The premier rivalry in collegiate athletics convenes Wednesday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Since 1979-80, North Carolina and Duke have each won 42 games against the other; the teams are separated by a combined 13 points in the past 84 meetings. College basketball’s most deeply held rivalry is the byproduct of a bevy of NBA talent, nine national championships and two communities less than 30 miles apart.
Just about everyone is picking the Blue Devils to win the first of the biannual season series, and for good reason: Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s crew ranks fourth in the country, 11 spots ahead of Roy Williams and UNC. Duke has two players in the top 12 of Chad Ford’s draft prospect board; North Carolina doesn’t have any in the top 20. The Tar Heels fell by double digits to Pittsburgh Saturday; the Blue Devils haven’t lost since Jan. 28 and have beaten two top 10 teams in the less than three weeks since.
However, upsets in the Battle for Tobacco Road and empirical data indicate that UNC has a chance, however marginal it may be.
In the last decade Duke has lost just 12 times at Cameron — and five of those losses have been to UNC. The Tar Heels are 5-5 in their last 10 games in Durham. Boston College, for example, has competed in the Atlantic Coast Conference since 2005 and has never won a road game against Duke.
Heading into this game after falling to an unranked opponent (Pittsburgh) isn’t exactly the red-carpeted entrance UNC was hoping for. But the Tar Heels are historically replete with bounce-back victories against Duke. Since 1920, the team is 37-21 when playing against Duke following a loss.
Looking at the last decade, there are some noteworthy trends in the series:
While Duke does lead in FT/FGA, both teams are fairly abysmal from the line – and this very well could be the deciding factor, capable of swinging either way. The Blue Devils shoot much better from the field – Duke ranks No. 12 in adjusted field goal percentage, North Carolina ranks 111th – but the Tar Heels are a stouter defensive group. The guard play of Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook has been exceptional this season, and has Duke averaging over 80 points per game (No. 8 in the country), but UNC’s Marcus Paige and J.P. Tokoto captain the nation’s top facilitating team (17.6 assists per game). And while Jahlil Okafor has been a consummate force in the paint, UNC is a far superior rebounding squad.
Krzyzewski’s team is precisely where preseason rankings pegged the Blue Devils. Williams’ team, on the other hand, has tapered off from their No. 6 preseason ranking. The intangibles are often critical links in a rivalry’s DNA, and it’s evident that North Carolina has much more to lose in this game.
The truth is that giants perennially fall in this series: Last season, an unranked UNC team knocked off No. 5 Duke in Chapel Hill; In 2012, a lower ranked UNC team bludgeoned Duke by 18 on the road; In 2006, Tyler Hansbrough led the No. 13 Tar Heels over No. 1 Duke. Close-fisted rivalries bring out a level of intensity unfound in any other game, and that intensity is only heightened when a indignities of a program are carried into it. North Carolina is projected to lose Wednesday – like virtually every other team that has ever played on the road in front of the maniacally faithful 9,314 mob, colloquially known as the Cameron Crazies – but, as history proposes, the story has a funny way of writing itself.
Josh Planos has been published at the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Huffington Post and VICE, among other publications. He’s been heard on CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. Planos is currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter (@JPlanos).
An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated Cameron Indoor Stadium was in Raleigh, it is in Durham.