Unrivaled game: Duke-Carolina meet in the Final Four

The best rivalry in sports meets on its biggest stage ever

Sorry America, but you’re going to hear a little bit about this game. Again.  

Carolina-Duke is always the most hyped series of any basketball season, as the two regular season showdowns at Cameron Indoor Stadium and the Dean Smith Center are preceded by a week of analysis, speculation, smack talk and a steady stream of classic games and highlights on television. The hype ends with a game that almost always lives up to the attention. 

Three weeks ago, we thought we saw the Carolina-Duke hype to end them all as the teams played in Coach K’s final home game, with UNC springing an improbable upset to ruin the party.  

It turns out that circus was a mere appetizer for the smorgasbord of attention the Tar Heels and Blue Devils will attract over the next few days. After 257 Duke-Carolina games, the two teams will meet for the first time on basketball’s biggest stage — the Final Four.  

Both programs are familiar with the Final Four. Coach K is returning for the 13th time, setting a record for most Final Fours by a college coach. North Carolina is headed back for its 21st trip, more than any other program in basketball history.  

The teams have combined to cut down the nets at the Final Four 11 times, winning the title an average of one out of every eight years. Since 1991, Duke and UNC have combined to win nine of the 30 titles — or just about one every three years.   

Transition game  

Many fans have dreaded this game — North Carolina and Duke meeting in the Big Dance — out of fear of being the team to come out on the short side and suffer the ultimate loss in bragging rights.  

In many ways, however, this is the perfect time for the two teams to meet with all the marbles at stake. It’s a period of unprecedented transition for the rivalry. Duke is in the last season under its Hall of Fame coach, while Carolina is in its first since its own Hall of Fame coach retired.  

The Tar Heels reached the Final Four under rookie head coach Hubert Davis, a former UNC player and longtime assistant to Roy Williams. The last first-year coach to reach the Final Four was another longtime UNC assistant who took over from a Hall of Famer.  

In 1997, Bill Guthridge became head coach of the Tar Heels after 30 years as Dean Smith’s assistant. The Tar Heels made the 1998 Final Four, and Guthridge reached the Final Four twice in his three years as coach.  

Davis, who played in the 1991 Final Four with Smith and then-assistant Guthridge, became choked up when asked about his rookie success connection to Coach Gut.  

I just wish he was here,” Davis said. “And I wish that I could give him a hug, and I hope I’m making him proud.” 

Emotions were also high for Davis after a tumultuous first season that saw the team lose two players from the roster, handed blowout losses in the nonconference season and then suffer an embarrassing loss to Pitt that almost popped UNC’s NCAA bubble. The Tar Heels were able to rally late, however, starting with that upset of Duke in what was supposed to be Mike Krzyzewski’s going-away party.   

Riding into the sunset  

Ninety-six former Duke players packed Cameron Indoor Stadium for Coach K’s final game, only to stand by helplessly as the Blue Devils lost to their archrivals.  

Before the postgame ceremony honoring him started, Krzyzewski took the microphone and apologized for the loss, saying, “It was unacceptable.”  

That moment seems to have been transformational for a Duke team that had struggled with inconsistency, particularly on defense, late in the season.  

Krzyzewski, who has always been a master motivator and able to connect with his players, has played the role of a proud grandfather — fitting since his grandson is on the team — during the NCAA run.  

After his Cameron farewell attracted so much attention and may have put pressure on his players, he’s insisted that this is his team’s time and “I just want to be invited to the party.”  

When Duke beat Michigan State to reach the Sweet 16, he got choked up at the postgame press conference and told his players, “I’m so proud to be your coach.”   

It’s time 

One team, seeing its first success under an emotional new coach, the other making one final ride with its reflective Hall of Fame coach. The game will attract all the attention this week while two other storied programs with three national title banners each — Villanova and Kansas — will also play for a spot opposite the Duke-Carolina winner in the championship game. Will the team to emerge from the rivalry game to end them all have any emotion left, or will the Villanova-Kansas winner be waiting like a vulture to swoop in and take the title?  

It’s time to find out.