'A perfect storm': Sports historians share insight on Duke-UNC Final Four meeting

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- Whether it's camping out for weeks for a seat inside Cameron Indoor Stadium or camping out overnight for a seat at Sup Dogs on Franklin Street, the passion of Duke and UNC students and fans ramps up whenever the two teams meet.

On Saturday, the stakes will be higher than ever before when the Tar Heels and Blue Devils square off in New Orleans for their Final Four matchup.

"This is both I think at the same time the most excited I've seen people but the most anxious that I've seen people," said Dr. Matthew Andrews, a UNC history professor who specializes in sports history.

Andrews said there are a couple of key reasons why this matchup has been elevated from one of regional importance to one of national prominence.

"There's this sort of perfect historical confluence where the Duke-Carolina rivalry really gets big in the 1980s with the sustained excellence of Dean Smith, who had obviously been there since the mid-1960s and then the arrival of (Mike Krzyzewski). And as Duke just got better and better, that rivalry got bigger and bigger. That's right when ESPN came on the scene. It's right when ESPN was trying to nationalize certain college basketball matchups to get eyes on this relatively new cable channel. And it's the Duke-UNC rivalry in college basketball that more than any other rivalry helped grow the ESPN college basketball program," said Andrews.

Duke alum and writer Barry Jacobs mentioned some of the same factors.

"I think Krzyzewski with his success, coinciding with the rise of ESPN, put Duke on the map in a way that nobody else was put on the map. Because they then became, especially with (ESPN analyst) Dick Vitale raving about Duke and Krzyzewski, they became the personification of how things should be done if you're going to be a winning program, and that's been the case for 30 years," Jacobs said.

Jacobs has written books on former UNC head coach Smith and Duke head coach Krzyzewski. He said he believes the similarities of the players in the programs are noteworthy.

"The players graduated, they were polite young men. They knew how to play, which is a cliché, but still, they played unselfishly. They didn't try to show up their opponent," said Jacobs.

Those characteristics, combined with the close distance between the universities heightened the emotions in the rivalry.

"The level of excellence of the players, the teams, and of the coaches is as good as anywhere. The fact that you have two that are like that, and they meet twice a year, and the fans meet each other every day makes it unique," Jacobs said.

Saturday will be the third time they will meet, a rare occasion, though it happened as recently as 2019 when Duke defeated UNC in the ACC semifinals after dropping the first two matchups this season.

"From just a purely rivalry standup, I'm very comfortable saying that this is the biggest rivalry game in the history of the NCAA tournament," Andrews said.

Jacobs added: "It's as big as it's ever been."

The two have never faced off in the NCAA tournament before, and will now do so in Hubert Davis's first season leading the Tar Heels, and Krzyzewski's last leading Duke.

"The basketball gods, and the fact that Coach K is leaving this year, it's just all adding up. It's a perfect storm," said Andrews.
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