The Duke-UNC Final Matchup Is Unlike Anything in March Madness History

Looking for analysis of Saturday’s Final Four game between Kansas and Villanova? Sorry—literally 100 percent of college basketball talk this week is about Duke–North Carolina, the men’s NCAA tournament matchup from either heaven or hell. The two fierce rivals are playing for the first time in March Madness, with a potential championship—and a defining moment for head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s legacy—on the line. Here’s everything you need to know about the game of the year, or decade, or millennium.

Why Is This Such a Big Deal?

The campuses of North Carolina and Duke sit just 20 miles apart outside of Raleigh, and the schools are third and fourth, respectively, on the all-time men’s college basketball wins leaderboard. (Kansas is in second, having gotten a head start by hiring the guy who invented basketball.) UNC-Duke is easily the biggest rivalry in the sport, in terms of all-time achievement, modern-day success, and, of course, proximity-fueled hate.

However, Carolina and Duke have never faced off in men’s college basketball’s signature event. Now, not only are they playing in the NCAA tournament, but they’re playing in the Final Four, with both teams just two wins away from a championship. If Duke wins the title, it will tie UNC for third place on the all-time leaderboard, with six.

And there’s an added layer of intensity because Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski—the winningest college basketball coach in history—is set to retire after 42 years in charge of the Blue Devils. He could go out with a national championship, helping cement his legacy as the greatest coach of all time, or he could lose his final game to his biggest rival. This one game is a potential inflection point for the sport’s biggest rivalry and could provide the defining memory of one of the sport’s greatest coaches.

How Did We Get Here?

This isn’t the first time that both Duke and Carolina have looked like national championship contenders in the same season. In 2018-19, both the Tar Heels and Blue Devils earned no. 1 seeds in the men’s tournament, prompting me to write a lengthy article about whether the programs could meet in the Final Four for the first time. At the time, I described the situation as “college basketball armageddon.”

However, neither team made that Final Four, and both programs took steps back in the years directly afterward. In 2019-20, North Carolina finished below .500 for the first time in 18 seasons. In 2020-21, Duke missed the men’s tournament for the first time in 26 years, while UNC was eliminated in the first round.

In April, UNC head coach Roy Williams announced his sudden retirement, elevating longtime assistant Hubert Davis into the head job. In June, Coach K announced his extremely un-sudden future retirement, giving the world a full 10 months to prepare for (celebrate?) his departure.

For his final campaign, Coach K secured the services of three five-star recruits, including two of the top six players on Kevin O’Connor’s NBA Big Board, Paolo Banchero and A.J. Griffin. Duke immediately looked the part of a national title contender, downing Kentucky in the season opener and then toppling Gonzaga the day after Thanksgiving in Las Vegas. The Blue Devils’ few losses were tight: Their first four defeats came by a combined total of nine points.

North Carolina, on the other hand, struggled out of the gate. The Tar Heels lost by 17 points to Tennessee, 28 points to Miami, and 22 points to Wake Forest. Worst of all? On February 5, they got blown out by Duke, losing 87-67 at home.

The last Carolina-Duke game of the season—or what looked like the last Carolina-Duke game of the season—was a hypefest. It was Coach K’s final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, leading to some of the most expensive tickets in college basketball history and a daylong ESPN broadcast from Durham. Surprisingly, the Tar Heels kicked Duke’s ass, winning 94-81. ESPN broadcast roughly 15 uninterrupted minutes of crying Duke fans while waiting for Coach K to return from the locker room for a postgame ceremony. (It was honestly some of the best programming in sports TV history.) Krzyzewski interrupted the pre-planned order of events to tell fans that the loss was “unacceptable,” and maintained a thousand-yard stare while various Duke dignitaries told him that the school was dedicating a bench to him. Here are some crying Duke fans dressed up like Sesame Street characters:

Both teams lost to Virginia Tech in the men’s ACC tournament (this really should give the Hokies an auto-bid to the national championship game), but came into March Madness rocking. Duke rolled through Cal State Fullerton, Michigan State, Texas Tech, and Arkansas. UNC cruised past Marquette, defending champion Baylor, UCLA, and Saint Peter’s—a no. 15 seed that became America’s darling while going on a Cinderella run for the ages. (The Tar Heels looked like the best team in the country when they went ahead by 25 points against Baylor—don’t ask what happened next.)

