Two dependable blue-bloods with iconic histories, now unranked and scrapping for a once-seemingly guaranteed berth in the NCAA tournament. Tickets to a rivalry matchup in Cameron Indoor Stadium that are usually as expensive as a used car, not even on the market amidst a pandemic.
This year's Duke vs. North Carolina showdown isn't the one we're used to. It’s hard to imagine this game without the fanfare that comes with the greatest rivalry in college sports, but it isn’t hard to understand why the game feels so different with the state of the Tobacco Road rivalry over the past decade.
The Tar Heels will always be the circled game on Duke’s schedule, and vice versa, because of the history, though in recent years it’s really the competition and fan bases that give each clash so much hype and the highest TV ratings of the season. Two unranked teams playing in front of nobody just won't be the same.
With the schools separated by just eight miles and their followings intertwined around the state, there’s animosity toward the other shade of blue in everyone’s daily lives, masked by southern hospitality. And you can’t argue with a competition where over the last 108 meetings, each team has won 54 times with North Carolina scoring just six more total points since 1977. The Blue Devils and Tar Heels have had at least one ranked team in every matchup since 1961...until now.
A struggling, young Duke team and a struggling, young Carolina team face off without all the usual storylines, just the name brand of the rivalry to prop itself up in 2021. Does this year’s iterations remotely resemble the usual hype?
Don’t be mistaken, this rivalry certainly spawned out of hate.
While the two schools have been anything but friendly since starting the series in 1920, some would say that Duke-UNC as we know it now exploded in 1961. Art Heyman, who has his No. 25 retired in Cameron, had some major history with the neighbors in Chapel Hill, as he was originally committed to play for the Tar Heels before some savvy recruiting by Duke head coach Vic Bubas. Heyman’s relationship with North Carolina players, slurs and a sucker punch directed his way, and the future No. 1 overall NBA draft pick’s meteoric rise to one of the best players in college basketball provide all the backstory for one of the biggest brawls in college basketball history.
In the closing seconds of a Blue Devil win in a top-five matchup with the Tar Heels Feb. 4, 1961, Heyman hit future Basketball Hall of Famer and old friend Larry Brown with a hard foul, eventually leading to punches being thrown on both sides. In an instant, the two rivals collided in a nasty brawl that would require 10 police officers to restore order.
The hatred and rivalry only grew from there, just without the clash of titans we’ve grown to expect in the 21st century. Just two games between Duke and North Carolina from 1962-1977 featured both teams ranked in the top 25 at the time of the game. Enemies would only grow closer with the inception of the Big Four Tournament, an early season, nonconference only tournament with the Blue Devils and Tar Heels as well as in-state foes Wake Forest and N.C. State. This new arrangement added an extra game each year to the rivalry, and even resulted in four Duke-UNC games during the 1978-79 season, in which each team won twice.
The best rivalries are built on respect, but sometimes it’s nice to see the extra juices flowing during the intense matchups. The Blue Devils and Tar Heels had more than a fair share of extracurriculars as both programs continued to dominate the sport.
Former Duke forward Jay Bilas recounts the young Blue Devils visiting Chapel Hill during summers in the early 1980s to play fierce, competitive pickup games against Michael Jordan and company, further establishing the familiarity between the schools.
Mike Krzyzewski famously called out the ACC on a “double-standard” for legendary UNC coach Dean Smith after the Duke head coach was upset about the referee’s handling of technical fouls during a Tar Heel win against the Blue Devils in 1984. Smith became irate with the accusation, and though the two coaches developed a mutual respect, the spectacle undoubtedly grinded some gears between the programs. Duke would play with a fiery passion two months later in the ACC tournament, exacting revenge with an upset win against the Tar Heels and establishing the moment in which Krzyzewski finally got over the hump against Smith.
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And who could forget Gerald Henderson’s elbow to Tyler Hansbrough’s face in 2007. While both sides can debate the intent of the play, the UNC star’s blood-covered scowl will remain one of the lasting images of the rivalry’s bad blood.
Times have certainly changed over the past decade to reflect the importance of the rivalry, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. People tune in to see two great teams with Hall of Fame coaches play a close game in front of ravenous fans. That’s what makes college basketball great, but it misses just a bit of the hostility between the rivals. Nowadays, most top recruits committed to become a Blue Devil or Tar Heel have a friendly relationship with their counterparts down the road through AAU ball or high school all-star games.
Stars make a one-year pitstop in the rivalry, but leave for the next level before any real hatred develops. The closest thing these two schools have had to a real conflict since the Henderson-Hansbrough incident was a Grayson Allen hip check on Garrison Brooks in 2018, leading to some strained feelings.
But here we are, with a pandemic and two underachieving powerhouses leading to a Duke-North Carolina showdown that feels like an afterthought compared to years past.
On the plainest surface, Saturday evening will be two unranked teams playing in an empty gym. But if there’s one question on if this will truly feel like the Tobacco Road rivalry, it’s whether or not the players can bring that old school Duke-Carolina edge.
Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle and The Daily Tar Heel's annual rivalry edition. Find the rest here.