Why the UNC game matters

With College GameDay coming to Cameron Indoor Stadium this weekend, the folks at ESPN asked The Chronicle to give a little local color to explain why the Duke-UNC game matters so much, especially this season, since Duke and North Carolina are at opposite ends of the ACC standings. Here's what we came up with:

As of last Sunday at about 9:45 p.m.—the time Duke finished off its 18-point rout of Virginia in Charlottesville—the Blue Devils didn’t just enter the final stretch of their ACC season.

That’s because it’s Carolina Week.

It doesn’t matter that North Carolina can’t score from the outside, lost its best player to injury a few weeks ago and hasn’t gotten enough production from its freshman class. It doesn’t matter that the Tar Heels’ coach compared this season to the Haiti earthquake disaster, or that the team has let late leads slip time and again. It doesn’t matter that North Carolina might be the worst team in the ACC this season, and it doesn’t matter that Duke’s game against Maryland in College Park tonight is much more relevant to the ACC standings than the Blue Devils’ matchup with the Tar Heels three days later.

Duke fans live for the day North Carolina comes to Durham. The college basketball world forgets whatever else is going on. Even though West Virginia and Villanova, two top-10 teams, are playing each other Saturday, ESPN’s College GameDay will be at Cameron Indoor Stadium for a contest between the first- and 10th-place teams in a so-so conference. Welcome to Duke-UNC.

As anyone who’s attended this game in person will tell you, it’s unforgettable—and not only because students looking for good seats probably camped out in famed Krzyzewskiville for two months to get them. It makes no difference if you’re standing on the first row of bleachers at center court or if you’re way in the corner, 25 feet behind the baseline, squished in between two strangers in a four-inch space wide enough for only one of your feet. The excitement is incomparable in the hours before the game, and the moment the Carolina players run onto the court for pregame warmups, there begins a 3-hour emotional marathon. Because if Duke loses at home to the Tar Heels, there’s nothing worse.

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Chase Olivieri/Chronicle File Photo

But a win over North Carolina in Cameron Indoor Stadium—well, I have no idea what that’s like. I’m a senior, and the Tar Heels have been better than the Blue Devils all three years I’ve been in school. First it was Brandan Wright dominating Duke in Cameron, then it was Tyler Hansbrough and the untouchable Ty Lawson. North Carolina even won a national championship, and the miserable season the Tar Heels have gone through this year doesn’t really cancel that out for Duke fans. A home win over the Tar Heels, however, would. Duke hasn’t lost at home to anyone but North Carolina in three seasons, and while home wins are fun, a home win over the Tar Heels would be ecstasy for Blue Devil supporters.

So when North Carolina travels the eight miles across 15-501 to Durham Saturday, every Duke fan in attendance will forget that the Blue Devils can’t gain anything from beating the Tar Heels. By Saturday night, there’s a good chance the Blue Devils will have already locked up the ACC regular season championship and No. 1 seed in the conference tournament, and beating a team that’s not good enough for the NIT won’t help Duke’s NCAA Tournament resume. Imagine that: a game against North Carolina lowering the Blue Devils’ strength of schedule and RPI.

None of that matters, because a win over the Tar Heels makes a season a success for Duke fans, even if head coach Mike Krzyzewski wishes that wasn’t the case. This Blue Devil team can, and probably should, make a deep NCAA Tournament run. But if Duke loses in the second round, at least those students who sacrificed a semester to wait in line for one two-hour event will know it was worth it if Duke wins Saturday.

The Duke-UNC game gets a lot of national attention, and it should, even in years when one or both of the teams aren’t great. ESPN made the right call sending former Blue Devil Jay Bilas and the gang to Durham next Saturday, because as Bilas knows from experience, there’s something special about to happen in Cameron Indoor Stadium.


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