Storied college basketball rivalry tilts to Tar Heels – for now

The campuses of North Carolina and Duke University are eight miles apart. But the competition between the two is much closer, even if Tyler Hansbrough's team has surged ahead of late.

Ellen ozier/reuters
The University of North Carolina's Deon Thompson smiled amid taunts and jeers by Duke University fans during a basketball game in Durham, N.C., March 8. Duke lost the game at the buzzer.

The University of North Carolina's win over Virginia Tech earlier this month at Charlotte Bobcats Arena had a storybook ending, but it was not even the highlight of the day for fans of the basketball powerhouse.

Sure, consensus national player of the year and Tar Heels star Tyler Hansbrough hit the game-winner with 0.8 seconds left, slicing through three players along the baseline to grab a rebound. And, yes, the win propelled North Carolina into the Atlantic Coast Conference finals a day later, where a win over Clemson gave the school a record 17th tournament championship in the 56-year-old event.

Nice as all of that was, the real treat for Tar Heel Nation came two hours later, when bitter rival Duke University and coach Mike Krzyzewski suffered a loss to Clemson in the tournament's other semifinal game.

Duke and its fans took another hit last Saturday when West Virginia bounced them out of the NCAA tournament in a 73-67 upset.

Some of the state's ardent hoops fans might have been salivating at the prospect – however remote – of a Duke-North Carolina meeting in the tourney's final April 8. The storied rivalry between the two campuses has tilted toward the Tar Heels. For now.

What endures beneath the Carolina sun, undiminished by the vagaries of any one season, is the basketball passion that rules Tobacco Road through every winter and spring.

Chapel Hill, home of the Tar Heels, and Duke's Durham campus are eight miles apart, but their men's basketball teams are closer than that, as evidenced by both schools spending much of the season ranked among the nation's Top 5. When the NCAA Tournament started last week, North Carolina, now led by Smith disciple Roy Williams, carried a No. 1 seed while Duke's Blue Devils entered at No. 2.

Coach Dean Smith established North Carolina as a national power during a 36-year tenure that included 879 wins, 11 trips to the Final Four, and two national championships. He retired in 1997.

Duke rang up intermittent success in the 1960s and 1970s, but became a true power only after Krzyzewski's arrival in 1980. His résumé includes 10 Final Four berths and three national titles. At his current pace, Krzyzewski, known as Coach K, will pass Bobby Knight, his coaching mentor, as the game's all-time-wins leader during the 2011-12 season.

"It's an unbelievable rivalry," says Bobby Cremins, a former Atlantic Coast Conference rival of both schools during his years coaching Georgia Tech. "When I was coaching, there was one game I never missed: Duke-North Carolina. If I was out recruiting, I'd make my wife tape it."

The roll call of college basketball royalty runs through both schools. Tar Heel hoops legends include Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Phil Ford, Brad Daugherty, and Bob McAdoo. Duke counters with March Madness luminaries such as Bobby Hurley, Grant Hill, Shane Battier, Christian Laettner, and Danny Ferry.

Duke's success under Coach K has created a backlash. Even beyond North Carolina, many basketball fans take a delighted glee in the Blue Devils' rare setbacks, railing against Krzyzewski's role as a ubiquitous TV pitchman as well as Duke's reputation for turning out cocky players such as Laettner, J.J. Redick, and Greg Paulus.

The differences between the two universities enhance the rivalry all the more. North Carolina ranks as one of the nation's oldest schools and boasts academic renown among public universities. The Chapel Hill campus has long been known for turning out top business and political leaders for the state.

At Duke, a much higher population of out-of-state students can be found at the pricey private school. It was founded by Quakers and Methodists and landed crucial financial support from tobacco baron James Buchanan Duke during the 1920s.

"It's a rivalry about basketball, but it's also a rivalry between universities that represent two different ways of being in the world," says Will Blythe, a North Carolina alum and author of (take a deep breath) "To Hate Like This Is To be Happy Forever: A Thoroughly Obsessive, Intermittently Uplifting, and Occasionally Unbiased Account of the Duke-North Carolina Basketball Rivalry." "You have the dynamic of locals versus outsiders. Duke students tend to be from out of state and after they finish school they go back to New York or Chicago or Los Angeles. It's almost like their four years are time in the Colonies."

By contrast, Mr. Blythe says, North Carolina's graduates stick around, fanning out across the state to take care of a place that they love.

Not that he's biased or anything.

That Blythe lives in New York rather than North Carolina does nothing to disrupt what he wryly admits is a skewed obsession that shows no signs of abating.

His parallel contemporary, Herb Neubauer, a retired 66-year-old Duke alum known as "Crazy Towel Guy," displays an equally engaging lack of perspective. Mr. Neubauer, who has attended all of Duke's 14 Final Four appearances, stirs the frenzied crowds at home games by waving a towel at the student section.

He salutes Krzyzewski as a community asset and, after professing his bafflement at what usefulness Chapel Hill could have for anyone, blithely dismisses North Carolina's merits as an academic rival.

"Education-wise, I don't think there's any doubt that they can't come close to matching up in terms of academics standards," Neubauer says. "Duke is just so much more selective."

The schools may be nearby each other, but the perspectives on each side remain galaxies away. Welcome to an eternal argument that can only be decided – ever so temporarily – by NCAA tournament brackets.

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