In 2015 Dear Sports Fan will be previewing the biggest sporting event of the year in each of the 50 states in the United States plus the district of Columbia. Follow along with us on our interactive 2015 US Map.
North Carolina — North Carolina vs. Duke
College Basketball — February 18, 2015 — 9 p.m. ET on ESPN. Also, March 7, 2015.
It may seem funny that we chose a regular season college basketball game as the biggest sports event in North Carolina for 2015. The thing is… we’re right. There is no bigger sporting event in North Carolina than when Duke University and the University of North Carolina play in men’s college basketball. Indeed, it would be easy to make the case that there’s no bigger college basketball game all year than when these two teams play.
It’s said that familiarity breeds contempt and Duke and North Carolina are a prime example of this. The two schools are only eight miles apart and have played against each other at least two times a year since 1920. For people who live in North Carolina, it’s hard to remain uncommitted to one side or another. You’re either a Blue Devil (Duke supporter) or you bleed Tar-Heel Blue (North Carolina’s nickname is the Tar Heels and they wear baby blue but don’t call it that… 😉 ) It’s a rivalry that cuts through race, class, and family. The Wikipedia article on the rivalry has two wonderful quotes which together paint a wonderful picture of sports antipathy. The first is from Will Blythe’s book about the rivalry, To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever:
To legions of otherwise reasonable adults, it is a conflict that surpasses sports; it is locals against outsiders, elitists against populists, even good against evil… The rivalry may be a way of aligning oneself with larger philosophic ideals.
The other quote is from former U.S. Congressperson Brad Miller, who actually told an AP reporter this in 2012:
If Duke was playing against the Taliban, then I’d have to pull for the Taliban.
What’s the plot?
With Duke and North Carolina, there’s a macro plot about the rivalry as a whole and a micro plot about each edition. We’ll start macro. Like many great college rivalries, the one between Duke and North Carolina can be characterized easily as a rich private school against a public school. Duke is the elite, private school. If you know it mostly for its sports teams or don’t know much about it at all, it’s easy to not realize just how elite it is. Duke accepts only 10% of its undergraduate applicants and 4% of its graduate level applicants. It’s regularly listed as one of the top ten colleges in the country by all sorts of organizations that do that type of ranking. It has an enormous endowment — over $7 billion — and it spends a lot too — over a billion dollars in 2012 on research alone! Duke students and alumni are quite reasonably proud of their school and that pride translates for many of them into obsessive rooting for their school’s sports teams, men’s basketball first and foremost. North Carolina plays the role of the public school. The university is, indeed, a public school, as you can tell from its size — 18,000 undergrads and 12,000 graduate students compared to Duke’s 6,500 and 8,000 — and from its admission stats, which are much more forgiving than Duke’s. Other than that though, the mantle of public schools falls a little uncomfortably on North Carolina’s shoulders. Like Duke, North Carolina is sneaky elite when it comes to academics. North Carolina is consistently sited as one of the top five public universities in the country and claims its place as one of the “public ivies.”
Likewise in basketball, the similarities between the two schools are greater than their differences. They both have incredible histories of winning with no apparent plans to stop any time soon. They are number three and four in all-time wins. Together, they account for nine championships and 33 Final Four appearances. Since the beginning of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) that they both play in, the two teams have won 79% of the regular season titles and 59% of the conference tournaments. They both win. A lot. They’ve also been lucky enough to have two of the top three most well regarded coaches of all time. Dean Smith, who just died recently, coached at North Carolina for 36 years. My favorite story about him, which illustrates his stature and character the best, is that he was so well loved and respected by his former players, including basketball greats in their own right like Michael Jordan and Larry Brown among others, that they continued to call Smith for advice on any important life decision, well into their forties, fifties, and even sixties. Smith would get calls from former players asking for his advice on engagements, house purchases, etc. Duke’s current coach, Mike Krzyzewski is the current holder of the best coach in basketball mantle. He’s coached for Duke since 1980 and, with 932 victories, is the all-time winningest coach. Although he’s rejected countless offers to coach in the NBA, he has coached the USA Basketball team for the last ten years. In a rare but touching show of inter-rivalry solidarity, many Duke fans will be wearing a shirt honoring their late rival, Dean Smith.
This year, Duke is the more highly regarded and ranked team. Duke is currently 21-3 and ranked fourth in the country. North Carolina is no slouch themselves, but they are significantly behind at 18-7 and ranked 15th. Duke is coming off five straight victories. North Carolina has actually lost three of their last four games although two of those losses came in back to back games against highly ranked Louisville and Virginia.
Who are the characters?
Roy Williams — Roy Williams is the current coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels. Williams was not the direct successor of legendary Coach Dean Smith, but he’s the first one who’s stuck. He was born and grew up in North Carolina and went to the University of North Carolina where he played freshman basketball and volunteered for the Varsity team. After graduation, he took a job as a high school coach nearby and after five years there, returned to become an Assistant Coach under Smith at UNC. He stayed for ten years before striking off on his own to become the head coach of the University of Kansas. At Kansas, Williams succeeded admirably, taking the team to four Final Fours and losing two National Championship games. Still, when the North Carolina job opened up in 2003, Williams jumped at it. In his twelve years coaching for UNC, he’s succeeded even more than at at Kansas — three Final Fours and two National Championship victories. He may still live in the shadow of his one time mentor, but he’s comfortable there.
Jahlil Okafor — For years, Duke seemed to be a hold-out against the trend of recruiting athletes of such promise that they were likely to remain in college for only the one year that is required until they turn professional and enter the NBA draft. Jahlil Okafor is exhibit A that that is no longer a reality. Okafor is likely to be the first overall pick of the NBA draft for this year. He’s listed at 6’11 and 270 pounds. Guys that big don’t grow on trees (they’re so big, perhaps it would be more likely for trees to grow on them?) and to be as polished an offensive player as Okafor is extraordinarily rare. Okafor is deadly when he gets the ball around the basket. Watch for Duke to try to get the ball to him close to the basket so he can overpower or out-skill his defender. Okafor’s only weakness is that he’s not a great defender. North Carolina may try to attack him on that end and hope that the refs call a few fouls on him, forcing Duke to limit his playing time.
Who’s going to win?
Duke. Duke should win. They have the best player on the court and the best coach on the sidelines. It is a rivalry though and rivalries bring out strange performances, especially from college kids, so who really knows?