DURHAM — This might be the strangest UNC-Duke game in recent memory. Normally when the two rivals meet, college basketball takes notice. The Tar Heels and Blue Devils tend to be atop the polls, battling for the ACC regular season crown and making a case for a top seed in the NCAA Tournament — ahead of the other team — as they close the regular season.
The teams have combined for seven top-five rankings … in their last six meetings. At least one of the two teams has been in the top five in 19 of the last 24 games they’ve played against each other.
March 15, 2003, in the ACC Tournament in Greensboro — 37 Duke-Carolina games ago — was the last time neither team was in the top 10 when they played. It happened twice in the 1990s, twice in the 1980s and eight times in the 1970s, clearly a low point for the rivalry.
It will happen again Saturday. Duke, having lost three of four entering the final week of the regular season before beating NC State on Monday, fell to No. 12 in the AP Top 25. North Carolina, at 13-17 after winning Tuesday’s Senior Night game against Wake, is unranked.
Carolina’s season-long woes and Duke’s late-season spiral have combined to approach another record for the rivalry. The teams have combined for a total of 23 losses. That’s the second-most for a regular season meeting in the history of the rivalry. In 1951, three years before the start of the ACC, the two teams met with a combined 26 losses.
Their 18 combined ACC losses are a series record, topping the 17 the teams had combined for in the 1995 regular season finale.
The lack of national urgency surrounding the game may have knocked a little luster from the showdown, making it merely a game between two teams who don’t like each other — who happen to both be coached by Hall of Famers and have one-and-done draft picks on the roster.
Still, there are stakes for both teams other than bragging rights heading into the game.
For Carolina, it’s the chance to finish the season on a high note and head into the ACC Tournament with a three-game winning streak. And once the Tar Heels are in the postseason, with Cole Anthony running the show and Garrison Brooks down low, anything can happen. The Heels would also like to avoid finishing in the ACC cellar. After Tuesday’s win, that’s where they found themselves, tied with Wake Forest and Pittsburgh at 6-13.
It’s also the chance to erase the painful memories from the first meeting between the two teams. In a season filled with inexplicable late-game meltdowns, the Duke game may have been rock bottom for the Tar Heels.
Up by 13 at home with four minutes to play, by 10 with 2:10 to play and by seven with 1:11 left, the Blue Devils managed to tie the score on a Tre Jones missed free throw that the point guard rebounded and put back in at the buzzer. Carolina then led by five with 20 seconds to play in overtime but lost when Duke rebounded another missed free throw and Wendell Moore beat the buzzer for the winning points.
The loss was the third in what would grow to a seven-game skid that all but ended any hope of a postseason bid, short of winning the ACC Tournament. Now Carolina would like nothing more than to stick a pin in Duke’s postseason prep.
The Blue Devils appeared to be cruising to a top seed in Greensboro to open NCAA play when they suddenly lost three of four before righting the ship against NC State on Monday night. Still, the Blue Devils need to finish the final week of the regular season with a win to keep from having to hit the road to start the Big Dance. The game will also be important for Duke’s ACC seeding. The Blue Devils can still finish in any of the top four spots in the conference.
Most critical for Duke, however, is the eye test. A 22-point loss at NC State and a stunning double-overtime loss to lowly Wake Forest have seriously dented Duke’s national reputation. The Blue Devils would like to post a lopsided win over a clearly less-talented UNC team with everyone watching to regain their spot as the team everyone wants to beat.
It may not be two top-shelf elites battling for supremacy on the eve of madness, but it’s still Duke-Carolina, and, as we saw a month ago in Chapel Hill, anything can happen.