Friday, March 4, 2016

UNC and Duke: Two Institutions, One Spectacle

Is there any better venue in sports? Credit: Gerry Broome AP

The best rivalries in sports are at the collegiate level.  This really isn’t debatable. Watching Roger Clemens don the pinstripes and call Fenway home makes him the living embodiment of the fatal flaw of pro rivalries. Rasheed Sulaimon not withstanding, Charles Woodson would never wear the Scarlet and Gray. There is no chance that Adrian Peterson would ever throw up the Horns. The idea of Marcus Allen as a Bruin is physically nauseating. But among those collegiate rivalries one stands above the rest—Carolina vs Duke Basketball is the pinnacle of contentious competition.

To have a great rivalry, it is necessary to have success.  Loads of rivalries flutter out because one of the teams loses its competitive edge.  UNC and Duke have combined for 48 regular season  ACC titles and 36 ACC tournament titles—both are more than the rest of the ACC combined.  Over the last 25 seasons, they have each reached the Final Four on nine occasions and have combined for eight national championships.  Not to mention the numerous star players both teams have  featured on the college and pro levels. 

This particular rivalry has the added bonus of proximity, something that most college rivalries don’t have; and certainly not this sort of proximity.  Eight miles separate the Duke University and the University of North Carolina.  But more than just mere distance, the culture and feel of the schools helps add to the flavor of the angst. Duke and its snooty, pretentious, refined, quasi Ivy League private school is the perfect foil for the hard-working, salt-of-the-earth, unassuming public university-attending UNC students.

This Saturday, the rivalry gets renewed.  UNC is currently leading the ACC and both are ranked in the top 20 in the AP poll. As usual, the two teams will be locked in the last contest of the ACC regular season.  Not only rankings and seedings are on the line, but with Duke having won the last four contests, the Tar Heels will be looking to avenge a stunning and heartbreaking loss they suffered at home.  There is no more hectic and electric environment in all of college sports than Cameron Indoor Stadium when the Carolina Blue squad saunters in for a battle.

The last game was an instant classic. After controlling the game for most of the contest with its inside presence, Brice Johnson was completely ineffective on the offensive end of the floor after dominating the first 3 quarters of it. Coach Roy Williams heard plenty of criticism from the peanut gallery after refusing to call a timeout on the final possession for Carolina that ultimately resulted in a poor shot and mindless scramble drill.  The pressure on the coach has ratcheted up as Duke has continued to stockpile championships and lottery picks.  In this rivalry, there is no such thing as a moral victory or “good enough”.  Iron sharpens iron and each programs’ success acts as a catalyst for the other’s.

It is easy to be cynical in sports.  This rivalry offers a nice reprieve to sit back and enjoy one of the purest, most fun spectacles in all of sports. Enjoy watching two storied programs strap it up and get back after it. They meet at least twice a year, but it is always an event to be savored.

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