smith to Roy Williams. It’s Mike Krzyzewski. It’s Michael Jordan.
It’s simply Duke and North Carolina. And it always matters.
The backdrop for the next installment in this classic won’t be in the state of North Carolina. This time the stage is set for a semifinal matchup in the ACC Tournament at Barclays Center, in Brooklyn.
Duke and North Carolina split their regular-season series this season, each team winning on its home court. The winner will move on to the championship game, with an added emphasis for seeding in the upcoming NCAA Tournament also on the line.
The Blue Devils, behind Marvin Bagley III, shut down Notre Dame in the quarterfinal round. Bagley was dominant, the freshman showed why he’s considered an elite top NBA prospect. He repeatedly pulled the plug on any momentum Notre Dame could gather in the second half when he made 11-of-12 shots.
Bagley finished with a game-high 33 points and with 17 rebounds. If his next stop is the NBA draft in June, he made a strong case to be the number one pick.
“Bagley was just the first pick in the draft,” Notre Dame Head coach Mike Brey said afterward. “He’s a can’t-miss star in my opinion from what I’ve seen tonight.”
Duke senior Grayson Allen couldn’t miss in the first half, he drained his first five shots from the three-point line and finished with 23 points.
When Bagley and Allen are both on like that, Duke’s an entirely different monster.
North Carolina took an early punch in the mouth from Miami, in their quarterfinal game, when they fell behind, 14-0. But the Tar Heels, led by seniors Theo Pinson and Joel Berry III, showed their poise and came back to finish the Hurricanes with a game-ending 13-0 run.
Bagley and Allen to Pinson and Berry. Their names, rightfully, will be added to the long history between these two teams.
On a Friday night in Brooklyn, Duke and North Carolina will hit the court fully aware of what’s on the line. The winner moves on to play in the ACC championship game, but they also get to pad their case for a potential number one seed in the NCAA tournament.
It’s been another controversial season for the NCAA with the annual debate of issues and scandals dominating the headlines off the court.
But its rivalries, such as this one which provides the die-hard and casual sports fan a break from that. For two to three hours, the focus shifts to what college basketball is all about, the passion.
The stakes will be high for this game and so will be the intensity. All anyone around Barclays Center this week has been talking about is what if Duke and North Carolina get it on Friday night?
Well, we have it. Buckle up for a rivalry which will always matter.