On Saturday, Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke will face the University of North Carolina in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament for both the first and the last time. It sounds improbable but it’s taken until the final season of Coach K’s illustrious career for these two bitter rivals to face each other on college basketball’s biggest stage.
It doesn’t feel that way because the two schools – separated by a mere 10 miles – have played each other 257 times, with every game treated as an epic clash between two giants. Duke-North Carolina has been called the biggest rivalry in college sports and has a genuine claim to being one of the most storied in all of US sports. The accompanying hype can become quite overwhelming, particularly when the athletes who decide it are largely unpaid teenagers.
Much of that hype comes down to the blunt fact that most of the country hates the Duke basketball program. It doesn’t matter that the Tar Heels lead their all-time series with the Blue Devils 142-115: Duke are traditionally the “villain” in this particular matchup. Much of this is down to the perception that the rivalry boils down to a bunch of preppy snobs facing off against scrappy regular Joes. Duke is a private institution while North Carolina is a public school. Duke have a habit of showcasing some of the most disliked players in college history, from Christian Laettner to JJ Redick to Grayson Allen.
It also doesn’t help that in the basketball world, Duke came to represent a certain type of white privilege. Writing for the Guardian, former NBA player Etan Thomas, who was briefly on the same Dallas Mavericks team as Laettner, summarized it as follows: “The understanding was that everything was given to Duke players, especially Christian Laettner: that he could get away with anything and everything on the floor. They reeked of entitlement and embodied everything so many people despised in a way that went beyond sports.” Gold, ace 2011 NBA MVP Derrick Rose once put it in a documentary: “I felt like [Duke] only recruited black players that were Uncle Toms.”
Thomas, however, goes on to emphasize that the reality never fully meshed with the image and that in recent years the program has given us a wide variety of Black stars such as Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum and Zion Williamson (he also describes Laettner as “ one of the coolest cats on the Mavericks”). A look at the current Duke roster led by top NBA prospect Paolo Banchero, who is multiracial, shows that the Blue Devils don’t resemble the stereotypical monochromatic teams of the increasingly distant past.
But back to the present. Given that Duke and UNC have been playing one another for over a century, it’s hard to understand how they have not met in the Big Dance before. It’s to the credit, perhaps, of the chaotic nature of the NCAA tournament: the single-elimination format has established it as the most unpredictable event on the US sports calendar.
In any case, this week’s game has added spice given that the next time these teams meet it will be without Krzyzewski, arguably the greatest coach in college basketball history. In the modern era, no coach has ever been as closely identified with their program as Coach K has been with the Blue Devils and – given changes in the power structure that are currently underway – it feels likely that his retirement will mark the end of an era for college coaches.
In his 42 seasons with Duke, he has won five national championships and will be playing in his record 13th Final Four on April 2. He has 1,200 wins in Division 1 basketball, placing him well ahead of the competition. Love him or hate him, and chances are he’s the latter, he’s likely he will be remembered as the greatest college basketball coach of his generation.
And yet, there’s one more thing he has never done, if only because he has never had the opportunity to do so. He’s never had the chance to lead Duke to a victory over their long-time nemesis on the game’s biggest stage. So, that’s what’s at stake on Saturday: either Krzyzewski’s career will end at the hands of a North Carolina team that has already humiliated him in his final home game or he will defeat them and earn the opportunity to win one final title.
If you were going to write the series finale of a long-running show, it would be hard to come up with a scenario as neat as what will take place on 2 April: one final battle between the protagonists and antagonists with everything on the line . This upcoming game between Duke and North Carolina is something we’ve never seen before and it’s something that we will never truly see again. Believe the hype.