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It’s lost a step after UNC’s epic cheating but it’s still a potent rivalry

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Duke v North Carolina
Austin Rivers gets ready to drive a stake through UNC’s heart that will never be fully healed.

It’s Duke-Carolina week once again.

Maybe it says something as to how jaded we are that game seems to have lost a little luster. After all, UNC is coming off a three-game losing streak that the Tar Heels only broke Saturday by beating hapless Pitt at home. Duke was staggered Saturday by a loss to St, John’s, which is winless in the Big East.

And of course the UNC cheating scandal has made it hard to get excited about playing The Cheats. Before 2011, I always thought one of the beauties of the rivalry was the perception that the two universities represented the best in college sports.

That feeling has been lost forever. It’s hard to get excited about facing one of the most despicable examples of a win-at-all cost mentality.

When the two teams meet Thursday night in Chapel Hill, it will be the No. 9 team in the nation (Duke) against the No. 21 team (UNC). It says something about the strength of the rivalry that this is one of the weakest matchups in recent years.

But maybe that should remind us that it’s just one regular season matchup,

“Their program and our program are not built on winning any individual game,” Mike Krzyzewski said. “Both are built on championship seasons.”

Indeed, Duke and UNC have won two of the last three national championships – and six of the 18 national titles won in this century. In that context, the rivalry is pretty damn important.

The first home-and-home matchup of rivalry has not always been the best harbinger for team success.

For instance, a year ago, Duke won the first Duke-UNC matchup – and the Tar Heels went on to win the national title. Two years ago, Duke won the first matchup – and the Heels played in the national title game. In 1992 and 2001, UNC won the first matchups – and Duke won the national titles in both seasons.

So whatever happens in Chapel Hill Thursday night, don’t read too much into it.

But here is a number to consider:

In this century, Duke is 8-1 against UNC when the first matchup of the season is in the Smith Center.

That’s astonishing.

The last few years have been good to Duke when it comes to the head-to-head. Duke has won 13 of 18 matchups since 2010. UNC’s last sweep of the season series was in 2009. Duke has swept in 2010, 2013 and 2015. And Duke has won two out of three in 2011 and 2017. The two teams gave split 2012, 2014 and 2016.

This week’s game offers an interesting reversal of styles.

Usually, Duke features a bunch of three-point shooters around one big man. Carolina usually depends on inside strength and terrific rebounding.

But this Duke team is based in the skills of bigmen Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter. Its 3-point shooting – mostly Grayson Allen and Gary Trent – is wildly inconsistent. UNC has been getting little out of its young bigs (although its rebounding remains strong). Instead the strength of the team is its 3-point shooting – UNC often plays a lineup that features four strong 3-point shooters (Joel Berry, Cam Johnson, Kenny Williams and Luke Maye).

So can Duke prevail using UNC’s normal mode of attack or will UNC go the Duke route and win by relying on 3-pointers?

Whatever happens, the game will be another chapter in the most competitive rivalry in college basketball.

We can compare programs in many ways, choosing criteria that would favor Duke or picking a time-span to favor UNC. Does it really matter than the Heels lead the all-time series (135-110) or that Coach K has a winning record against UNC (45-40)? The first number includes games from the ‘20s and ‘30s that are hardly relevant today, while K’s record includes games against Dean Smith, Bill Guthridge and Matt Doherty.

Interesting that K has a losing record against Smith, but has a winning record against Guthridge, Doherty … and Roy Williams.

To me, that’s a valid comparison – Coach K with Roy head up.

Let me be clear. I’m only measuring K with Roy at North Carolina. The UNC coach was at Kansas during the run when K won three national titles and played in seven Final Fours. And one further thing – I know that UNC was cheating during most of Roy’s tenure, but the NCAA chose to ignore that, so I suppose I’ll have to too.

So how do the two programs stack up – from 2003-04, Roy’s first year at UNC through now:

-- Duke has a 425-100 record; UNC is 414-122. Put in simpler terms, Duke has averaged a 29-7 record (not counting this year); UNC has averaged 28-8. That’s pretty darn close.

-- Coach K is 18-12 head-to-head against Roy Williams. Oddly, he’s 8-6 in Durham and 8-6 in Chapel Hill. He is 2-0 against UNC in the ACC tournament on neutral courts.

-- Coach K has won six ACC championships since 2004. Roy has won three ACC championships in that span.

-- Coach K has finished in the final AP top 10 12 times (and 13 times in the top 25); Roy has finished in the top 10 eight times (12 in the top 25).

-- Coach K has made the NCAA in all 14 seasons; Roy missed in 2010.

-- UNC has outperformed Duke in NCAA play with 3 titles, five Final Four appearances and a 42-10 record in NCAA games; Duke has two titles, three Final Fours and a 31-12 record since 2004. Both have nine Sweet 16 appearances in 14 seasons.

So who has had the better program over the 14 years of K vs. Roy?

Coach K has been better in every category, except NCAA play. But that’s the big one. A Carolina fan could make the case on that alone, that Roy has had more success.

It’s funny, but the debate has complete flipped since the late 1980s and early 1990s when Dean Smith had the edge in regular season success, but K was enjoying far more NCAA success. Head-to-head was a big deal to Tar Heel fans then.

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