clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Featherston On Duke-UNC 2012

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

By AL FEATHERSTON

Last week, ESPN columnist Jason King tried to argue that the most intense rivalry in college basketball wasn't Duke-North Carolina, but Kansas-Missouri.

It's the kind of argument that doesn't really require rebuttal. How do you measure intensity? Indeed, for most the Big 12 era, Kansas-Oklahoma and Kansas-Texas have been more heated rivalries. Kansas-Missouri is closer to UNC-Wake Forest than UNC-Duke (although to be fair, Wake Forest has had a more successful program than Missouri). It's one great program against one fairly good program - with much of the "hate" on one side of the equation.

But if King wants to know why Kansas-Missouri can't hold a candle to Duke-UNC, let him chew on this. Last Saturday's Kansas-Missouri game was the third time in the history of the rivalry that the two have met when both were ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll.

Tonight, when Duke and North Carolina meet in Chapel Hill, it will be the 43rd time that both have been ranked in the top 10. Interestingly enough, the two schools have split the first 42 top 10 matchups 21-21.

Of course, it goes far beyond that. Duke and North Carolina have won four national titles between them in the last 11 years (and nine overall). Kansas and Missouri have not won four NCAA titles in their history - combined. Indeed, Missouri has never played in the Final Four, much less won a national title.

Some rivalry.

I'm sure that King's perception is warped by the fact that he used to cover Kansas for the Kansas City Star, plus a little nostalgia over the fact that Missouri's imminent departure for the SEC is likely to interrupt the century-old competition between the border states.

But consider this - if Missouri-Kansas was really such a big deal, don't you think ESPN would make sure the rivalry continued? The two Duke-UNC games are college basketball's most valuable property. Roy Williams claimed Tuesday that the first Duke-UNC game has been the highest rated regular season college basketball in each of the last eight seasons. I know that ESPN executives consider it to be the real start of the college basketball season - in the sense that it's the first big game annually after the Super Bowl and only then does most of the country start to pay attention to the hardwood sport.

Don't you think that if Duke and UNC were split up in the expansion game, ESPN would pump plenty of money into both schools' coffers to continue the series?

Ah … there are always going to be those who like to take a contrary view. When Bill James ranked baseball's all-time stars in his Historical Baseball Abstract, he talked about the urge to argue somebody other than Babe Ruth as the game's greatest player ever (although he was too honest to give into that impulse). It's tempting to promote Kansas-Missouri or Xavier-Cincinnati or Kentucky-Louisville as the best rivalry just to be different, but if you're honest, there's no debate: Duke-UNC, eight miles apart, playing in the same conference, meeting at least twice every year, drawing the biggest TV audiences and playing basketball at the highest level.

That's why Sports Illustrated voted it college basketball's best rivalry in 2003 and The Sporting News rated it the top rivalry in all of sports in 2009.

The readers of DBR don't need me to repeat the evidence of how Duke and UNC have dominated the ACC (winning 36 of the 58 ACC titles, including 14 of the last 15) or the national scene (with seven national titles and 20 Final Fours in the 64-team NCAA Tournament era, Duke and UNC have had more playoff success than any other CONFERENCE).

I've written about this rivalry so many times - both for the DBR and other places - that I'm always expecting to run out of anything new to say. But as the 233rd meeting approaches, I was surprised (and delighted) to stumble across a few interesting aspects of the rivalry that I haven't seen discussed before:

THE HOMECOURT

Duke has always had a greater homecourt edge in Cameron than UNC has had in the mausoleum known as the Smith Center.

The Blue Devils recently saw the end of their 45-game homecourt winning streak. That was one short of the school and ACC record that Duke set a little more than a decade ago. In fact, Duke has the only three 40-plus game home winning streaks in ACC history. The Devils also have a 36-game streak that's tied with N.C. State (in the David Thompson era) as the ACC's fourth-longest streak.

But UNC is currently riding a 30-game homecourt streak that is the longest in their history.

With tonight's game in the Smith Center, you'd have to think advantage UNC, right?

You'd be wrong.

In recent years, the homecourt has been little help in this series. As a matter of fact, Duke has a better record against UNC in the Smith Center than in Cameron in this century.

The trend actually started in 2001, when No. 4 UNC upset No. 2 Duke in Cameron. A month later, in the first game after losing Carlos Boozer to injury, Mike Krzyzewski unveiled a new lineup (featuring freshman Chris Duhon starting for the first time) and led Duke to a decisive upset in the Smith Center.

