There's a reason that Duke-North Carolina is the best rivalry in college basketball - and maybe the best in all of sports.
Usually, when the two Tobacco Road neighbors meet, it's a clash of titans. Nobody in college basketball has been as successful in the modern era (usually defined as the 64-team NCAA Tournament era, which started in 1985) than Duke and Carolina. Kansas and Kentucky are close in individual terms, but even if you put those two powers on the same level (which they are not -- quite), they don't have an annual rivalry to challenge the Battle of the Blues.
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You've heard the numbers - it's been 58 years since Duke and UNC met without one of them being ranked. Since Mike Krzyzewski has coached at Duke, both teams have been ranked in the top 10 for 33 meetings. Interesting that when Michigan and Michigan State met Tuesday night, that was the FIRST time in the history of that great rivalry that both teams were in the top 10. For Duke-UNC, it's been 43 top 10 meetings (10 before K's arrival) â¦ and both teams have been ranked in the top 25 62 times.
That won't be the case Wednesday, when North Carolina visits Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Duke (21-2) will be No. 2 (or No. 1 if you prefer the coaches' poll), which extends that streak with at least one ranked team in the rivalry game to 151 games. But UNC (16-7), which started the season at No. 11 and climbed to No. 9 at one point, has fallen out of the rankings after a painfully mediocre two months of basketball.
This will be just the 24th time (out of 77 games) in the Coach K era when a ranked team has faced an unranked team.
That's why there really haven't been a lot of upsets in the series - it's been too balanced. That's not so say the higher ranked team always wins. It doesn't. In fact, the higher ranked team is just 52-24 (25-10 at home; 19-11 on the road; 8-3 on neutral courts) since Coach K's arrival.
But when No. 10 Duke knocks off No. 5 North Carolina - as Duke did a year ago in Chapel Hill on freshman Austin Rivers' shot - it's hardly a monumental upset. And even when No. 13 UNC beats No. 1 Duke (which had already lost earlier in thar week) in Cameron - as the Tar Heels did in Tyler Hansbrough's freshman season - it was hardly the biggest shock in the world.
When it's a ranked team against an unranked team - at it will be Wednesday night --the ranked team is 19-4 and just one of those upsets have come on the road.
Even the four cases since 1980 when the unranked team has pulled the upset were far from stunners. Taken in chronological order:
Feb. 28, 1981 - Coach K's first Duke team was 14-11 and unranked when the Devils faced No. 11 UNC (22-6) in Cameron. It was senior day for Gene Banks and Kenny Dennard and those two stars teamed up - Dennard inbounding to Banks to create the dramatic game-tying shot at the buzzer. Banks followed up with a rebound basket in overtime that helped Duke beat UNC, 66-65. Duke would reach the NIT semifinals before losing at Purdue that year after Banks was injured. North Carolina would get on an NCAA run and reach the Final Four, losing the national title game to Indiana. Not to diminish the magnitude of Duke's upset, but UNC star James Worthy was injured and did not play in Cameron.
Jan. 17, 1990 - No. 8 Duke (12-2) was blown out of the Smith Center by unranked UNC (11-6), 79-60. That was the game where freshman Bobby Hurley was humiliated by UNC's King Rice. Hurley, who had been brilliant in early matchups with Michigan's Rumeal Robinson and Stevie Thompson of Syracuse, had one assist and 10 turnovers against Rice, while missing 7-of-9 shots from the floor. Rice, who had keyed a surprise UNC win in Cameron the year before (when No. 13 UNC routed No. 1 Duke by 20), had 13 points and nine assists.
Mar. 4, 1990 - Unranked North Carolina (18-11) beat No. 5 Duke (23-6) 87-75 in Cameron as Rice again turned in a spectacular game with 20 points and eight assists. This one wasn't a rout and Hurley bounced back with a strong performance - 16 points (including 4-of-7 3-pointers) and six assists.
Mar. 9, 2003 - No. 10 Duke (21-5) lost 82-79 to unranked UNC (15-14) in Chapel Hill. The Devils had beaten UNC by nine in Cameron a month earlier. That was a talented Tar Heel team with the freshman core that would win the national title two years later. Indeed, four of the five starters in the 2005 title game played 30-plus minutes against Duke in 2003. The one missing was freshman center Sean May, who missed the second half of the 2003 season with a foot injury (sound familiar?). Oddly, May rejoined the Tar Heels a week later for the ACC Tournament when Duke easily handled the Heels, 75-63.
That's it. Since 1981, the unranked team in the rivalry is just 4-19, Most of the games haven't been close - 13 of the 19 ranked wins have been by double digits. There were a couple of exceptions - famously, a 13-18 Duke team took No. 2 UNC into double-overtime before losing in Cameron in 1995. A year later, an unranked Duke team that would finish 18-13 lost by one to No. 8 UNC in Chapel Hill.
