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Featherston On Duke, UNC And The Big Dance

According to the NCAA's rules and principles of seeding, Duke and North Carolina won't be allowed to meet in the NCAA Tournament before the regional finals. If both teams earn between a No. 1 and a No. 4 seed - as seems likely today -- then they can't meet until the Final Four.

Yet, it appears that the Blue Devils and Tar Heels are rushing towards a first-round confrontation in this year's tournament - a competition for a significant geographical advantage in the pairings. A lot of basketball remains to be played in the regular season, including two Duke-UNC games (plus a possible third meeting in the ACC Tournament), but at this point in the race, the competition between the two Tobacco Road superpowers is too close to call.

Why does that matter?

It matters because the outcome of the regular-season (including, in this context, the ACC Tournament) race between Duke and UNC will determine the placement of the two teams in the NCAA bracket. With NCAA First/Second Round games in Raleigh and an NCAA Regional in Charlotte, one of the two rivals is likely to get a favorable geographical path to the Final Four.

That's an important advantage.

Historically, Duke and UNC are both MUCH more successful playing NCAA games in-state than playing outside Tobacco Road.

For instance, Duke is 28-4 in-state; 57-24 out-of-state. Now, that comparison is a bit unfair, since a majority of the in-state games were early round games (which not surprisingly are easier than late-round games). But Duke's NCAA record -- taken round by round - shows how much it means to play in-state"

First round: 11-0 in North Carolina; 9-2 outside North Carolina.

Second round: 11-2 in North Carolina (a 1979 loss to St. John's and a 1997 loss to Providence); 9-4 outside North Carolina.

Regional semifinals: 3-0 in North Carolina; 14-6 outside North Carolina

Regional finals: 2-1 in North Carolina (the one loss coming to NYU in Charlotte in 1960); 12-2 outside North Carolina.

Final Four: 1-1 in North Carolina (both games in the 1994 Final Four in Charlotte); 13-10 outside North Carolina (that includes two consolation wins).

Okay, the raw numbers in the final three rounds are slightly better out-of-state, but I'd suggest that's a distortion of the small sample size. There's a pretty big edge in the first/second round division - where there is a large sample.

North Carolina's in-state advantage is even more pronounced than Duke's. The Tar Heels, 92-38 overall, are 21-1 in-state - the only loss coming on Black Sunday, when Penn upset UNC in Raleigh, just before St. John's knocked off the Blue Devils.

Obviously, both Duke and North Carolina would love to be the top seed in the Charlotte region this March. While nothing is guaranteed (ask Dean Smith about the 1989 bracket sometime), it's very, VERY likely that the winner of the season-long Duke-UNC race will be seeded to play two games in Raleigh and two in Charlotte.

What's less clear are the chances of the loser of that race getting to play two games in Raleigh. Before discussing that, a brief history lesson:

Duke and North Carolina have never met in the NCAA Tournament. But the two rivals have played NCAA games in the same building on the same day four times in NCAA Tournament history:

-- On Black Sunday -- Mar. 11, 1979 -- both North Carolina and Duke lost NCAA second-round games in Raleigh's Reynolds Coliseum. The Tar Heels, seeded No. 1 in the East and given a first-round bye, lost 72-71 to ninth-seed Penn. A few hours later, second-seeded Duke (which also had a first-round bye), playing without point guard Bob Bender and starting forward Kenny Dennard, lost to No. 10 seeded St. John's, 80-78, as Mike Gminski (who had spent most timeouts trying to up-chuck the contents of his upset stomach into a bucket) missed a long shot at the buzzer.

-- On Mar. 30, 1991, No. 4 ranked North Carolina lost to No. 12 Kansas, 79-73, in the first NCAA semifinal at the Indianapolis Hoosier Dome. No. 6 Duke followed with a stunning 79-77 upset to top-ranked and unbeaten UNLV in the second semifinal. Two nights later, Duke beat Kansas to claim its first national title.