Starting with that season, Duke is 7-4 in Chapel Hill and just 5-6 in Cameron.

You could extend the trend, since Duke dominated UNC in both 1999 and 2000, winning both in Durham and Chapel Hill. That means that Duke has won 9 of the last 13 in the Smith Center.

And try this note on for size: UNC has not beaten Duke at home in back-to-back years since 1997-98 (which actually was the end of a seven year home winning streak for the Heels). Duke has won at UNC in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010.

Coach K was on the bench when UNC dedicated the Smith Center with a 95-92 victory over Duke in 1986. Overall, Coach K is 11-14 against UNC in the Smith Center … although his personal Smith Center record is 13-14, since he has 1988 NCAA Tournament wins over Boston U. and SMU in the building.

THE FIRST MEETING

There are at least two Duke-UNC games every year.

Obviously, every Duke fan would love to sweep the Tar Heels, just as every UNC fan dreams of sweeping the Blue Devils.

But given the choice of winning one of the two games, pick the second game.

It's a very odd fact that the outcome of the first Duke-UNC game is not much of a predictor for ultimate success, while the second matchup usually is.

In the 64-team NCAA era (which started in 1985), Duke and UNC have combined for seven national titles and 20 Final Fours.

Those seven national champs are 3-4 in the first Duke-UNC game, but 7-0 in the second.

Three champions - 1991 Duke, 2009 UNC and 2010 Duke - swept their rival in the regular season (although the '91 Devils did lose to UNC in the ACC Tournament title game). The four other combined champs all lost their first matchup in the rivalry:

-- 1992 Duke lost 75-73 in Chapel Hill on the night when Bobby Hurley broke his foot late in the first half - the so-called Bloody Montross Game. Those Devils came back to trounce UNC 94-74 in the rematch. Duke went on to beat Michigan's Fab Five for the national title.

-- 1993 UNC lost rather handily in Durham, 81-67 as Bobby Hurley had 20 points and seven assists. When the two teams met in Chapel Hill, Grant Hill was sidelined with an injury and UNC rolled to an 83-69 victory - the exact same margin. The Tar Heels also beat the Fab Five to win the NCAA title.

-- 2001 Duke lost 85-83 to Matt Doherty and UNC when Shane Battier fouled Brendon Haywood in the final seconds. That game was in Durham. When the two teams met again in Chapel Hill, Coach K unveiled his new 3-point shooting lineup and blitzed the Tar Heels 95-81. That was the start of a 10-game run that included a lopsided victory over UNC in the ACC title game and a victory over Arizona in the NCAA finals.

-- 2005 UNC lost in 71-70 Durham when the Tar Heels couldn't get off a shot in the final seconds - thanks to some brilliant defense by J.J. Redick. It was dramatic in the rematch in Chapel Hill when UNC rallied on the strength of some outstanding play by Sean May and a clutch putback by freshman Marvin Williams. UNC marched through the NCAA Tournament, beating Illinois in the title game.

Now, you might argue that seven NCAA championship seasons is a small sample size. But the evidence is confirmed by looking at the larger sample provided by the 20 Final Four teams (which, of course, includes the seven title teams).

Duke's 11 Final Four teams in this run were 5-6 in the first matchup with UNC … 9-2 in the second. UNC's nine Final Four teams are 3-6 in the first meeting and 6-3 in the regular season finale. That's a combined 8-12 in the first matchups and 15-5 in the second.

Those numbers are backed up by some subjective evidence - in many cases where the eventual Final Four team swept its opponent, the first matchup was much more closely contested than the second.

That was true in 1988, when Robert Brickey had to block a last-second shot to preserve a one-point win in Chapel Hill, a game followed by a 15-point Duke win in Durham. In 1995, Final Four-bound UNC had to go two-overtimes to win a historic game with Duke in Cameron, but won by 13 in the Smith Center. In 1999, UNC put up a better fight in Durham early (90-86) than in Chapel Hill late (90-76). In 2010, Duke had to fight to win the first game in Chapel Hill 64-54, but put an historic 32-point beatdown on UNC in the finale in Durham.

So enjoy tonight's win if it's a win and cry over the loss if it's a loss.

But don't read too much into it, either way.

AN EVEN RIVALRY

Rob Daniels, the executive director of the Atlantic Coast Sports Media Association, came up with an eye-popping number earlier this week:

The cumulative score of the last 75 Duke-UNC games (which stretches back to 1980) is Duke 5,858-UNC 5,857.