Allow me to talk about those two 1990 games - half of the four games in 32 years in which an unranked team upset a ranked foe in the series. It's worth noting that North Carolina was a talented, but underachieving team in 1990. The five starters who would lead UNC to the 1991 Final Four were all in place - Rice at the point, George Lynch and Pete Chilcutt in the post, and Rick Fox and Hubert Davis on the wing. Freshman Eric Montross would play a huge role off the bench in '91, but in 1990, the Heels actually got better center play from senior Scott Williams in '90 (he usually started ahead of Lynch or Chilcutt) than they would get from Montross a year later.
UNC started that season at No. 7 in the nation - ahead of No. 10 Duke - but struggled to a desultory 19-11 regular season finish. When the Heels lost to Virginia in overtime to open the ACC Tournament, Dean Smith was in danger of missing a 20-win season for the first time since 1966. UNC did get that 20th victory over Southwest Missouri State in the NCAA Tournament, then added victory No. 21 when the Heels stunned No. 1 Oklahoma in a NCAA second-round game in Austin, Tx.
The disappointing season ended against Arkansas in the regional semifinals in Dallas - the same 40-minutes-of-hell team that Duke smacked down in the Final Four in Denver.
There is no question that Duke was a better team than UNC in 1990. So why did the Blue Devils have so much trouble with North Carolina?
Part of it was motivation - UNC, which had long enjoyed the status of the ACC's unquestioned king, hated seeing upstart Duke emerge as a better program. A few years later (1994 to be exact), a coach would explain to a reporter why another underachieving Tar Heel team played so well against Duke: "They were the only people they hated more than each other."
I don't think that was the case in 1990, although there was plenty of motivation for UNC in the rare underdog role. And believe me, Dean Smith LOVED the underdog role - so much that he would often go to ridiculous lengths to manufacture reasons why the favored Tar Heels should not be favored.
The two 1990 matchups with Duke were situations when he didn't have to do any finagling to assume the underdog role.
But to me - and this is one of the few times I set myself up as a critic of Coach K's tactics (and, believe me, only in hindsight would I question the Hall of Fame coach) - I think the key to Duke's problem was King Rice.
You have to understand about Rice. A powerful, even bullish point guard from Binghamton, N.Y., Rice was a premier recruit - rated the No. 3 prospect in the nation by Bob Gibbons, who called him, "the human assist."
When he got to UNC, Dean Smith - and Tar Heel opponents - quickly discovered that there was a flaw in Rice's game.
He simply could not shoot â¦ a lick.
Tar Heel fans were hugely disappointed in their star recruit. I can't remember another player booed as loudly or as frequently by his home fans as Rice was in his first couple of years. As a freshman in 1988, he ended up well down the bench (playing 10 minutes a game) while Jeff Lebo - a fine combo guard - handled the point for UNC. As a sophomore in 1989, Rice played more (20 minutes a game), but remained a limited asset on the court. He was not a bad playmaker or defender, but his inability to shoot created problems - opponents would back off the 5-11 playmaker, giving him the wide open jump shot, but taking away his driving and passing lanes.
That was an era when Coach K played an all-out pressure man-to-man defense. His defensive style drove most of the ACC to distraction. In 1988, Duke swept three games from UNC as Lebo averaged 36 minutes a game, but struggled against the Devils' constant pressure. Rice averaged 11 minutes in the three games and had a grand total of two points and three assists in the three Tar Heel losses.
Heading into the first 1989 meeting with Duke, UNC had a problem. Lebo was sidelined with an injury and Rice was forced to start. As it turned out, that was one of the best things that ever happened to the Tar Heels.
Duke's constant-in-your-face pressure didn't bother the bullish point guard. He didn't want to shoot a jump shot anyway. He was able to drive past his defenders - either to get to the basket or to set up either J.R. Reid or Scott Williams inside. Rice played 34 minutes and scored 14 points (two layups and 10 free throws) and passed out seven assists as No. 13 UNC crushed the top-rated Blue Devils, 91-71.
A month later, Duke traveled to Chapel Hill and Lebo was healthy again. With Rice on the bench (he played 12 minutes), the Devils' defense again clicked. Lebo was 2-of-9 from the floor as Duke prevailed 88-86 in the Smith Center.
I guess I should note that if Coack K was too stubborn to back off Rice, then we should concede that Dean Smuth was equally stubborn about sticking with the less-effective Lebo in the face of Duke's pressure.
Fast forward to 1990. Lebo had graduated and Rice moved into the starting lineup as a junior. Twice he abused Duke and Hurley as the Devils insist on trying to pressure him on the perimeter.
Duke did bounce back to beat UNC twice in 1991 - as Hurley thoroughly outplayed Rice on both occasions, although the Heels did crush the eventual national champs in the ACC title game (as Rice once again outplayed Hurley).
