Wednesday, January 31, 2001

The CourtMaster on the Duke-NC Rivalry

Originally posted on

The Courtmaster offered to write a column about the Duke-UNC rivalry, and of course we said yes. So without further ado, the Courtmaster.

You may have seen my columns as "The CourtMaster" for ACC News, and today I am here to share my rulings on the Duke-North Carolina rivalry.

For years now, I have felt that this is not only the best rivalry in college basketball, it is the best in all of sports. To support that, I'd like to talk about what I think makes up a good sports rivalry.

First, teams need to play each other on a regular basis. Duke vs. Kentucky or North Carolina vs. UCLA could develop into good rivalries if the schools played each other every year. It's no coincidence a team's most intense rivalries usually come with opponents in their own conference. Familiarity breeds contempt, and contempt breeds a good rivalry.

Second, the games between the teams need to be competitive. Do you wonder why Clemson doesn't have any particularly intense basketball rivalries with ACC schools? It's because historically they have had the weakest program in the conference. Maryland might think of Duke as a rival, but I doubt that Duke feels the same way since they have owned the Terps in recent years. The Blue Devils currently have a five game winning streak against North Carolina, but that is the exception and not the rule in their series. The overall head-to-head record is North Carolina 121, Duke 85.

Third, the teams' games against each other need to mean something. Coming up on Thursday, you have the #2 team in the nation, Duke, against the #4 in the nation, North Carolina. These also happen to be the only two undefeated teams in the ACC, and the winner gets a leg up on the regular season conference title. This kind of backdrop is the rule, not the exception in this series.
The stakes just don't get much higher than when the Devils and Heels go at it. Since the ACC was born in 1953, Duke and North Carolina have combined to win 32 regular season titles and 26 tournament championships. They have finished in the top three in the conference during the same season 22 times. There has been only three occasions in their last 126 meetings that neither team has been nationally ranked.

Fourth, how strongly do fans of one school root against their rival. Does any school except Carolina receive more attention on than Duke does? I doubt any school other than Duke is even close to the space devoted to Carolina on Duke Basketball Report. If you root for two teams, yours and the team who is playing your rival that day, THAT'S a good rivalry.

If all of the above factors exist, something that can make a rivalry particularly spicy is close proximity of the opposing schools. You don't see two schools much closer together than Duke and North Carolina, where the campuses are only eight miles apart. As a result, many of the students and alumni of these schools eat at the same restaurants, shop at the same malls, and call in to the same sports radio stations. This makes bragging rights particularly critical and puts an additional emphasis on which school wins the game. In football, Army and Navy put more into those bragging rights than the Blue Devil and Tar Heel faithful, but the games haven't meant any more than that in two generations.

For those of you who are diehard fans of either school, I'm probably not shedding much if any new light on why Duke-North Carolina is such a great rivalry, and that's ok. My main reason for writing this column is, as an outsider looking in with no small amount of envy, to pay tribute to the schools and their great fans.

I am a life-long resident of Maryland and, yes, I am a University of Maryland alum. Following the Terps for over 30 years, I'm sure you will understand why Duke and Carolina were not two of my favorite schools. I have always respected both programs, however, and as I have turned in my fan's pom-poms for my journalist's pen, that respect has deepened considerably.

As a journalist, I have come to appreciate how difficult it is for schools with high academic standards such as Duke and North Carolina have to consistently field basketball teams among the best in the nation. Many other schools have compromised themselves academically or ethically to attract talent, but neither Duke or Carolina has stooped to that level, even though it might give one school the short-term advantage over the other.

As a journalist, I find the differences in the programs intriguing. North Carolina plays their games in a palace that might be the most beautiful venue in which to watch a college basketball game. Duke plays their games in a horribly antiquated facility that might be the best place to watch a college basketball game.

After what seemed like eons of stability at North Carolina, the Tar Heels now have their third coach in five seasons, one who is only in his second year as a head man. Duke has a pillar of coaching stability which shows no signs of slowing down in his 18th season at the school.

Carolina named their entire building after their greatest coach. Duke settled for naming their floor after theirs. Carolina's recent change in uniform designs met with such a negative reaction that they switched back this season. Duke's new road uniform, with black as the predominant color, is viewed as an asset in recruiting.

The one constant throughout all of these issues is the passionate feelings each school's fans have about them. It would be no problem to mention any of them in a combined gathering of Duke and Carolina fans and start a fistfight. I have personally felt the wrath of Carolina fans as a result of my recent CourtMaster ranking for ACC News.

There are a handful of schools which can attest to such a deeply passionate alumni and fan following. The ones that come to mind are Indiana, Kentucky, and Kansas. As great as those schools' history and fan base is, they do not have the natural rival that brings out the best and worst at the same time in each other as Duke and Carolina. As much as the nation anticipates their two clashes each season (three if they meet in the ACC Tournament), that pales in comparison to the anticipation of each school's fans.

The only rooting interest I have Thursday night is for both teams to play well and to see the game live up to its hype. I like Duke to win since the game is at Cameron Indoor Stadium, but I expect it to be close. Maryland exploited Duke's lack of strength up front and short bench to put themselves in position to win last Saturday night, and North Carolina has similar advantages over the Blue Devils in those areas. Duke's most substantial advantage besides the home court is Jason Williams. I don't see Ronald Curry having much success against him defensively, and I'm sure Coach Doherty doesn't want to put Joseph Forte on him. It should be a shootout, with Duke prevailing 83-76. This is only round one of what should be a three-round battle this season.

I hope both Duke and North Carolina fans can take a moment out before tip-off Thursday and reflect on how special this rivalry is and how fortunate they are to be a part of it. Take it from someone who wishes his school was a part of the best rivalry in sports.