-- On Mar. 18, 2005, No. 1 seeded (and No. 2 ranked) North Carolina blitzed Oakland, 96-68, in the first round at the Charlotte Coliseum. Later that night, No. 1 seeded (in a different regional) Duke overcome a sluggish start to knock off Delaware State, 57-46.

-- On Mar. 20, 2005, the Tar Heels followed their Oakland win with an impressive 92-65 victory over Iowa State in a second-round game at the Charlotte Coliseum. Immediately afterwards, Duke earned a hard-fought victory over Mississippi State. UNC would go on to win the 2005 national title, while the Blue Devils were due to fall to Michigan State in a Sweet 16 game.

I was on hand for all four of those UNC-Duke doubleheaders. It's just an odd bit of trivia that in all four cases, UNC's game came first.

The more significant thing to me was the crowd reaction at the four venues. Both in Raleigh in 1979 and Indianapolis in 1991, I can't recall the crowds being significantly weighted towards either Duke or UNC.

I do remember that after UNC fell to Penn in 1979, I talked to several Duke fans between games who were delighted because the Quakers' upset seemed to smooth the path to the Final Four for the Blue Devils. But what I don't recall is hearing Duke fans pull against UNC in the opener or UNC fans pull against Duke in the nightcap. There may have been (and probably were) isolated incidences of that happening, but it was not enough to overcome the overall pro-ACC bias of the Raleigh crowd.

It's also likely that there were Duke fans who cheered when Dean Smith was ejected in the final minutes of UNC's loss to Kansas in 1991, just as I'm sure there were Tar Heel fans who pulled for Vegas to beat Duke in the second game of the Indy semifinals. But with 47,000-plus fans in the Hoosier Dome, such voices were drowned out. I thought the crowd was fairly neutral for the UNC-Kansas game and somewhat pro-Duke for the second game - more a reflection of UNLV's 1991 status as the game's Goliath as anything else ... a neutral crowd usually pulls for the underdog.

But the two games played in Charlotte in 2005 produced a very different atmosphere. Duke was subjected to abuse from the moment the team arrived in the Queen City. There were hecklers who disrupted the team's public shootaround, there were insults from waiters and waitress in Charlotte restaurants and there was a violent anti-Duke bias in the crowds at the Charlotte Coliseum.

Part of the problem is the fact that Charlotte, as a city, has long had a love affair with UNC. The Tar Heels have always drawn well in Charlotte. Back when the early season Tournament of Champions was invented, UNC and N.C. State were supposed to alternate as hosts, but the disparity in attendance was so great that the Pack soon dropped out and the Charlotte tournament came to be a UNC invitational.

Still, Duke had always been treated well in Charlotte (except for some bitter games against Davidson in the late 1960s and early 1970s). What changed in 2005?

Part of it was mere envy by UNC fans who had seen their place as the ACC's best program supplanted by Duke's success after Dean Smith's retirement. Between 1999 and 2005, Duke not only achieved and sustained the national success that the Heels had been used to, but also dominated the rivalry head-to-head in a way that had never before happened in the lifetime of most Tar Heel fans.

Naturally, UNC fans were hungry for a little payback - but even in 2005, when UNC seemed to be the better team, that payback was hard to come by. The teams split two regular season meetings and when UNC was upset in the ACC Tournament semifinals, Duke claimed its sixth ACC championship in seven years.

That Tar Heel envy was compounded by the ticket situation in Charlotte.

You see, the NCAA allots very few tickets to the competing teams for the first and second round games. Most of the tickets go on public sale. In 2005, UNC was clearly the top-ranked ACC team all season and was projected to play in Charlotte. Their fans bought up all the tickets.

Wake Forest was the league's No. 2 team for most of the season and expected to be the other ACC team sent to Charlotte. However, the Deacs, playing without the Nutcracker Prince, Chris Paul, lost in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals and were dropped to a No. 2 seed. Duke surprisingly claimed the ACC championship and earned an even more unexpected No. 1 seed - and a ticket to Charlotte.