I guess the point is that Rice was a much more effective player against Duke in 1989 and 1990 because of the way Duke insisted on defending him. It was just a unique matchup. That's the explanation I see for the anomaly for UNC's two "upset" wins in 1990.
Can that apply this week? Is there something about this year's Duke team and this year's UNC team that could break sharply in Carolina's favor?
Coach K suggested earlier this week that in at least two respects, this UNC team offers Duke a tough matchup.
"They are one of the best offensive rebounding teams and transition teams in the country," he said. "Those are two areas that we have been good, obviously, or we wouldn't have the record we have, but we are not that good. And the two areas that are a little bit weak are defensive rebounding and transition, and those are their two strengths.
"So we have got to get fresh and we have got to be able to do a good job in those areas."
North Carolina does lead the ACC in offensive rebounds (averaging 14.8 a game - well ahead of No. 2 Maryland at 13.1 and No. 8 Duke at 10.2). Transition offensive is harder to measure, but, according to Pomeroy, UNC has the fourth fastest tempo in the country and the best in the ACC. That suggests they run well.
However, the game could very well turn on 3-point shooting. Through last weekend, North Carolina has more 3-point attempts than anybody in the ACC - edging out second-place Duke (19.4 attempts per game to 18.8 per game). However, since the Devils shoot a significantly higher percentage from beyond the arch (40.9 to 36.7), Duke is actually averaging a higher average of made 3-point field goals a game (7.7 to 7.1). Duke is also doing a better job on 3-point defense, limiting opponents to 4.6 made 3s per game and a 30.4 percentage. UNC's foes are averaging 7.3 made 3s a game and hitting 35.2 percent..
Those numbers would seem to suggest that Duke would have an edge in a 3-point shootout, except that 3-point shooting is notoriously inconsistent. In recent weeks, the Devils have gone 11 of 22 on 3s against Maryland; 2-14 against Wake; 11 of 18 at Florida State and 10 of 17 in the first half against N.C. State.
But in the last three-halves of basketball, Duke has gone 0 for 7 on 3s in the second half against N. C. State and 6 of 17 at Boston College.
"We are a good shooting team," Coach K said. "But for any shooting team, there are times when the shots won't fall."
So Duke SHOULD win a 3-point shootout, but there is no guarantee. If Duke is cold and UNC hot, the Tar Heels could very well steal the win in Cameron. If Duke is hot and UNC cold, it could be a rout of 2010 magnitude.
If both teams are hot or both teams are cold, then it gets interesting.
In normal circumstances, Duke would get a big edge for the homecourt advantage.
Both Duke and North Carolina have been significantly better teams at home this season than on the road.
The Blue Devils are 12-0 at home and only the 73-68 victory over No. 4 (at the time) Ohio State was less than double digits. Duke's five ACC home wins have been by 18, 28, 16, 20 and 13. In contrast, Duke is 3-2 on the road in the ACC with the three wins by 5, 19 and 1.
Note that in two games with Wake Forest, Duke won by 18 at home and five on the road. In two games with N.C. State, Duke lost by 8 in Raleigh and won by 13 in Cameron.
North Carolina's record has a very similar home-road disparity.
The Tar Heels are 11-1 at home and 3-5 on the road. In ACC play, UNC is 4-1 at home with wins by 10, 16, 12 (although in overtime) and 25. They do have a 9-point home loss to Miami, but that's a lot better than their 26-point road loss to Miami.
From those numbers, it looks like Duke should have a significant edge in Cameron.
But that's one of the oddities of this series. While it hasn't produced that many memorable upsets, the rivalry clearly has negated the homecourt edge for the two teams - especially in recent years.
Last season, when each team won on the others home court was not an anomaly. Since 2006, visiting teams are 9-5 in the series. Duke has won in Chapel Hill in 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2012. UNC has won in Durham in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2012.
Taking it back a bit farther, Duke has had a 9-5 record in Chapel Hill since 1999 â¦ which is better than its 8-6 record versus UNC in Cameron over the same span.
Both Krzyzewski and UNC's Roy Williams are at a loss to explain the absence of a homecourt edge in the series.
"Both teams have been really good," Krzyzewski suggested Tuesday. "The players are used to playing in frenzied situations. With both teams so good, they can go win anywhere."
Williams made the same point, noting that 2010 was an exception, when "they were good and we were not."
He added, "Most of the other years both of us have been pretty doggone good and it's who plays the best the night, regardless of where you are. Last year we thought we played very well until the last three minutes of the game [in Chapel Hill], then we didn't play well at all. They made every play they needed to down the stretch. The year before, we were great over there the first half, terrible the second half.
"It's who plays on that night if the teams are evenly matched."
The question is whether Duke and North Carolina are evenly matched. In terms of performance this season, Duke has been the better team â¦ but that's not always a guarantee of victory in this series.