This article is part of our March Madness series.
It may seem peculiar that Saturday’s Final Four matchup between Duke and North Carolina is the first-ever tilt between the archrivals in the men’s NCAA Tournament. After all, the rivalry is often billed as the greatest in college sports: The two programs, separated by less than 10 miles, have combined for 11 national championships, 38 Final Four appearances, 62 regular-season ACC titles and pints of blood on the hardwood.
But through whichever force — dumb luck, divine intervention or the NCAA designing brackets so as to avoid armageddon on U.S. Highway 15-501 — the two storied programs have passed like ships in the night in the Big Dance. And in a way befitting the chaos of March, the path to the programs’ first NCAA Tournament matchup this season has defied much of what we’ve come to expect from the rivalry — and each team’s title-contending ethos.
Despite the fanfare of the matchup, which could be the last game for legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, these are hardly vintage Blue Devils and Tar Heels. That’s not a knock, really — it speaks more to the rivalry’s excellence. In Krzyzewski’s 42 seasons in Durham, he has coached 27 Duke teams with a better adjusted point differential, according to Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System (SRS), than this team’s current rating of 19.8; in that same time, there have been 35 North Carolina teams better than this team’s 15.2.
In fact, if you dreamed up a Duke-North Carolina tournament matchup based on shared excellence, this season’s squads wouldn’t crack the short list. 1991 saw a Tobacco Road tandem separated by less than 2 points on average. Together, they were about 26 points better than the average Division I team, but they narrowly missed out on a national championship matchup thanks to Kansas’s defeat of North Carolina in the national semifinals.1 1998, meanwhile, was the best collective season for the rivalry in the Krzyzewski era, as Duke and North Carolina finished first and second in adjusted point differential with the on-court names to back up the numbers: future stars in Shane Battier and Elton Brand for Duke, and All-Americans in Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter for North Carolina. The two programs again missed out on a date in the title game, as Kentucky and Utah had other plans.
For the past two decades, the two programs have traded off making deep tournament runs, sparing their fan bases simultaneous heartburn. In between Duke’s Final Four runs in 1999 and 2001, the latter a title win, North Carolina made it to the last weekend as a No. 8 seed in 2000. The Blue Devils made the Final Four again in 2004 while the Tar Heels were reloading, but then came the arrival of Roy Williams to Chapel Hill. As North Carolina made three Final Fours in between 2005 and 2009, winning two national titles, Duke seemed content to post stellar regular seasons before bowing out early in the tournament. In 2010, the pendulum swung again, with Duke winning the national title and North Carolina missing the event altogether as defending national champion. Neither program would make the Final Four again until 2015, when Duke beat Wisconsin for Krzyzewski’s fifth ring as North Carolina watched from home, and then the Tar Heels would make back-to-back runs to the title game, winning in 2017, while the Blue Devils made it no further than the Sweet 16.
No matter. The best rivalry in college basketball didn’t need a postseason rendezvous for validation when each program was taking turns cutting down the nets — and giving us high-octane regular-season matchups to boot. But in recent years, it appeared even that was slipping away. In 2019-20, North Carolina suffered just its second losing season in more than 50 years, and though Duke had the makings of a Final Four contender and delivered an instant-classic win over the Tar Heels, the pandemic canceled a would-be tournament run. The following season, neither team was ranked during the rivalry games for the first time since 1960, and Duke missed the tournament for the first time in 26 years.
This season, Round 1 of the rivalry quickly became a laugher as the Blue Devils raced out to a 31-8 lead en route to an 87-67 triumph in Krzyzewski’s last game in Chapel Hill. With zero marquee victories and a stack of blowout losses by that point, it seemed doubtful that the Tar Heels would make the tournament — let alone meet the Blue Devils in the event’s latter rounds.
