Ok, there are some facts regarding college basketball that I will concede. This season has been as unpredictable as any year in recent memory. Upsets galore with the feeling that multiple teams have a realistic shot at cutting down the nets at the end of the NCAA Tournament. It’s no longer a surprise when mid-majors like George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth and Wichita State challenge the big boys on their way to the Final Four. Big-time college football has caused seismic shifts in conference alignments that have had major implications in basketball. It’s safe to say that the landscape of college basketball has gone through many changes over the last 10 years. What I will not concede to is acknowledging a certain network’s gigantic marketing push to make fans see the supposed Duke/Syracuse “rivalry” as even coming close to matching the intensity and historic nature of the North Carolina/Duke rivalry.
Let’s start with basic math. UNC and Duke have faced each other 237 times since their first meeting in 1920, with the Tar Heels holding a 133-104 series lead. The two schools are located about 8 miles away from each other, so close that there is even a highway sign letting you know that if you take exit 270 you can get to both schools from that single exit. I call that nearby.
The math with Duke and Syracuse? Well, they’ve played a whopping total of six times! Six! Two of those games were this year. In fact, before this season, they hadn’t faced each other since 1998, and before that not since 1989. The other two times they played were in 1971 and 1966, when Jim Boeheim was playing at Syracuse. Do you remember those “epic” battles? No, and I don’t remember them either.
How about some ACC math? UNC and Duke have accounted for 80% of ACC regular season titles(29 & 19 respectively), and 60% of the ACC Tournament Titles(17 & 19 respectively). Almost every ACC season ends with one of these two teams ending up at the top of the league, with the other playing a major role in that race. Yes, Syracuse has just entered the ACC this season. But that only adds to my argument.
Ok, math class is over. Let’s focus on the basketball merits to this “rivalry”. Do you remember the major players in that Duke/Syracuse game in 1971? Nope. But I bet you’ve heard about how UNC and Walter Davis were down 8 points with 17 seconds left against Duke in 1974, before the 3-point line, and came back to win in OT.
How about that monster of a game in 1989 between the Blue Devils and the Orangemen? Nope. But you probably remember the UNC/Duke battles that year. First, UNC upset #1 Duke in Durham in a game known for the “J.R. Can’t Reid” sign the Duke fans were holding. After Duke returned the favor by winning in Chapel Hill, Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski traded intense comments in the media over the Reid sign heading into the ACC Tournament. The two met in the finals, where UNC’s J.R. Reid outplayed Duke star, Danny Ferry, and led the Tar Heels to the title.
Most fans probably wouldn’t even know that those intense “rivals”, Duke and Syracuse didn’t play for another 9 years after the 1989 matchup. But in that time I’m betting fans remember the epic game in 1992 in Chapel Hill. One that saw Eric Montross, bleeding like Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, nail two late free throws and Duke star, Bobby Hurley, break his foot, yet still continue playing. Names like Grant Hill and Christian Laettner battling Montross and Hubert Davis. In the end, #9 UNC knocked off #1 Duke and pandemonium ensued. I say pandemonium because I was in the middle of it. A kid in high school at the time, my brother had found me a ticket so that his girlfriend could sit with him in our seats. Where was my seat? About 8 rows up near the UNC bench. I was ecstatic. Who wasn’t happy? The trumpet player in the pep band I was sitting next to who told me, probably 25 times, that I was in the band section and that was unacceptable to him. I wasn’t moving, buddy. We rushed the court and I did two things: rub Dickie V’s head and then high-five Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse, who were sitting near me on their recruiting visit to UNC. Both ended up at UNC.
Ok, so obviously then you must remember the time in 1998 that Syracuse and Duke battled it out on the court. No? Me neither. But I do remember when Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison led #3 UNC into Cameron Indoor Stadium to face freshman star Elton Brand and #1 Duke. Duke came back from a 17-point deficit with 12 minutes to go to hand Coach K his 500th victory and win the ACC regular season title. Oh, and by the way, Duke fans stormed the court after beating a lower-ranked Tar Heel team.
Should I even mention that another 16 years passed before the Blue Devils and Orangemen played again? Or that in that time UNC and Duke each won 2 national titles, and 25 ACC regular season and tournament titles combined? The games that included Jay Williams, Shane Battier, and Carlos Boozer. A game where coaches Matt Doherty and Chris Collins had to be restrained after going nose-to-nose with each other during the game. The first game in the rivalry between Coach K and Roy Williams, which was an overtime thriller in the Dean Dome that saw Chris Duhon go coast to coast and finish with a reverse lay-up to win the game for the Blue Devils. Another where Gerald Henderson forearm-shivered Tyler Hansbrough in the face, breaking his nose, well into Psycho-T’s 26-pt, 17-rebound effort in a Tar Heel victory. Speaking of victory, Hansbrough actually went 4-0 at Cameron Indoor during this time at UNC, a rare feat. And then of course there was Marvin Williams’ end-of-game put back to seal a UNC comeback and Austin Rivers’ dagger 3-pointer at the buzzer to cap a furious Duke comeback in Chapel Hill.
This is the point where I have presented all of my evidence and the closing argument has arrived. Look, that certain network has tried this before. In the early 2000’s, the Duke/Maryland rivalry was the hot topic for a few years. It worked because Maryland was very good then and North Carolina was up and down. Jay Williams and Maryland’s Juan Dixon had some great head-to-head matchups. Duke won the national title in 2001 and Maryland won in 2002. But then Maryland faded and so did that temporary rivalry, which is now dead with the Terrapins pending departure to the Big Ten.
A real rivalry is heated in nature. Duke fans hate UNC. UNC fans hate Duke. The UNC mascot, Rameses, a living ram, has seen his horns painted Duke blue, and parts of Duke’s campus have been decorated with Carolina blue paint. Speaking of campuses, the now famous tent city of students called “Krzyzewskiville” was created to ensure getting tickets to the UNC game. When this past weekend’s game ended, did those tents come down? No, because they are there to get the UNC game tickets.
Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams respect each other and are cordial, but you won’t find them hugging before the game. Books have been written about this game. Generations of fans have passed on the legendary memories that sustain the vitality of this rivalry. Here’s my favorite quote describing this game: “To legions of otherwise reasonable adults, it is a conflict that surpasses sports; it is locals against outsiders, elitists against populists, even good against evil… The rivalry may be a way of aligning oneself with larger philosophic ideals — of choosing teams in life — a tradition of partisanship that reveals the pleasures and even the necessity of hatred.”
There are no quotes like that about Duke and Syracuse. No books. No inherited hatred from generation to generation. And the coaches are the best of friends and hug before the game. Do you even remember the names involved in this year’s games? Who hit the winning shot in the Carrier Dome? You will remember the Jim Boeheim explosion at the end of last weekend’s game, but will you remember who the leading scorer was in the game?
The new ACC basketball conference will be fantastic to follow in the coming years, with the addition of Louisville only adding to the excitement. Syracuse is a huge addition to the conference and has a long tradition of excellence. And yes, the Syracuse/Duke matchups this year felt big because they pitted two Top 5 teams against each other. They were exciting games. But UNC/Duke is a rivalry. In college basketball it’s THE rivalry. The defense rests.