Long story short: It’s been a strange few years on Tobacco Road, with two retiring legends and some subpar seasons. But now, both teams are playing their best basketball in years at the most critical juncture of the season. College basketball armaggeddon has finally arrived.

Why Haven’t Duke and UNC Played on This Stage Before?

The College Football Playoff regularly pits the best teams from the same conference against one another; Alabama and Georgia have continued their rivalry on the sport’s biggest stage in two of the past five seasons. But the NCAA tournament does things differently, understanding the value in making fans randomly hate some school they’d never previously heard of from Rhode Island. The NCAA recently compiled a list of the most-played men’s tournament matchups of the modern era, and they’re hilarious, like UNC-Arkansas and Kentucky-Utah.

This is by design. The selection committee uses specific guidelines when creating the bracket to prevent regular-season rematches. If teams have played each other twice during a given regular season, they aren’t allowed to play each other in the tournament before the Sweet 16. Duke and UNC play twice every season, so they’ll never play in the first or second round. If teams have played each other three times in a given season—this happens often for North Carolina and Duke, as they can also meet in the ACC tournament—they can’t play each other before the Elite Eight.

On top of that, there is a guideline that two teams that finish among the top four from the same conference shouldn’t be placed in the same region. That has been the case with UNC and Duke in 19 of the past 30 seasons. The two teams have been placed in the same region only once in the modern era; the 2003-04 Tar Heels lost to Texas in the second round.

This isn’t just a Carolina-Duke thing. The last time that two teams from the same conference played each other in the Final Four was in 2001, when the Blue Devils beat Maryland (then a member of the ACC). The last time that two teams from the same conference played for a national title was in 1988, when Kansas defeated Oklahoma. UNC and Duke almost played for a national title in 1991, the only time both teams have made the Final Four before now. But Carolina lost its semifinal game to Kansas (then coached by Roy Williams). Duke went on to paste the Jayhawks in the national championship game.

While it may seem surprising that UNC and Duke have never reached the Final Four in the same year since then, this is a reflection of the structure of the event. Good teams from the same conference can’t play each other unless they come close to going all the way, and despite all their success, Duke and UNC’s great tourney runs have never overlapped—until now.

Is This the Biggest Rivalry Game Ever in the Men’s Tournament?

The greatest rivalry to take center stage in the men’s NCAA tournament before now is easily Kentucky-Louisville. Since the two intrastate rivals are members of different conferences, they aren’t bound by the same NCAA seeding restrictions. For a while, the two teams met exclusively in the tournament: Their 1983 Elite Eight matchup, referred to as the “Dream Game,” marked their first clash in 24 years; Louisville’s thrilling overtime victory reignited interest in playing the game more regularly. All in all, the two teams have met six times in the men’s tournament, all in the Sweet 16 or later. They even met in the 2012 Final Four.

The Cards and Cats will probably keep playing in the tournament. What makes this Carolina-Duke matchup stand out is that it probably won’t happen again in this way.

Is This The Biggest Duke-UNC Game in History?

By miles. Listen, I’m not saying there haven’t been great UNC-Duke games in the past. The men’s teams have played 11 times for the ACC tournament championship, most recently in 2011. Since the two schools traditionally play the final game of the ACC regular season, the title is often up for grabs, like in 1998 and 2008. Carolina-Duke games have featured half-court buzzer-beaters and impossible game-ending runs. Players who hit game-winners in the rivalry often cut down the nets a few weeks later.

But this is the Final Four. Not to be a “college basketball’s regular season is bad” guy, but this sport has the most unreasonably dramatic postseason in any sport, a win-or-go-home bonanza designed to create memories instead of logical results. There’s nothing like it. And for the first time, this rivalry is part of it.

Which Team Is the All-Time Rivalry Leader?

North Carolina has more historical success than Duke in every regard: The Tar Heels have more men’s NCAA tournament championships (six to five), more Final Four appearances (21 to 17), and more ACC regular-season titles (39 to 23). They also have a superior head-to-head record (142-115), which would take almost 15 consecutive years of Duke season sweeps to erase. However, North Carolina had a healthy head start, as Duke didn’t win its first national title until 1991, more than a decade after Krzyzewski took over as head coach. Coach K is 50-47 against UNC, and the schools have won five national titles apiece since he took over.

Who Will Have More Fans in New Orleans?

