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February 8, 2011

Back Where It Should Be

When No. 20 North Carolina travels the eight miles down Highway 15-501 to No. 5 Duke Wednesday evening, we are going to be reminded of what the UNC-Duke rivalry should be.

It's going to be Roy Williams's Tar Heels against Mike Krzyzewski's Blue Devils. The winner takes control of first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference, while the loser licks its chops until March 5 when the two teams will face off again in Chapel Hill.

You could make a bragging rights case for either side. If you're a Tar Heel, just remind the Blue Devils that Carolina holds the all-time series lead … by the 31 victories.

But if you're a Blue Devil, just remind the Tar Heels that the last meeting was a 82-50 bloodbath - "Bottom line is they kicked our rear," Williams said - and oh by the way, the national championship trophy currently sleeps at Cameron Indoor Stadium if you want to come take a look sometime.

But this rivalry isn't really about any of that. It's about bragging rights, sure, but not entirely. This rivalry transcends bragging rights.

"I'm looking forward to it just because right now we're both at the top of the ACC and it will determine who has sole possession," Harrison Barnes said.

Yes, Barnes was being honest, but if there's one game where the player-speak won't work, it's this one.

Carolina and Duke didn't write the history of their rivalry based on one-sided blowouts. The rivalry has been fueled by matchups that matter.

Matchups where both teams are competing for national supremacy and are dreaming of bigger things than simply an ACC crown and a nice effort in the tournament.

Matchups that demanded the mutual respect of both sides.

This rivalry has been so fierce throughout the years because the majority of the games have preceded championship runs and came at a time when premium March Madness seeding was at stake.

The 2010 season was a joy for the Duke faithful, surely, but that season didn't illustrate the breadth of the rivalry. Duke was soaring to a national title, Carolina was sinking to the NIT. That's not the rivalry we're accustomed to.

The rivalry we're accustomed to is the triple overtime game in '68 between No. 10 Duke and No. 3 UNC.

It's eight points in 17 seconds in the '74 overtime classic.

It's unranked Duke pulling out a one-point win over No. 11 UNC on Senior Night in '81, Coach K's first season as the leader in Durham.

It's Carolina winning in double-overtime in Michael Jordan's final home game in '84.

It's Elton Brand leading No. 1 Duke over No. 3 Carolina in '98, a win that gave Duke the ACC regular-season championship and Mike Krzyzewski his 500th career win.

It's Duke's Senior Night in '06 with J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams, which produced the most-watched men's college basketball game ever.

It's Tyler Hansbrough's broken and bloodied nose in 2007.

That's the UNC-Duke rivalry that has grown on Tobacco Road since the 1920s and is why Wednesday evening has the potential to be the next epic chapter in the bible of college basketball.

Duke was expected to be in the position they are. They entered the season as a national championship favorite, and it's no shock that they appear to be gearing up to defend their crown.

With seniors Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith playing the best ball of their careers, it's going to take more than a lucky effort in March to kick Duke out of the tournament before it has a chance to cut down the nets.

Carolina, on the other hand, was a crapshoot entering the season. Barnes was coming in as one of the most heralded recruits ever, but how would the Tar Heels rebound after such an embarrassing 2010?

A 4-3 start to the season got the alumni riled up, as some even began to question whether Williams was still capable of running the program.

Oh, none of them will fess up to those criticisms now, but the message boards and blogs have archives. They aren't pretty.

Since that start, however, Carolina has gone 13-2 with its latest win coming last Sunday over Florida State, a team that beat Duke down in Tallahassee earlier in the year.

Now Carolina goes into the dungeon with the Cameron Crazies, the biggest test of the season one night away.

"Cameron is a little unusual, and we understand that," Williams said. "But you have to focus on what's (happening) on the court and our bench and block everything else out."

Williams isn't naive. He knows it's not as easy as simply "blocking everything else out."

He says he even goes out to the court a little earlier at Cameron so he can take in some of the, shall we say, creatively-scripted jokes the Duke student section comes up with.

Williams knows they are going to have something special in store for Barnes, the guy who broke their heart when he admits he was close to signing with Duke before choosing Carolina.

"Oh, I'm sure it will be a warm welcome," Barnes said tongue-in-cheek.

It's irrelevant at this point, because the Tar Heels don't care about the welcome. They care about winning, about sitting atop the ACC, just like Duke does.

Both programs are reaching for the same piece of fruit, and it ain't the low-hanging one.

A loss for Duke wouldn't knock it too far down the polls, and it wouldn't come close to knocking it out of the national championship talks.

A win for Carolina, though, would vault the Tar Heels up the rankings - perhaps close to the Top 10 - and would plant them firmly on the national radar.

And what do you think a Carolina win on Wednesday would create for the rematch in early March? A potential all-time classic, as Duke won't be going away.

So is it about the bragging rights, is it about the hatred of the rivalry among the student bodies? At some level, yes.

But on the hardwood, where the rings are won and the banners are hung, it's much less sentimental.

"I won't say I hate Duke," Kendall Marshall said. "I respect them, but I'm also going to make them respect me on the court."

Carolina and Duke, just like it should be.











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