It was too late for Duke fans to buy up many tickets. Maybe a few were able to scramble and find some that were on the open market, but most discovered that UNC fans had already bought up the great majority of the tickets offered for public sale.

Hence, Duke had to endure an ugly weekend in the Queen City.

That experience was very much in the background a year later, as Duke spent most of the year at No. 1, while UNC finished strong to earn a No. 3 seed.

Most people expected the two teams - the two top ACC seeds -- to be sent to Greensboro for the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

It didn't happen - Duke was placed in Greensboro, where the Blue Devils beat Southern University and George Washington to reach the Sweet 16. UNC was sent to Dayton, where the Heels suffered a second-round loss to George Mason.

A lot of Carolina fans blamed Duke's Mike Krzyzewski for their exile to dreary Dayton. Supposedly, he had enough pull with the Selection Committee to get them out of Greensboro. Or, in another version of the conspiracy theory, he used his influence with CBS to set up a made-for-TV second-round game between UNC and Michigan State in Dayton (a plan that was spoiled when Mason upset the Spartans in the first round).

It would be nice to think Coach K had that kind of power, but it's just as likely that the Tar Heel fans did it to themselves with their ugly behavior in Charlotte in 2005.

One of the guidelines followed by the Selection Committee is to avoid situations where top-seeded teams are sent to hostile environments. A committee representative was in Charlotte to see No. 1 seeded Duke abused by the Tar Heel fans there. Could the decision to split the two teams up in 2006 have been based on the desire to protected No. 1 seeded Duke from a hostile crowd in Greensboro?

Actually, I'm kind of sorry the committee didn't send UNC to Greensboro that year. In a way, it was a very different ticket situation than it had been the year before. In 2006, Duke was at No. 1 almost all season and was long expected to be sent to Greensboro, while UNC finished fast to earn its high seed. By the time Tar Heel fans began to hope for a Greensboro placement, the tickets were sold out - mostly to Duke fans.

I've always wondered what the crowd would have been like in Greensboro if UNC had played there. Would the Duke fans with most of the tickets have been as hostile and as boorish as the Tar Heel fans were in Charlotte? Or would UNC fanatics have found a way to leech onto enough tickets to hold their own? How ugly might it have gotten in Greensboro that weekend?

Of course, I'm just speculating about the committee's motives in 2006. There was at least a modicum of justification behind the placement that had nothing to do with the Duke-UNC rivalry.

You see, the point of the pod system is to keep the top-seeded teams close to home. And each first/second round site contains two pods - two top seeded teams per site. In 2006, UNC was a No. 3 seed and could have been rewarded with a favorable pod. However, Tennessee was a No. 2 seed and thus had a better right to a favorite pod placement.

The problem with that theory is that there's only a very slight geographical advantage for the Vols to play in Greensboro as opposed to Dayton (Greensboro is 17 miles closer to Knoxville than the Ohio city). Were those 17 miles that significant or could Duke's 2005 experience in Charlotte have impacted the committee's reasoning?

This year might provide some answers. Tennessee is once again a power that could finish with a higher seed than Duke and/or North Carolina. The committee will probably send the Vols to Birmingham, Ala., (a fairly significant 90 miles closer to Knoxville than Raleigh is). However, if Tennessee does end up in the RBC Center instead of either Duke or UNC, then that's pretty good evidence that the Selection Committee is taking steps to keep the two Tobacco Road rivals apart.

One warning for Duke fans - it's not too early to start buying tickets for the Raleigh subregional. If the Blue Devils and Tar Heels end up sharing the RBC Center, we can only hope that Duke has a stronger presence than it did in Charlotte three years ago.

And if, by chance, Duke is forced to hit the road, while the Tar Heels get to stay close to home, it should not be too hard to unload those tickets to all the UNC fans who will come out of the woodwork.

Or, if you can afford to swallow the price of the tickets, you can always travel to Raleigh and give North Carolina a little bit of what their fans gave Duke in Charlotte.