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Brill: Duke-UNC The Best Matchup Of All
Courtesy: Duke Sports Information
Release: 02/06/2006
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DURHAM, N.C. - In his new book “Blue Blood,” Art Chansky identifies a game in Durham 45 years ago between Duke and North Carolina as the real beginning of the rivalry. I won’t argue that point, the game in which Art Heyman got in an end-of-game fight with Doug Moe and Larry Brown. I do know that it was the last game between the two schools that I did not personally see.

When the Devils and Heels clash at the Dean Dome in their first meeting this season, it will be for the 220th time. To the best of my knowledge, it is the first game played on a Tuesday, and, of course, begins after 9 p.m.

Whether you like expansion or not — I don’t and won’t and while the money is fine, the football isn’t nearly as good as it is cracked up to be and shows no signs of becoming dominant — one of the prices being paid for going to 12 teams is to add Tuesday evening basketball. Of course, you can be assured that the high schools are not happy. Along with Friday, those are the dates traditionally avoided by colleges in the past, but no longer.

Television talks. With what the league calls “more properties,” the ACC now gets even additional television exposure, primarily from ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU (which we don’t get in the Raleigh-Durham area) and Fox. When Duke and Carolina play — not necessarily each other — you can bet the TV crews are there. The Blue Devils lead the nation again in network coverage and UNC isn’t that far behind.

Two months ago, veteran Louisville writer Rick Bozich laid a claim that Kentucky-Louisville was the best rivalry in the nation. I do not mean to heap scorn on Bozich, a longtime friend and an excellent reporter, but it isn’t even close. And don’t take my word for it, ask the people who count, the TV folks. They care only about ratings, and the numbers easily support the Devils and Heels.

In fact, when you look at the most-watched ESPN games of all time, you will find Duke’s imprint all over that list. Like them or despise them — there are a ton of people who do both — but the Blue Devils are No. 1 in the hearts of TV executives. To call them the Yankees of college basketball isn’t necessarily unfair, and that assertion comes from a Red Sox fan.

There are obvious reasons why Duke-Carolina is the best rivalry in all of collegiate sports, and that includes football. Geography is an obvious factor. The schools are less than 10 miles apart. They have been successful for a long time. UNC is No. 2 in all-time wins behind Kentucky and Duke is No. 4 behind Kansas. They have combined to win seven NCAA championships, with the trio of Duke titles coming within the past 15 years. The Tar Heels won last season.

One is a prestigious private school whose boundaries are at least nationwide and expanding. The other is a public institution with a very lengthy family tree and considered one of the very best of that group of schools.

Each has had a coaching legend, Mike Krzyzewski, who is still on the job, and Dean Smith. Duke also had Vic Bubas; UNC had Frank McGuire. Now the Tar Heels have alumnus Roy Williams on the bench, and he only has the best winning percentage of any college coach.

Each school has had its blips. Duke’s lasted longer. The Blue Devils were unsuccessful after Bubas quit in 1969 until Bill Foster arrived in 1974, and it took him four years to bring the program back to prosperity. The first three years of the Coach K reign were undistinguished, and there was the unfortunate 1995 season, when the team finished in last place while Krzyzewski was on a leave of absence because of physical and mental strain.

UNC’s worst moment was very brief, when the second year of the Matt Doherty regime became an 8-20 disaster. But three seasons later, Williams was on hand and won a national championship.

There are some obvious reasons why Kentucky-Louisville isn’t No. 1. For starters, they aren’t in the same conference and they don’t play (at least) twice a year. In fact, for a very long time, they didn’t play at all, with haughty UK refusing, in effect, to acknowledge U of L. But Kentucky basketball, despite continued dominance in the SEC, has been on a slow downward trend and this year has fallen out of the Top 25.

And, if you want a good example of why the rivalries are different, the Louisville coach is Rick Pitino, who won a national championship at Kentucky in 1995. Imagine how preposterous it would be that either Duke or Carolina would hire a guy who had been at the other school.

Duke and UNC have been hit harder than anybody with star players leaving early for the NBA. Since 1999, when the Blue Devils were blindsided by sophomore William Avery and freshman Corey Maggette following soph Elton Brand, the national player of the year, to the NBA, Duke has lost more players to the pros than anybody. In ’02, juniors Jason Williams, Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavy (unexpectedly) left early. Luol Deng played just one season, 2004, when Duke again made the Final Four, the 10th for Krzyzewski. Recruit Shaun Livingston never even made it to Durham, and the most shocking defection came this season when Shavlik Randolph went pro after averaging 6.3 points in three seasons — and made the roster of the 76ers.

Carolina had the biggest hit ever after last season’s national title. Juniors Sean May, Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants and freshman Marvin Williams all were selected among the first 14 picks of the NBA draft. And the Heels also had not benefited from the services of recruit J.R. Smith. Despite that talent wipeout, Carolina has beaten Kentucky at Kentucky and recently became the first team to win this year at Florida State.

Obviously, having Krzyzewski, who will be the 2008 Olympic coach in a three-year commitment to USA Basketball, and Williams running these programs gives them an edge. Roy is having to rebuild this year and Coach K will face a similar situation next season, when he loses J.J. RedickShelden Williams, Sean Dockery and :Lee Melchionni and will not, for the first time ever, have a scholarship senior.

These are difficult times for elite programs, which know in advance that they are going to have to deal with attrition to the NBA. The most obvious problem is knowing WHEN the players are going to leave. But if anybody can figure out how to succeed, it will be Coach K, 59 later this month, and Williams, 54.

For a good while in recruiting, Duke and Carolina did not clash head-on as much as you would imagine. That is no longer the case. These programs have been involved with many of the same players nationwide, but recently they have taken it a step further.

The teams that Duke and Carolina will put on the floor next season will still be very young, but the way they are able to recruit, it’s highly likely they’ll get the preferred balance in a couple of seasons. Meanwhile, they will continue to be very good as they go along.

Duke appears to have the advantage this season because of Redick and Williams, the twin All-Americas. But I remind you that last year, with a depleted squad, the Devils won in Durham by a single point and led virtually all of the way in Chapel Hill before losing at the end after a rebound basket following a missed free throw by freshman Williams. Duke even won the ACC Tournament for the sixth time in seven years; UNC won the big prize, the NCAA.

And this first game is in the Dean Dome, which 20 years ago opened its doors, late but ironically, with a battle between the No. 1 Heels and the No. 3 Blue Devils, each undefeated.

This rivalry has history to sustain it, and there is every indication that things haven’t slowed down a bit. This is the best matchup of all, and even playing on a Tuesday evening can’t diminish that fact. Sorry about that, Rick Bozich.

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