But improbably, North Carolina has flipped the script, going from precarious bubble team after a demoralizing 76-67 home loss to lowly Pittsburgh in mid-February to giant-killers. Since that showing, the Tar Heels have been the No. 1 team in adjusted efficiency, according to Bart Torvik, featuring the No. 5 adjusted defense. They’ve owned the month of madness, too, beginning with a party-crashing victory at Duke on March 5, in Krzyzewski’s final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and continuing through the NCAA Tournament with a demolishing of No. 9 seed Marquette, a nailbiter upset of No. 1 seed Baylor, a gritty win over No. 4 seed UCLA and, finally, a heartless dispatch of the darling No. 15 seed St. Peter’s in the Elite Eight. The Tar Heels are no classic Carolina team, but they’re also no Cinderella; rather, they’re a “chaotic blue blood” — a member of college basketball royalty that made the Final Four with a non-top-four seed:
|2000||North Carolina||8||6||22||Semifinal loss|
Almost overnight, first-year head coach Hubert Davis transformed the Tar Heels from a team that dined almost exclusively inside — gobbling up scraps off the offensive boards at an elite rate — to one that relies much more heavily on the drive-through approach, from 3-point range. Roy Williams’s last two teams took 28.9 and 27.9 percent of their shots from 3-point range, good for 334th and 336th in Division I, and his three title-winning squads each ranked in the bottom third nationally in that category. Meanwhile, Williams’s teams ranked in the top 25 of offensive rebounding percentage in 17 of his 18 seasons and had the nation’s top offensive board outfit three times. Under Davis, North Carolina is almost unrecognizable, as it’s taking more threes than it ever did under Williams (38.2 percent of shot attempts) and has shied away from the offensive glass, rebounding only 31 percent of its misses. Big man Armando Bacot is one of the country’s premier interior scorers and rebounders (12.8 per game), but frontcourt counterpart Brady Manek gives the Tar Heels a new wrinkle: a big man who can hit from long distance (39.8 percent on more than six attempts per game).
Duke, on the other hand, is conspicuously missing from that chaotic blue bloods list — perhaps in part because it has so rarely been seeded outside the top four. In Krzyzewski’s four-plus decades at the helm, Duke has been seeded lower than No. 4 just three times in the NCAA Tournament. Detractors of Krzyzewski often point to the fact that his higher-seeded teams underperform expectations — Duke ranked No. 254 out of 261 teams in performance against seed expectations from 2000 to 2021, according to Bart Torvik — but that may obscure the fact that his teams have had to win so much more just to meet lofty expectations. And this Blue Devil team, despite featuring four potential first-round picks, is the second-worst Krzyzewski team by adjusted point differential to make the Final Four.
Recent title-contending Duke teams have excelled on both ends of the floor — and the ones that were upset early were often defensively challenged. In 2015, Duke finished February with the No. 2 adjusted offensive efficiency, according to Bart Torvik, and the No. 45 adjusted defense. From March on, the Blue Devils stayed efficient on offense while also posting the second-best defense in college basketball, including shutting down arguably the best offense of all time in Wisconsin in the title game. In 2010, Duke had top-five offensive and defensive rankings heading into March and maintained their proficiency on both ends, featuring the No. 3 offense and No. 12 defense from March onward. This season, though, the Blue Devils have gotten much better on only one side of the ball — and significantly worse on the other. In March, Duke has been elite on offense (second-best adjusted offense) but atrocious on defense (175th). But that step back on defense hasn’t mattered so far, as Duke’s offense has been nearly unguardable. The Blue Devils went the last 8:53 of their Sweet 16 matchup against Texas Tech, the best defense in Division I, without missing a field goal.
Duke is taller and more athletic at most positions against North Carolina — advantages that the Blue Devils effectively exploited in the first meeting in Chapel Hill. Bacot started on freshman forward Paolo Banchero, who immediately attacked the UNC big man on offense, forcing him to ride the pine after picking up two quick fouls. North Carolina’s starters have logged long minutes — the team’s share of minutes from players coming off the bench ranks 344th among Division I teams, according to Ken Pomeroy, meaning the Tar Heels can ill afford another early benching. And the game could very well come down to how long UNC can play its starters: According to Evan Miyakawa, Duke and North Carolina have the fifth- and sixth-best top five-man lineups in the country, but the Tar Heels’ top unit has logged more than three times the minutes that the Blue Devils’.
For all the marquee tournament matchups that this rivalry has missed out on over the years, Saturday’s duel may seem like an unrepresentative coda to Krzyzewski’s career against the Tar Heels. There are no Christian Laettner, Tyler Hansbrough, Grant Hill or Antawn Jamison roaming the court, players whose long college tenures endeared them to their supporters — and enraged opposing fans to no end. And from a statistical standpoint, you can find more dominant Blue Devils and Tar Heels in a heartbeat.
But that makes no difference to fans in the rivalry, for whom the stakes — and the collective blood pressure — couldn’t be any higher. For Duke, it’s a chance to avenge what should have been an unabashed celebration of Krzyzewski’s illustrious career — and take him one step closer to title No. 6. And for North Carolina, it’s an opportunity to send into retirement the man its die-hards have loved to hate for more than 40 years. The battle for ultimate bragging rights in the sport’s ultimate feud is on.
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