In a game and on a team stacked with the dynamism and exuberance of youth, the calming, steady presence of a veteran cannot be overstated. In the turbulent season Duke is enduring, that has been further proven.
Ryan Young has had to work for his place in head coach Jon Scheyer’s rotation. The 23-year-old graduate transfer from Northwestern, though lacking the five-star label of many of his fresh-faced teammates, has been an integral piece to the better parts of the Blue Devils’ campaign so far. His now-famous pump fakes have yet to be consistently or effectively shut down and his place in Scheyer’s starting five is, while far from guaranteed, regular. He has been a stable, reliable piece of a Duke team which has by and large been neither.
Come Saturday, come ESPN College GameDay, come the rival Tar Heels, the Blue Devils need stability and reliability now more than ever.
The same can be said for North Carolina. Hoping to spark a return to form, head coach Hubert Davis is also relying on the steadied shoulders of a former Northwestern standout—Pete Nance—to rebuild.
For Young and Nance, this game is not just the chance for bragging rights, but the chance to play against a former teammate and longtime friend on the biggest stage college basketball has to offer.
Purple pride to blue blood
Throughout their time at Northwestern, Young and Nance struggled, studied and grew in tandem.
Young waited until year two to suit up for head coach Chris Collins—a former Blue Devil himself—and made an instant impact when he did, leading the team in rebounds and starting every game that year. On the flip side, Nance took a couple of years to grow into his role, eventually blossoming into a highly effective rebounder and scorer, up there with the Big Ten’s best during his senior season. During their four years together, however, Northwestern struggled to stay afloat as the small fish in the Big Ten’s Great Lakes, posting an aggregate record of 45-73.
“I really did love my experience at Northwestern,” Young said at Duke’s preseason media day. “I love the coaching staff and my teammates there, and I love the school. But through four years, we just really didn’t hit the goals that we wanted to in terms of winning and losing.”
In spite of difficulties on the court, Young and Nance’s relationship continued to develop off it. They were roommates for various stretches and became close friends by their graduation, training together over the summer and staying in touch despite no longer sharing a campus, much less a dorm.
“We’ve definitely kept in touch and grabbed food a few times together while we’ve been down here,” Young told The Chronicle. “I’ve been following him, watching all [North Carolina] games, hoping for the best for him. We trained a lot in the offseason as well. So [I’m] excited to see him staying successful.”
“We’ve been through thick and thin,” Young added. “Some losing streaks, some winning times, right together for the third year. But overall, just growing together for four years, it’s hard to put it into words, because I feel like I’ve known him for a long time.”
A different type of rivalry
Young’s transfer to Duke and Nance’s transition to life in Chapel Hill have in many ways been parallel experiences.
The former’s improvement, especially on the offensive front, in a stacked Blue Devil frontcourt has been astounding, and the latter continues to flaunt his NBA potential with a Swiss army knife of skills inside and outside the post.
At ACC Tipoff in October 2022, one reporter asked Davis what surprised him about Nance’s game. His assessment was brief but powerful.
“I’m surprised that he’s not in the NBA,” Davis said. “With where the NBA and the game of basketball has gone, with mobile bigs, I’m surprised he’s not in the NBA.”
While Young likely doesn’t possess the same professional ceiling as his longtime friend, as we have seen time and again with Duke-North Carolina games, the good, the bad, the spectacular and the ugly get thrown out the window as soon as the clock starts rolling. It’s a game about then and there—nothing else and no one else.
At least it usually is. Nance and Young are individually, in many ways, outsiders to a rivalry with longstanding, deep, personal roots. This game, which perennially carries tons of expectation and hope by longtime fans of either program, now features two players whose principal experience with the other team is four years on the same.
In part due to proximity, another part to history and an even bigger part to basketball prestige, every minute detail of this game will be tactfully planned and highly scrutinized. Plays will be carefully drawn up and hastily erased and matchups will be made, remade and shifted as the flow of play requires. Coincidentally for Young and Nance, there is a decent to good chance their tactical instructions will place them directly opposite one another Saturday evening.
“If we’re matched up against each other, one would think we’d go into a bit of gridlock,” Young said. “To guard each other for four years, he knows all my moves. I know his moves.”
Their time at Northwestern gave Young and Nance plenty of exposure to each other, but as we have seen with Young’s immense offensive uptick—including a perfect 20-point double-double against Florida State—and Nance starting every game this season, both players have leveled up in year five.
“It’ll be interesting to see how we change as players after spending a very similar four years together,” Young said. “It’s just exciting.”
Friends to rivals to friends again
Without hyperbole, Saturday’s game has the potential to define both Duke and North Carolina’s seasons. Key to the success of both teams are two Northwestern transfers with a point to prove, a fanbase to appease and a ship to right.
Despite the stakes, despite the inferno of fandom that encircles the Triangle this time of year, after a brief 40-minute anomaly and the subsequent buzzer Saturday, Young and Nance will resume their positions as friends first and rivals second.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep a straight face the whole time,” Young said.
“I’m excited to see [Nance] staying successful,” he added, chuckling. “Hopefully, he’s not too successful.”
Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle and The Daily Tar Heel's annual rivalry edition. Find the rest of The Chronicle's coverage here, and follow along with the full Rivalry Challenge here.
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Andrew Long is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.