Carolina-Duke will be a true transition game

UNC’s Hubert Davis will be coaching in his first rivalry game, while Coach K will be in his last in Chapel Hill

Duke's Mike Krzyzewski will coach his last game in Chapel Hill on Saturday when his ninth-ranked Blue Devils travel to UNC to face the rival Tar Heels. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

The last time UNC and Duke met, the Tar Heels won a 91-73 decision over the Blue Devils at the Smith Center. After the handshakes between the two teams were over as the Tar Heels left the floor, Roy Williams took a moment to kiss the North Carolina logo at center court.

Perhaps disingenuously, perhaps having not yet made up his mind, Williams denied there was any significance to the moment, saying he was just celebrating the completion of a successful home season. But 26 days later, Williams announced his retirement, turning the program over to Hubert Davis.

So on Saturday, Feb. 5, for the first time in exactly 18 years — since Feb. 5, 2004, Williams’ first season with the Tar Heels — the best rivalry in sports will have a new character in one of the head coaching seats.

How will Davis, who has seen his Tar Heels struggle with inconsistency this season, approach his first Duke game as head coach?

Davis is intense in the locker room, on the practice court and in the timeout huddles, and he knows the rivalry from a player’s perspective. The Tar Heels went 6-5 against the Blue Devils during his playing career. But he’s also shown a soft hand when he senses his team needs it. How will he get his team at the right frequency in a game loaded with distractions?

That alone would add a compelling storyline to a rivalry that certainly doesn’t need a new one. But Davis’ debut against the Blue Devils will likely be placed on the back burner on Saturday night. That game will be the last trip to the Smith Center for legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has announced his retirement after this season.

That means next year, the rivalry will once again have a new face on the sideline in current Duke assistant Jon Scheyer, already announced as Coach K’s replacement.

The two-year span that starts on Saturday will be the first time in 98 years that both head coaches in the UNC-Duke rivalry will have changed in back-to-back seasons. In 1924-25, Duke coach J.S. Burbage was replaced by George Buchheit. A few years later, Buchheit would be replaced by Eddie Cameron, namesake of Duke’s historic Indoor Stadium and the Crazies who inhabit it.

The following season, UNC coach Monk McDonald was succeeded by Harlan Sanborn. UNC won all four of the games with Duke during those two transition seasons, which wasn’t a surprise since it was part of UNC’s 17-2 record against Duke in the first 19 games of the rivalry.

As the rivalry enters a once-in-a-century period of transition, the outgoing Krzyzewski will be the center of attention. Coach K is in the midst of a farewell tour, with each road venue Duke travels to finding a way to honor the Hall of Famer. In Louisville over the weekend, he was given a personalized Louisville Slugger bat and bottle of bourbon. On Monday night, he had an emotional farewell at Notre Dame with former assistant Mike Brey, who has had more success against Krzyzewski than any other member of his coaching tree while coaching the Irish.

In Duke’s third straight road game, the farewell tour will hit a bit of a speed bump. A report came out last week that UNC did not plan to do anything to honor Krzyzewski’s last trip to Chapel Hill. His retirement will be mentioned during the team introductions, but there will be no gifts, no special ceremony or anything like that.

That’s a departure from 2015, when Duke held a moment of silence, with players from both teams arm in arm, in honor of Dean Smith’s death, and Carolina presenting Coach K with a plaque commemorating his 1,000th career win.

That could signify a cooling in Duke-UNC relations, which had thawed significantly with Hall of Fame coaches Williams and Krzyzewski guiding the rivalry through the last 18 years. The two were friendly and respectful, even as the play on the floor was intense.

Davis was a senior on the Tar Heels for the famous “bloody Montross” game, as physical play opened a cut on UNC center Eric Montross’ face. Scheyer was a freshman in the game where UNC’s Tyler Hansbrough suffered a broken nose from Duke’s Gerald Henderson. Both coaches will likely feel more strongly about the rivalry than their predecessors.

In addition, the rivalry has also seen its intensity turn up when a new face entered the fray. Early in his Duke tenure, Krzyzewski famously railed against the “double standard” in the ACC, essentially saying Dean Smith gets all the calls. Matt Doherty, another former Tar Heels player-turned-coach, called the Duke cheerleaders “the ugliest in the ACC” during a timeout huddle. So the Tar Heels choosing not to recognize Coach K is in keeping with tradition.

Plaque or not, ceremony or none, once the game tips off, all pregame hoopla will be forgotten and the latest character in the Carolina-Duke rivalry will begin writing his chapter, even as the coach on the other bench turns the final page.