Column: After a strange few years, Duke vs. North Carolina is finally a battle of blue bloods again

Head coach Jon Scheyer and senior Jeremy Roach, who will be playing in his eighth North Carolina game.
Head coach Jon Scheyer and senior Jeremy Roach, who will be playing in his eighth North Carolina game.

One of the many remarkable things about the Tobacco Road rivalry is its refusal to go away. Other rivalries may wax or wane as dynasties fade or players and coaches move on, but few are as effortlessly or inextricably linked as Duke and North Carolina. In more than 100 years of bitterness, there has hardly been a dull moment.

The last few years, though, have been especially compelling, thanks to a whirlwind of change on both ends of the U.S. 15-501. Former Tar Heel head coach Roy Williams knocked over the first domino when he announced his retirement on April Fool’s Day in 2021. His Blue Devil counterpart Mike Krzyzewski followed suit two months later, announcing that the season to follow would be his last.

Since then, we — the viewing public and college basketball enthusiasts across the globe — have been treated to five very different yet similarly excellent installments of the rivalry as Jon Scheyer and Hubert Davis have taken the reins. Those matchups included one Duke blowout, two jaw-dropping North Carolina upsets, one in Cameron Indoor Stadium and the other at the Final Four, and a pair of razor-thin Blue Devil victories last season in Scheyer’s first campaign.

It is difficult to ask for more than that, even from Duke and North Carolina. But if, for the sake of argument, you put aside the Final Four classic in April 2022, when was the last time that these two teams met in the regular season with the stakes as high as they will be Saturday night? The Blue Devils and Tar Heels are ranked No. 7 and No. 3 in the country, respectively, and are playing for more than bragging rights this time around.

It has been, to put it simply, a while. The last ranked matchup came all the way back in March 2019 and featured current professionals Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish, Tre Jones, Cameron Johnson and Coby White. 

If you recall, that was the year in which Williamson famously burst through the sole of his Nike PG 2.5 shoe just 33 seconds into the first rivalry matchup of the year. The hype surrounding that game, which pitted No. 4 Duke against No. 3 North Carolina, even had former President Barack Obama sitting courtside for what The Chronicle coined “sneaker-gate” that night. The Tar Heels swept the regular-season series, but a healthy Williamson and the Blue Devils got the last laugh with a 74-73 victory in the ACC tournament semifinal. 

Looking back, it is not that these two titans of ACC men’s basketball have not been good since before the pandemic — that goes without saying, considering they invoked college basketball armageddon at the Final Four less than two years ago. Duke and North Carolina have danced circuitously for seasons on end, never meeting each other at the height of both teams’ abilities.

That dance figures to finally be coming to an end. 

North Carolina, at 17-4 overall and 9-1 in the ACC, is one of just a handful of NCAA squads that can truly claim an elite defense. The Blue Devils, despite an early fall from grace mirroring that of the 2022-23 Tar Heels, have steadied themselves in December and January enough to lurk close behind in the conference standings.

Stability at the head coach position is another way in which Duke and North Carolina are through with this era of rapid change. During what has been a wild few years for college basketball thanks to the onset of the transfer portal and the lingering effects of COVID-19, the rivalry has featured a different head coaching matchup three years running. 

Scheyer and Davis, after finally crossing paths a year ago, return to a matchup that is less about their introduction to each other and more about the players and the high-level basketball itself. That’s a good thing — in more than 40 years of battle between Krzyzewski, Williams and Tar Heel legend Dean Smith, the spotlight was seldom on its Hall of Fame coaches.

All of this points to Saturday’s newest episode (the 261st, by my count) being a memorable one, or at the very least, one featuring a certain national significance that the rivalry has lacked for too long. 

The most significant roadblock to this showdown is the potential of this North Carolina team — whose last loss came before Thanksgiving — being a cut above the rest, including Duke. Injuries are also a concern for the Blue Devils, who have veteran starters Jeremy Roach, Tyrese Proctor and Mark Mitchell all recovering from recent lower-body injuries.

But the Blue Devils, when healthy, have shown flashes throughout December and January of the talent that inspired AP voters to make them the No. 2 team in the country back in October. The Dean Dome will serve as their proving ground Saturday night as they get a chance to establish themselves against their fiercest rivals, who just so happen to be one of the nation’s best this year.

That importance feels right and all too familiar. For any fan of the rivalry, anywhere along Tobacco Road — what more could you ask for?

Editor’s note: This piece is one of many in The Chronicle’s 2023-24 Duke men’s basketball rivalry edition. To read more, click here.

Jonathan Levitan

Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity senior and was previously sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.


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