CHAPEL HILL — You’d have to have been born on the moon to not know how special and intense the basketball rivalry between North Carolina and Duke has been over the years.
Since Cameron Johnson is from Moon Township, Pa., not the celestial body orbiting Earth, he has at least a general idea of what to expect when he and his Tar Heel teammates take on the Blue Devils at Smith Center on Thursday for the first of their two regular season meetings.
But he knows that he truly understand what the nation’s best college sports rivalry is all about until he actually experiences it for the first time.
“I’ve watched it whenever I had the chance over the past 20 years,” said the graduate transfer from Pittsburgh, who is in his first season at UNC. “I’m really excited. I’m honored to be part of something so special and my teammates are too.
“From everybody I’ve talked to who’s played in it, it’s a pretty special game and environment. I’m looking forward to playing in it.”
Although emotions will be as high as ever both on the court and in the stands, this UNC-Duke matchup will feature a different dynamic from those of the past decade-and-a-half.
It will mark the first time since March 15, 2003, neither the Blue Devils nor Tar Heels will be ranked among the top eight in the national polls. Duke, which is coming off an inexplicable loss to Big East doormat St. John’s, is currently No. 9 while UNC, which snapped a three-game losing streak with a win against ACC doormat Pittsburgh on Saturday, checks in at No. 21.
With Virginia having all but wrapped up the conference regular season title, there’s not as much riding on the outcome as usual.
That doesn’t change the fact that there’s still pride on the line. That and momentum heading into the home stretch, with the postseason right around the corner.
“If we were 0-12 and they were 0-11,” UNC coach Roy Williams said at his pre-Duke media availability Tuesday, “there’d be people out there filling the place up so they could talk.”
When it comes to bragging rights, details such as records and standings — or even the names and faces of the participants — aren’t as important as the numbers on the scoreboard at the end of the game.
And yet, the rivalry doesn’t have the same familiarity or intimacy as it once did because of the influx of one-and-done players.
There was once a time, not that long ago, when members of both teams would get their hair cut at the same barber shop and play pickup games with and against one another at the same gym over the summer.
That’s not the case anymore thanks to the influx of one-and-done players, especially on the Duke side. For UNC seniors Joel Berry and Theo Pinson, it’s as if they’ve played a different group of Blue Devils in each of their four seasons as Tar Heels.
“Some of the younger guys know those guys more than I do,” Pinson said of Duke’s four freshman starters. “With Joel and I being here four years, it’s kind of hard for us to know them personally.”
Because the Tar Heels have so many experienced veterans, including juniors Berry suggested that his team might be more invested in the rivalry than their younger opponents. He also said the experience of knowing what to expect from the rivalry game could also play to UNC’s advantage.
“We know that the crowd is going to be loud each and every possession. Everybody is going to come out and be ready to play with a lot of energy,” Berry said. “But you just have to pace yourself and make sure you don’t exert too much energy, because sometimes this rivalry can make it so that you end up tired even before the game. Just knowing that you have to keep calm and see it as just another game is something we understand.”
As quickly as the names on the back of the jerseys have changed over the past few years, Williams said that the intensity of the UNC-Duke rivalry has remained constant because of the names printed on the front.
“I don’t think it has changed the rivalry in my viewpoint. I really don’t,” Williams said of the one-and-done phenomenon. “Whoever they put out there in a Duke shirt, that’s the team we’re going to try to beat. And I would assume that (they’re going to try to beat) whoever we put out there.”