Coaches always say all games are the same, and plenty of clichés supporting that theory pepper most news conferences.
Maybe thats true for them.
As a player, theyre not, said Blue Devils assistant coach Jeff Capel, who played at Duke in 1993-97. There was always a different feeling for Duke-North Carolina.
The rivalry will be renewed for the first time this season when No. 2 Duke (21-2, 8-2 ACC) hosts North Carolina (16-7, 6-4) in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Wednesday.
The hype is unavoidable. Marathons of Duke-UNC games run on ESPN Classic, and thats what was on in the Blue Devils players lounge before last seasons matchup. Its not lost on this group of players that they are about to join the lore.
Its a dream come true, guard Quinn Cook said. Its something that every young basketball player watches and wants to have a chance to play in the rivalry.
Marcus Paige, UNCs starting point guard, is one of several freshmen who will play his first game in the series. Even from Iowa, his home state, he felt the intensity of UNC-Duke games.
I was pretty intense, watching the games at home back in Iowa, Paige said. And getting a chance to see it last year at the home game against Duke here. So its just different. Its arguably the best rivalry in sports and Im really blessed to be a part of it now.
Paige took one of his visits to UNC a year ago when another rookie to the rivalry Dukes Austin Rivers left his mark on the series.
I was here for that, but thats not one of my favorites. I definitely remember that. We had control of that game for the majority of the game. But sometimes big-time players make big-time plays.
Cook, Paiges counterpart for Duke, remembers when another big-time player took over one of the rivalry games. He remembers when Nolan Smith, whom Cook calls his big brother, scored 34 points to help erase a 14-point halftime deficit in Cameron in 2011, the year before he arrived on campus.
Trailing 43-29, the Blue Devils came back to win 79-73, thanks to the third-largest halftime comeback in school history.
Thats one I really remember, Cook said. Just to see Nolan and Seth (Curry) take over the game, Ryan (Kelley) hit some big shots, Mason (Plumlee) got a big dunk, and they all just fought hard. That UNC team was great.
A Kinston kinship
Reggie Bullocks favorite moment from the series dates back further. The junior is from Kinston, the same town where Jerry Stackhouse grew up. Bullock grew up in the same neighborhood as Stackhouse and played on the same playgrounds where people still tell Stackhouse stories to this day.
Fitting, then, that Bullocks fondest UNC-Duke memory begins with Stackhouse soaring through the air and ends with him having just completed one of the most memorable dunks in the history of the rivalry. Stackhouses dunk against Duke in 1995 in Cameron Indoor Stadium has become a part of Duke-UNC lore.
Its Bullocks clearest memory, even though he never saw it until a while after it happened.
Every time we play here and they show the highlights, I just remember Stackhouse doing the dunk on Duke. So thats probably one of the main memories that I remember and then just going over to Cameron and actually beating them at home.
By the time Bullock entered high school, he began to understand what the rivalry meant to people in Kinston.
I probably started realizing that it means a lot to people around ninth, 10th grade. Around this time, everybody was talking about the Carolina-Duke game, Bullock said. People just pride their seasons, and fans just pride their seasons on the Carolina-Duke matchup.
Capel played in that 1995 game when Stackhouse, who was fouled by Cherokee Parks and Erik Meek, threw down a one-handed reverse slam. Capel responded with his own highlight reel play, a running 40-foot buzzer-beater that sent the game to a second overtime. UNC won 102-100.
Entering his senior year, Capel was 0-6 against the Tar Heels. He and his teammates had one final chance to get a win in Cameron on Jan. 29, 1997.
I just remember that there was no way that we were going to lose the game, Capel said. It was a close game. We had a double-digit lead, and they came back. We made some plays down the stretch. Greg Newton had a big three-point play, Trajan Langdon hit a big 3.
Duke won 80-73.
Capel played at Duke with fellow assistants Steve Wojciechowski and Chris Collins. When asked about his favorite memory, Collins picked two from his coaching career. One of them was the 2005 game in Cameron, when No. 2 North Carolina had the ball at the end of the game, trailing 71-70.
We had to get a stop at the end of the game, and J.J. (Redick), through scouting, did, Collins said. They had a play that they always used to run for Rashad McCants when they had (Raymond) Felton and McCants and (Sean) May. J.J. jumped the play, and they werent able to get it to McCants. We caused a turnover, the clock ran out, and we won on defense.
And then there was the time
Collins other favorite moment came in 2001, when Duke seemed to face long odds. Earlier in the week, Carlos Boozer had broken his foot, Duke had lost at home to Maryland and, as Collins put it, everyone had written our obituary for the end of the season.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski had gathered his staff together after the Maryland loss and they drew up a new way for Duke to play. Freshman Chris Duhon was inserted into the lineup, and the Blue Devils prepared to face Kris Lang, Brendan Haywood and Julius Peppers.
We just decided that we were going to make it a track meet, Collins said. We were going to go in four-minute stretches and just put Jason (Williams) and Chris together on the floor. And we just told them, every time push the ball and shoot, try to make their big guys have to run.
The plan worked. Duke won 79-53 and didnt lose for the rest of the season.
In todays college sports landscape, the idea of a rivalry can feel old-fashioned. Conference realignment has wiped out several classic rivalries, some of which started before Duke was even a school.
The shifting landscape makes the Duke-Carolina game that much more important, according to Krzyzewski.
This is a priceless event, he said. Duke and Carolina will be there forever. And those are the things that, when you do play, youll be conjuring up memories of 86, 94, 01, whatever. Thats the cool thing.
For Williams, reminiscing can wait
Tar Heels coach Roy Williams grew up in the North Carolina mountains, far away from a North Carolina-Duke rivalry that in the 1950s and 60s wasnt what it is today. He didnt fully experience the culture of the series until he arrived at UNC, where played junior varsity basketball.
Years before then, though, the first college T-shirt he ever bought had Duke written on it.
I dont have it anymore, Williams said Tuesday. I got rid of it pretty quickly. But theres a lot of people in the student body at both schools that think about both places.
Williams dismissed a question about his favorite moment in the UNC-Duke series. Thered be time for those thoughts one day, when hes retired.
He might think about Marvin Williams put-back that beat Duke in 2005 at the Smith Center, or maybe the 2007 game when Dukes Gerald Henderson infamously bloodied Tyler Hansbroughs nose.
Williams might even wonder, during quiet moments years from now, how his team ever lost at home last year against Duke. And then Rivers shot at the buzzer might play over and over again in Williams mind. For now, though, he said those memories wont come to him.
Im trying to figure out how in the (heck) to score, he said. I mean, thats whats important to me. I dont lay over there and say, gosh, boy that was really neat when so-and-so made that shot, or that was really a thrill when that kid threw that grapefruit at me.
Right now, Williams is focused solely on Wednesday nights game. Or, as coaches like to say, hes taking it one game at a time.
Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley