It’s already an instant classic and the ball won’t be tipped for four more days. The greatest rivalry in college basketball, one of the fiercest in all of sports, heads to the Final Four. Duke squaring off with North Carolina is a momentous, must-watch occasion when it takes place under routine circumstances during ACC play from Durham or Chapel Hill, maybe in the rare occasion in the conference tournament too.
Saturday night’s main event from the Superdome, with an intriguing Kansas-versus-Villanova undercard bout, is essentially guaranteed to be one of the most important games in college basketball history. Mike Krzyzewski’s career is on the line, two wins from ending his prestigious run at the helm of the Blue Devils by lifting his sixth national title. He’d reside 40 minutes from a championship at the expense of the Tar Heels, who ruined his final home game at Cameron Indoor Stadium by beating Duke by 13 points more than three weeks ago.
Collision No. 258 between the bluebloods will be their first in the NCAA Tournament. They have met in a postseason game once before, in the 1971 NIT semifinals, with the Tar Heels emerging victorious. The foes nearly met for the national title in 1991, both advancing to the Final Four. Duke ended UNLV’s 45-game win streak in the semifinals before winning the championship over a Roy Willams-coached Kansas team. The Jayhawks took down UNC in the semis. Tuesday also marked the 40th anniversary of Michael Jordan’s game-winner to help the Tar Heels lift the title in 1982. Where did that game take place? The Superdome. UNC also won the title in New Orleans in 1993.
Nothing like this Tar Heels-Blue Devils matchup has happened before because of the stakes. A similar climax likely won’t transpire for a few decades, at least, because no other college basketball rivalry comes close to their hatred combined with credentials. One of the few others in the same ballpark is the Border War. If new Missouri head coach Dennis Gates lights it up in Columbia and takes the Tigers to their first Final Four several seasons from now, setting up a showdown with Kansas after Bill Self had announced his intentions to retire at year’s end, it’d be amazing and so many other grand adjectives. It wouldn’t be close to what we’ll see Saturday.
This specific matchup also could have a few awesome nicknames universally accepted by both fanbases: “Four Quarters in the French Quarter,” “The Brawl on Bourbon Street,” or “The Big Easy’s Biggest Showdown.” The “2022 Rubber Match” or just “The Final Four game” doesn’t do this game justice. North Carolina will either get a chance at national title No. 7, or will give its biggest rival a chance to tie its six championships.
Individually, the storylines of playing in a winner-take-all game and Coach K’s pending retirement make this the biggest matchup between the schools ever. If the Tar Heels win, they’ll claim they own this rivalry forever. Duke gets its sweet revenge for tarnishing Krzyzewski’s retirement party. The losing team will try to claim this game wasn’t that big of a deal. That’ll be bullshit and everyone would know it’s a lie. It won’t matter that North Carolina will have 26 or 28 more wins head-to-head in the all-time series after Saturday. The most important one belongs to Saturday’s victor.
Could it get better? I guess Duke could’ve traded places with Villanova in the bracket and we could possibly get the matchup on Monday should both win its respective semifinals. Let’s not be greedy. Duke could’ve gotten tripped up by Ohio State, Michigan or Houston. It escaped Michigan State and Texas Tech. Having a longer build-up and a primetime weekend matchup better associated with big college basketball games helps the spectacle of UNC facing Duke. It beats waiting an extra 48 hours for possibly no payoff.
What other rivalries across sports have the inarguable definitive matchup? The United States men’s national soccer team defeated rival Mexico in the Round of 16 in the 2002 FIFA World Cup, the only meeting between North American foes on soccer’s biggest stage. There’s no UEFA Champions League Final between Barcelona and Real Madrid. Yankees fans could point to Aaron Boone and the 2003 ALCS, Red Sox fans should declare the integral chapter was a year later to reverse the curse. Capitals-Penguins? Nope. Celtics and Lakers fans would argue for a couple of playoff series.
Saturday night’s pageantry won’t be lost on the players. It’s a dream come true to play in a Final Four. The greatest icing and sprinkles are Krzyzewski’s final coaching venue, the rivalry and every ounce of baggage that comes along with it. The most recent game that comes close was Wisconsin’s win over previously undefeated Kentucky in 2015. That was a truly important game but has faded a little over time, thanks to the Badgers not finishing the job, losing in the title game to Krzyzewski and Duke. There’s no chance Tar Heels-Blue Devils round No. 258 fades. It’s already carved out its own lane in college basketball history.