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Column: Duke men's basketball's rivalry with North Carolina is bigger than Saturday's Final Four showdown

Duke and North Carolina are set to face off Saturday for a spot in the national championship game.
Duke and North Carolina are set to face off Saturday for a spot in the national championship game.

In advance of Duke's Final Four faceoff against the Tar Heels, North Carolina governor Roy Cooper proclaimed his state the center of the college basketball universe Thursday morning. Others have called the game the apocalypse. Armageddon. Doomsday. 

If internet chatter is to be believed, Saturday is the defining moment, the ultimate battle in the infamous Tobacco Road rivalry. 

I’m here to say that the chatter is wrong. 

This is a big game, to be sure, and probably the biggest game to ever be played in the rivalry. After all, it’s the first-ever meeting between these two teams in the NCAA tournament and it’s in Coach K’s last season. But it will not be the last, and it will certainly not be the end of the rivalry. In fact, in my opinion, the rivalry will continue largely unchanged after the final buzzer in New Orleans, regardless of who is crowned the winner. 

For those predicting the end of the Triangle as we know it, Saturday’s game is the ultimate trump card. All of Duke and North Carolina's previous regular-season games have had about the same stakes, and any ACC tournament battles between the two always leave the possibility for redemption during March Madness. However, whoever emerges victorious in the Final Four will get to point to the win and say, “Look, head-to-head, on college basketball’s biggest stage, we were better than you.” 

In the endless struggle to establish the better basketball team, a Final Four win is certainly an ace of spades, but there will always be more hands to be played. 

See, this rivalry is so vicious because the two Tobacco Road-adjacent programs are both successful and sit just miles apart along the eponymous highway. One game can’t change that. In fact, both meeting in the Final Four in the same year strengthens each school's winning traditions by adding another line to the seemingly endless resumes of the Blue Blood schools. 

Let’s take a look at the rivalry by the numbers. North Carolina leads the all-time series 142-115, but Duke leads with Krzyzewski coaching 50-47. The Tar Heels have six national championships to the Blue Devils’ five, but Duke has three more ACC tournament championships with 21. Both schools have produced NBAg stars and employed some of the most esteemed coaches in the sport. The legacy of Duke-North Carolina basketball is a legacy of vitriol, sure, but it is also a legacy of unmatched achievement. 

If Blue Devil fans’ worst nightmare happens and the Tar Heels move on to the NCAA tournament final, North Carolina will have two huge triumphs to hold over Duke’s head in the form of the rivalry’s only head-to-head NCAA tournament win and an upset win in Coach K’s final game in Cameron Indoor Stadium. But come next season, the Blue Devils will still be a hop, skip and a jump down the road as a very good basketball team capable of beating the Tar Heels. North Carolina will be in no hurry to scrub, “Go to hell Duke!” from its vocabulary. 

By the same token, if Duke defeats North Carolina in an electric penultimate chapter of Krzyzewski’s fairytale ending, it will have the opportunity to even the national title tally and erase that home loss from the state’s collective memory, as a tournament win means more than a regular-season one could ever. But the Blue Devil faithful will still circle Duke’s next game at the Dean E. Smith Center in red ink and chant “Go to hell Carolina,” in Cameron. 

These are formidable Blue Blood basketball programs, and a Final Four berth for each just proves that the two were always meant to be sworn enemies. They will always be trying to one-up each other, swapping championship runs, upset wins and ACC titles for time immemorial, preventing each other from getting complicit and leaving the basketball crown unbestowed. 

The rivalry, simply put, is bigger than one game, bigger than one season, bigger even than sports. It’s about a symbiotic hatred, pure and simple, the kind that simmers unaffected by anything. So even as one team enters Sunday with a card in its hand the likes of which the rivalry hasn’t seen yet, rest assured that benches will still be burned, Franklin Street will still be stormed and the two camps will still loathe, fear and respect each other in the worst possible way. Nothing, not even a Final Four victory, can change that. 

Sasha Richie | Sports Managing Editor

Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.


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