No matter how balanced the Atlantic Coast Conference may be, two teams almost always rise above the others. They become The Rivals. Their games are The Rivalry.
In the 1960s it was North Carolina and Duke: Dean Smith versus Vic Bubas. In the early and mid-'70s it was North Carolina State and Maryland: Norman Sloan and Lefty Driesell. In the late '70s it was Carolina and Duke again: Smith and Bill Foster.
Saturday, at 1 p.m. (WRC-TV-4) in Carmichael Auditorium, The Rivals of the 1980s, North Carolina and Virginia, play for the first time this season.
There is an added fillip here, though. This is no longer just an ACC matter. These two teams met in the national semifinals last season and they enter Saturday's game ranked No. 1 (Carolina) and No. 2 (Virginia). As a result, the national media have descended. There have been 100 press credentials issued for UNC's 54-seat press box.
The key figures in this rivalry, on the court, are Ralph Sampson of Virginia and James Worthy of North Carolina. Off the court, there is a healthy respect between the coaches, Terry Holland and Smith, on a professional level. But there is no love lost on a personal level.
That dates to 1976-77 when the schools played back-to-back intense ACC championship games, Virginia winning the first, Carolina the second. Smith and Virginia's Marc Iavaroni got into a shouting match at halftime of the second game and Holland later accused Smith of having a "false image" as a gentleman.
Two years ago, Holland won the recruiting war for Sampson, beating out Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia Tech. Sampson's presence has made Virginia North Carolina's chief conference rival and last year the teams staged two classic regular season games. Virginia won both before the Tar Heels won easily in the national semis.
The game here ended in chaos, players squaring off, Smith racing on court as a peacemaker and ending up being accused of hitting Virginia reserve Louis Collins. Later, Holland said that films showed clearly that Smith meant to hit no one.
That, combined with a magazine story that revealed that Holland had a dog named Dean Smith, added to the intensity. It has carried over to this season, especially with Carolina 10-0 and Virginia 12-0.
Everyone on both teams has insisted all week that the past has nothing to do with the present and future. But clearly, it does.
"Obviously Carolina is different from the other schools in the league because they've had a great program for so long," said Virginia point guard Jeff Jones. "Playing them is always special and beating them is special. The first time we beat them my sophomore year may have been my biggest win here."
Jones, recruited heavily by Carolina, doesn't list last year's stirring come-from-behind win here for a simple reason: he doesn't remember a lot of it. "Everything in that game happened so fast, it was emotional and so intense that the last few minutes just aren't clear in my mind," he said. "I just remember we were way behind (16 points) and kept coming at them."
This is a different Virginia team. It does not have Jeff Lamp or Lee Raker. The Cavaliers are quicker, play more of a full-court than a half-court game and love to play pressure defense, something Carolina has seen little of this year.
"Actually, I almost wish they had Lamp and Raker back and didn't have Jones and (Othell) Wilson," Smith said. "Their quickness gives them an added dimension."
Virginia's main dimension still is Sampson. Last year here, the 7-foot-4 center was almost unstoppable in the stretch, making 13 of 16 shots for 32 points. In the NCAAs, though, Smith worked a 2-2-1 defense with Sam Perkins in back of Sampson and either Al Wood or Worthy in front at all times. Frustrated, Sampson shot three of 10 for just nine points.
"They did a good job that day," Sampson said. "They made it tough for me to get the ball."
Saturday, Perkins will have most of the responsibility for Sampson, but will get help from Worthy and Matt Doherty at times. "The thing I have to do is keep him from getting the ball down low because once he gets it there he's almost impossible to stop," Perkins said. "I want him to get the ball outside, where he doesn't want it."
Sampson will get his points, but so will Perkins (16.3) and Worthy (15.6) and freshman Michael Jordan (15.0). All three have played superbly for the Tar Heels, unbeaten despite the toughest December schedule in the country.
Both teams like to run, with Wilson (15.0) and Jones keying Virginia's break. It will be played in a cauldron of heat and noise and should be played at an intensity level rarely seen.
"We'll hear all the noise and all the yelling before the game because it gets really loud in there," Sampson said. "But once the ball goes up, it all becomes a blur around you."