There are more North Carolina fans than Duke fans in the world. UNC Chapel Hill has an enrollment of about 20,000 undergrads; Duke has an undergraduate enrollment of less than 7,000. UNC is the flagship school of the ninth-most-populous state in the union; Duke is the flagship school of future private equity firm employees who decide which 15 percent of your company’s workforce is now redundant. Carolina averages 18,500 fans per game; Duke’s arena holds roughly half that. Polls of North Carolinians find that significantly more people in the state root for UNC than Duke. Public Policy Polling regularly asks North Carolinians what their favorite sports team is, and UNC consistently outpolls Duke. In fact, it finds Duke is close to NC State in terms of fandom. (Nobody is sure why Wake Forest exists.)

But people are clearly interested in Duke basketball. Year after year, national fans are more interested in watching Duke than any other men’s team, as the list of highest-rated games in recent NCAA hoops history is just a list of Duke games. And a recent ranking of fan bases that incorporates factors like percentage of capacity attendance, ticket prices, merchandise sales, and social media following awarded Duke the top fan base in the sport. Was this study rigged to include unusual metrics for the sole purpose of putting Duke on top? Who’s to say, although that sounds like something Duke fans would do.

It seems likely that UNC will have more fans in the Superdome—but Duke fans are out there, somewhere, doing nefarious things.

Who Is the Best Coach in This Rivalry’s History?

This one is tough. It’s a debate between Dean Smith (one of the sport’s legends who literally coached Michael Jordan), Roy Williams (who won three national championships), and Coach K. But I think K takes it. He’s the all-time leader in men’s college basketball games won (1,170) and Final Four appearances (13, having just passed John Wooden’s 12 this year).

But Krzyzewski took over a decade to make his first Final Four at Duke. Meanwhile, UNC head coach Hubert Davis has now made the Final Four in his very first season with the Tar Heels. Krzyzewski has made the Final Four in only 30 percent of his seasons as Duke’s coach; Davis has made the Final Four in 100 percent of his seasons as UNC’s coach, which would be a record if he can keep it up. If UNC beats Duke with a less talented roster, I think it’s obvious that Davis is a better coach than Krzyzewski.

How Do the Players Feel About This Matchup?

Presumably excited—but, of course, we don’t know for sure.

During the ACC tournament, Duke’s Banchero was asked which team he would like to face in the championship game, and the talented 19-year-old answered honestly: UNC. But Virginia Tech won the semifinal and then beat Duke in the conference title game, leading to speculation that the Hokies were motivated by Banchero’s answer.

When asked whether he’d rather play Saint Peter’s or UNC after Duke’s Elite Eight victory over Arkansas, Banchero refused to be tricked again:

Other players have similarly declined to answer questions, other than to say that this is a neat moment for the two rivals to play in such a big game. “I don’t want to answer that,” UNC’s Armando Bacot responded when asked what this Final Four matchup will mean after the Tar Heels beat Saint Peter’s in the Elite Eight. “Coach will get mad at me.”

It’s not exactly WrestleMania-level smack talk.

How Do Fans Feel About This Matchup?

This is just anecdotal, but: My assessment is that fans are trying to balance their excitement about such a great tournament run with the reality that they are terrified of this game.

It’s always stressful when your archenemies are your neighbors. A loss is not just a loss; it’s months of having to interact with people who will get to rub salt in your wounds.

But in any good college sports rivalry, those wounds are not permanent. There is always a rematch, and nobody tends to get knocked so far down that they can’t get back up. There hasn’t been a five-game winning streak in the Carolina-Duke rivalry since 2003. In the last 38 matchups, Duke is 20-18. Lose in Durham? Come back and get a win in the Dean Dome. Get swept? Hell, maybe you can pretend to care about the football game this year.

Even the biggest embarrassments are something you can come back from. Things looked bleak for UNC in the early 1990s, as Duke won back-to-back championships in 1991 and 1992. But guess what? The Tar Heels won the national title in 1993. After North Carolina won the title in 2009, Duke won it in 2010. After Duke won it all in 2015, UNC won it all in 2017. There is always another chance.

Except this time. There will never be another game like this. The winner will have a story to brag about for decades: Remember when Coach K beat UNC and went out on top? Remember when UNC ruined Coach K’s final season by taking him out in the Final Four? The loser will have to live with the fact that they missed their biggest shot in the sport’s best rivalry.

Rivalries are tolerable because you know there’s always a tomorrow. But like Roy Williams and Coach K, tomorrow is retiring in the Carolina-Duke rivalry. There is one game for the ages, and then there is a lifetime of gloating or regret.

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