It doesn’t seem possible that North Carolina and Duke have never faced each other in the NCAA tournament.
The Triangle rivals came close in 1991. They were a game away at the Final Four only to be thwarted (by all people) Roy Williams (then at Kansas), but college basketball’s biggest rivalry has never had its moment on college’s basketball’s biggest stage.
After the two teams traded punches in ACC tournament on Friday night, a 93-83 Duke win, it’s fair to ask (again): Is this the year it will finally happen?
The level both teams played at in Brooklyn suggests it’s going to take a special effort for any team in the 68-team field to eliminate the Blue Devils, who have finally found their footing after a turbulent regular season, or the Tar Heels, who have been motivated by last year’s close call in the national title game.
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The list of teams that have the potential to knock out Duke or Carolina out of the tournament isn’t very long, but it’s led by the usual suspects – Kansas and Kentucky.
Villanova, last year’s champ (remember the Wildcats?) will have a say and so will a slew of West Coast teams (Oregon got Duke last year in the Sweet 16). The matchups will have to break right for Duke-North Carolina IV but a few things to watch as the bracket is unveiled by CBS at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday:
The best of the best
The four No. 1 seeds will likely be Villanova, Kansas, UNC and Gonzaga (in that order). If Villanova is the No. 1 overall seed, and Gonzaga is the No. 4, that would set up the potential for Kansas and North Carolina to meet – for the fourth time in 10 years – in the Final Four.
Duke, as likely the best of the No. 3 seeds, could wind up in the Wildcats’ region on the other side of the bracket. So both Duke and North Carolina would have to win five games for the NCAA matchup to finally happen in the title game.
Revenge of the West?
Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, only six of the 32 national champions have come from west of the Mississippi River.
Only two Pac-12 teams have won the national title (Arizona in 1997 and UCLA in 1995) in the expanded format and only nine times has a team from the Pac-12 reached the Final Four.
By comparison, since ’85 the ACC has nine national titles and 27 Final Four teams – both high-water marks for a conference.
With three strong teams from the Pac-12 (Arizona, Oregon and UCLA), plus Gonzaga, this could be the year the West Coast gets some revenge.
Arizona has been close under coach Sean Miller, making the Elite Eight three times since 2011, and Oregon reached the regional final last year and has most of the same group back.
UCLA didn’t make the tournament last year but has arguably the best player in the country in freshman guard Lonzo Ball and an explosive offense.
Gonzaga has been a March disappointment, but like recent versions of Villanova or Wisconsin, is just one breakthrough away. The Bulldogs only lost once in 33 games and have a veritable all-star team with Power 5 transfers from Washington, Cal and Missouri in their starting lineup.
Less chalk, more madness (please)
Other than Michigan State’s first-round loss to 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee, last year’s bracket was super chalky. All four No. 1 seeds reached the regional final and three of the No. 2s reached the Sweet 16.
Syracuse, a No. 10 seed, did make the Final Four, but the Orange hardly fits the profile of lovable March underdog.
If the conference tournaments are any indication, there might be more surprises in store for this NCAA tournament.
The No. 1 seeds in the ACC (UNC), Big Ten (Purdue) and Big 12 (Kansas) conference tournaments lost before the championship game.
As of Saturday, nine No. 1 seeds (out of 32 conference tournaments) lost before the final round.
And unlike other seasons, where there was a clear-cut favorite before the tournament or one dominant team in the regular season, the field this year is much closer together.
You could have said the same thing about last year’s bracket. Villanova, knocked out in the second round of the 2015 tournament by N.C. State, was a surprise team to emerge (and through a difficult path).
There could be another surprise champion out there, or Duke and North Carolina could be on a collision course. It’s March, anything can happen.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio