Carolina-Duke rivalry gets the blues

Two perennial contenders enter this year’s first game unranked and set to play in a mostly empty Cameron Indoor Stadium

Armando Bacot and the Tar Heels will look to further make their NCAA Tournament case when they visit archrival Duke on Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium. (Tony Dejak/AP Photo)

This year, call them black-and-blue bloods.

When North Carolina heads to Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday for the first of two scheduled games in college basketball’s best rivalry, it will be missing a little something — the number in front of each team’s name.

At 7-6 overall and 5-4 in the ACC, Duke fell from the AP Top 25 rankings several weeks ago. North Carolina fell out earlier after losing four of six games. The Heels appear to have righted the ship recently, winning six of seven heading into a game at Clemson that occurred after press time, but they still haven’t reentered the Top 25.

That means neither team will be ranked when the teams play on Saturday night. The last time that happened? Feb. 27, 1960.

Mike Krzyzewski had turned 13 weeks old two weeks earlier. Roy Williams was 9. Dean Smith was a day shy of 29 and awaiting his first head coaching job. The two teams had combined for five trips to the NCAA Tournament in their histories.

Duke entered that game with a 12-9 record and four losses in its last six games. Carolina was 16-5 and had fallen out of the then-Top 20 after a loss to South Carolina a week earlier. Despite the subpar years, both teams had promising recruits on the freshman team ready to join the varsity the following year — Larry Brown for UNC and Art Heyman for Duke.

When the teams met six days later, UNC had moved up to No. 16 in the poll. That was the first of 153 straight Carolina-Duke games with at least one team ranked. For more than half of them — 79 games — both were ranked. In 44 of them, both teams were in the top 10.

Since the first AP poll was released in 1949, Carolina and Duke have both entered the game unranked 14 times, half as many times as one of the two was ranked No. 1.

The rivalry’s buildup is taking another torpedo this year thanks to the pandemic. The game usually brings the rowdiest crowd of the year to Cameron Indoor Stadium. It’s the game for which Krzyzewskiville was created, as Duke students traditionally begin camping out weeks in advance to make sure to get as close as possible to the hated Heels.

This year, there will be no blue paint and no creative chants or signs that were perfected over dozens of nights outside in a tent. Cameron will be virtually empty, with fans, family members and the media not allowed in. It’s the rivalry game equivalent of a Zoom call.

Despite everything working against this year’s game, it’s still Duke-Carolina. ESPN began running promos long ago, and the basketball world will still tune in — rankings or not.

For the players, the intensity may actually be ratcheted up with both teams struggling. The game means more than mere bragging rights — it represents an opportunity for a quality win that could be the difference between making the NCAA Tournament or not.

As usual, the Tar Heels and Blue Devils are taking different approaches to playing style. Roy Williams is running UNC’s offense through the post, and the improved play of sophomore big man Armando Bacot has helped spur Carolina’s recent hot streak. The Heels also have senior Garrison Brooks and freshman Day’Ron Sharpe down low, utilizing two bigs on the floor most of the time.

The Tar Heels have also dominated the boards, ranking near the nation’s best in rebounding margin, as usual.

Duke has recently made more use of freshman center Mark Williams, but the Blue Devils are primarily a guard-reliant lineup, with freshmen Jeremy Roach and DJ Steward and senior Jordan Goldwire getting the ball to wings Matthew Hurt and Jalen Johnson.

Duke’s outside shooting hasn’t been at the level it is most seasons, but it may find the tonic it needs in UNC’s 264th-ranked perimeter defense.

Carolina has also struggled with its shot, both from three and at the free-throw line. The Tar Heels have also seen more than 10% of their shot attempts blocked, an area where Duke excels.

Duke’s defense has fallen on hard times recently, with Mike Krzyzewski relying heavily on a zone defense. When the Blue Devils try man-to-man, they’ve been vulnerable to opponents driving to the hoop, most recently in an upset loss to Miami where Coach K ripped his team for being “soft.”

As usual, the sport’s best rivalry brings together two coaches, teams and fan bases who want nothing more than a win. This year, it also matches two flawed teams who need the win in the worst way. And exactly one month later, they’ll do it all over again in Chapel Hill.