Collision course? Duke, Carolina and the rivalry game to end them all

The sport’s biggest rivals have never played during the Big Dance

Duke forward Paolo Banchero and UNC's Armando Bacot could see their teams meet for a third time this season if both the Blue Devils and Tar Heels make it through this weekend's NCAA Tournament games. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

We’re halfway there.

When the brackets were released, it would have taken eight wins to get there. Four of those victories are now in the books.

North Carolina wasn’t expected to be there, but the Tar Heels upset No. 1 seed Baylor to advance to the Sweet 16. Duke didn’t look like it would make it, but the Blue Devils came back late to knock off Michigan State and secure a berth in the second weekend. Each team needs two more wins.

Is this the year for Carolina-Duke in the NCAA Tournament?

Duke and Carolina have met in the postseason before — but usually it’s the ACC Tournament. The best rivalry in sports has gotten a third go-around in the conference tourney a total of 24 times. The two blues also battled in the 1971 postseason NIT, back when only the ACC champion could go to the NCAAs. Carolina won that matchup, 73-69, in the semifinals, then went on to win the NIT.

Both teams are perennial national championship contenders, meaning they enter just about every NCAA Tournament on a potential collision course. It’s bound to happen eventually. Louisville and Kentucky have met six times in the tournament, but Duke and Carolina never have.

Wait until the end

The NCAA started giving bids to multiple teams from each conference in 1975. So there have been 47 tournaments with the potential of the two teams meeting. Out of them, both Duke and Carolina have made the field in 36 of them.

The NCAA Selection Committee takes steps to prevent teams from the same conference from meeting in the tournament too early. So while four of the six Louisville-Kentucky games have come in the Sweet 16, Duke and Carolina are never going to meet that early.

In fact, 24 of the 36 times they’ve both made the Big Dance, Duke and Carolina couldn’t have met until the national championship game. Nine of those times, one of the two teams made it there, but the other did not. Shouts of “We’re here, where’s Carolina?” could be heard from Duke fans in 1978, 1986, 1991, 1992, 1999, 2001 and 2015. “We’re here, where’s Duke?” was chanted in 2016 and 2017.

This year is the 10th time that Duke and Carolina were put in regions on the same side of the bracket, meaning they could meet in the national semifinals for a spot in the title game. Duke did its part, making the Final Four in 1990 and 1994, while Carolina was left looking for Duke in 1993, 1997, 2000, 2005 and 2009.

Twice, the teams were in the same region and could have met in the Elite Eight. The first time was 1979, when neither team won a game, getting eliminated in Raleigh on what’s become known as Black Friday. The other time was in 2004, when Duke made the regional final but Roy Williams’ first UNC tournament team managed just one win, leaving the teams two wins short of a meeting.

Close calls

The teams usually get relatively close to meeting. In the 36 appearances, Duke and Carolina have produced more than half of the wins they needed to collide in the bracket. Not counting this year — when four of the eight necessary wins have been recorded already with potentially more to come — the Blue Devils and Tar Heels have needed a total of 316 NCAA wins to meet and produced 167 of them for a 53% rate.

The 2004 tournament was one of five times the teams fell two wins short of meeting. In 1990, Duke got its four wins for a Final Four meeting, but UNC fell to Arkansas in the Sweet 16. In 2000 (loss to Florida), 2005 (Michigan State) and 2009 (Villanova), Duke lost in the Sweet 16 while UNC made the Final Four.

The closest call

Only once have both teams been in the same building with a chance to meet. That was in the 1991 Final Four. Carolina and Duke both made it to Indianapolis, producing eight of the 10 combined wins it would take to meet in the national championship game.

Duke, expected by most to be the team to spoil the rivalry game to end them all by losing to UNLV, instead knocked off the Runnin’ Rebels in one of the biggest upsets in tournament history. UNC lost to Roy Williams-coached Kansas, however, leaving the teams one game away from each other.

Hope springs eternal

It’s bound to happen, maybe this year. For the fifth time since 2015, they’re at least halfway there. For the fourth time since 2015, they’re four wins away. They keep knocking on the door, and when it finally opens, batten down the hatches.