The Tar Heels do have a 39-36 advantage in that time, just as they lead 131-101 all-time.

Since K's arrival, it's closer. In fact, the Blue Devil coach is 36-36 in his 92 games against UNC. That includes a 14-24 record against Dean Smith, a 6-2 mark against Bill Guthridge, a 7-2 mark against Matt Doherty and a 9-8 record against Roy Williams.

Actually, Coach K is 12-9 against Williams head-to-head, counting his 3-1 record against the UNC coach when he was at Kansas.

Both sides like to pick and choose the sample size that makes them look best. On the Duke side, I see a lot of four of the last five or 21 of the last 31. On UNC's side, I see them touting seven of the last 12.

All those numbers are right, but very self-serving.

THE BLACK FALCON

Duke and North Carolina have always recruited the same players … or at least the same kind of players.

On the current Blue Devil roster, Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly and Austin Rivers were all UNC targets. Duke was interested in UNC's Leslie McDonald and, of course, Harrison Barnes.

A little over two years ago, when Barnes was making his college choice, he basically came down to Duke or North Carolina. A lot of Blue Devil "insiders" were very confident that he was coming to Durham. Instead, he picked Carolina in a live ESPN press conference that included his infamous Skype to Roy Williams.

That left a lot of bitterness, but that's nothing new in this rivalry. Go back to Art Heyman, who switched from UNC to Duke in the summer before his freshman year. That one created bitterness. When Shane Battier "hung up" on Dean Smith, that created bitterness. When Bill Guthridge told Jason Williams that he didn't need a point guard because he already had Ron Curry or when Smith told Bobby Hurley that he couldn't take him until he found out what Kenny Anderson was going to do … those actions created bitterness.

The big question about Barnes is whether he will assume historic status in the rivalry.

While Duke and UNC have battled for dozens of players over the years, only a few have tipped the balance of power between the two. Heyman tipped it from UNC to Duke in the early 1960s. Larry Miller - long believed to be a Duke lock - tipped it back. Gene Banks, a major UNC target, had a short-term impact. Coach K's first great team was built with players Dean Smith didn't recruit, but when he beat Smith and Lefty Driesell for Danny Ferry, it sustained its program in the late 1980s.

When Duke and UNC were battling over Barnes in the fall of 2009, I thought he would be a pivotal player in the rivalry. Roy Williams had seized the high ground in the rivalry with a three-year run (2007-09) that Duke couldn't match. He was coming off a national title and consecutive Final Fours. His 2009-10 Tar Heels were ranked higher in the preseason polls than Duke (No. 6 in the AP for the Heels vs. No. 9 for the Blue Devils).

But, so far, Barnes' impact on the rivalry has been minimal.

Obviously, his choice of UNC had nothing to do with what happened in 2010 as Duke stormed to the national title, while UNC fell out of the top 25 and ended up in the NIT.

Last year, things clearly would have been different if Barnes were at Duke rather than North Carolina. But with Kyle Singler returning for his senior year, Duke was fine at the small forward position without the self-proclaimed Black Falcon - beating the Tar Heels two of three head to head, winning the ACC championship and ending up as the higher ranked team.

This year might be a different story.

Barnes is the leading scorer for a balanced UNC offense and a key cog for that 20-3 team. Duke is having a good season (technically, it was better than Carolina's before Sunday's home loss to Miami), but the Blue Devils don't have anybody to play the small forward position that Barnes plays for the Tar Heels. Neither freshman Michael Gbinije nor the redshirting freshman Alex Murphy has earned a spot in the rotation.

That could have huge consequences tonight when Duke tries to match up 6-4 Andre Dawkins or 6-4 Austin Rivers with the 6-8 Barnes. Although Roy Williams tried to downplay the situation, Barnes embraced it.

"I like that matchup," he said. "Defensively, it will be tough with the ankle [he'll be playing with a sprained ankle]. I'll have to fight through that. But offensively, I like my odds with somebody 6-4 on me.

"With a matchup like this, you have to take advantage of it. If somebody 6-4 is guarding me, obviously the thing to do is to put me in the post and just create off that. If they double-team, you pass out and if they don't, you score."

A year ago, Barnes averaged 12.3 points and shot 40 percent (16 of 40) from the floor in the three games against Duke. But that was with Singler on him most of the time.

He can still establish himself as a pivotal recruit in the history of the rivalry. But to do that, Barnes will need to dominate the way Heyman and Miller did when they tipped the balance of power. He'll need to lead UNC to the Final Four at the very least.

THE IN-STATE PIPELINE

North Carolina likes to portray Duke as "New Jersey South" while the Tar Heels see themselves as "the university of the people."

Well, while UNC has had some great in-state talent - such as James Worthy, Antwan Jamison and Michael Jordan - the truth is that the Tar Heel program has employed as many out-of-state carpetbaggers as the Blue Devils. That goes back to the five New Yorkers (coached by another New Yorker) who brought UNC its first national title in 1957.

It's kind of an oddity, but in tonight's game, UNC is likely to give just one North Carolina high school product significant minutes - sophomore guard Reggie Bullock of Kinston.

On the other hand, four North Carolina prep products will see major action for Duke - Miles and Mason Plumlee from Christ School in Arden, N.C.; Seth Curry of Charlotte; and Ryan Kelly of Raleigh.

To be fair, that number is a bit of a fluke.

The Plumlee brothers are really natives of Warsaw, Ind., who prepped in North Carolina, while UNC's P.J. Hairston is a Greensboro native who prepped at Hargrove Military Academy. But, hey, UNC claims Charlie Scott, who was a New York native who prepped in North Carolina. And even the Wilmington-raised Jordan was born in Brooklyn.

Still, it illustrates that there is little demographic difference between the two programs. UNC's best players are from Indiana, Iowa, Florida and Washington, D.C. Except for Austin Rivers from Florida, Duke's regulars are from North Carolina, Virginia and the Washington, D.C. area.

Oddly, in view of the impact that New York/New Jersey has had to the two programs, the only player from that area to dress out tonight will be little-used UNC freshman Desmond Hubert.

THE CAPEL FACTOR

Is Jeff Capel's presence on the Duke bench a bad omen?

It's amazing that two brothers would each become prominent players on opposite sides in the rivalry. It's more than amazing that both would be cursed with terrible luck in the rivalry.

Jeff played at Duke from 1994 to 1997. In that time, the Blue Devils were 1-7 in eight games with UNC.

Jason Capel played at UNC from 1999 to 2002. In that time, UNC was 1-10 against Duke (losing twice in the ACC Tournament).

That's a combined 2-18 for the Capel brothers in the rivalry.

THE POLLS

As mentioned earlier, this will be the 43rd time that Duke and UNC have met when both were ranked in the top 10 in the AP poll.

The Blue Devils barely clung to the No. 10 spot after losing to Miami Sunday in Cameron - two weeks after Duke's homecourt loss to Florida State.

That's significant because it extends Duke's top 10 streak to 88 straight polls. That's the third longest of all-time. UCLA's streak of 155 straight top 10 placements - set during John Wooden's remarkable run in the late 1960s and early 1970s - is still a long way off, but the Devils are closing in on Kentucky's second-place streak from the 1990s, when the Wildcats were ranked in the top 10 for 91 straight weeks.

The extension of that streak probably depends on the outcome of this game. While it's possible that Duke could lose a close game to UNC and then impress the voters with a strong performance Saturday against Maryland, that's a longshot. The Devils almost certainly have to win twice this week to remain in the top 10.

Finishing in the top 10 is also a concern.

Duke missed in 2007, but has finished in the final AP top 10 every other year since 1997. That's 14 out of the last 15 years. Overall, Duke has finished in the top 10 22 times under Coach Krzyzewski.

UNC has also been fairly consistent in that regard under Roy Williams. Since his first team finished No. 18 in 2004, the Tar Heels have had six top 10 finishes in the last seven years.

Just to update one final ranking note. I've pointed out before that either Duke or UNC has been ranked in 149th straight matchups - every one since Feb. 25, 1955.

A FINAL WORD

I wrote last week about how difficult it was to get a grasp on this Duke team. Krzyzewski is obviously frustrated by his inability to find a consistent player or rotation. The Devils seemed to be on the right track with a strong showing at Virginia Tech, but took a huge step backwards with a dreadful first-half performance at home against Miami.

So what's the prognosis for tonight?

I told one friend in the media that every bit of logic points to UNC dominating this game, but since this is the most illogical Duke team in recent memory, that probably means that the Devils win or at least play a great game in Chapel Hill.

But, honestly, I have no idea what's going to happen in Chapel Hill tonight.

DBR Auctions!
New T-Shirts!
The DBR App!
DBR Is On Twitter!(DBRTweetz)