These North Carolina-Duke games always come with the hype and the anticipation and the endless ESPN promos, and yet there's something different about UNC-Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Maybe it's the size of the place. Maybe it's the noise. Maybe it's all the history that's happened in that building. Maybe it's that I tried to sneak in there for UNC-Duke in 1999, only to meet a police officer when I emerged from my hiding spot (full, but abridged, story below).
And now we go back. College basketball changes over the years. Coaches change. Players change. The sport evolves. UNC-Duke at Cameron, though, always feels like a throwback to some far-off, forgotten time. It always feels the same, and that's a good thing.
This, by the way, will be the 243rd meeting between these teams. It's the 80th UNC-Duke game at Cameron Indoor. Tip-off is still more than five hours away. Some thoughts and random musings to help you pass the time until then …
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1. The best line I heard all week.
The best line I heard all week belonged to Joel Berry, the UNC point guard. A TV guy had asked him a pretty standard question about the significance of the rivalry and the intensity and all that usual stuff, and Berry gave a better answer than the question deserved (sometimes you get lucky).
Said Berry: “I mean, it's a rivalry. As you're here, you build a hatred a little bit for Duke. That's just all part of it. Since I've been here, I've had a great deal of hatred against Duke.”
He said this so casually, so matter-of-fact. Like, “oh, yes – sure, I hate Duke. Say, how long does the hot dog special last at Sutton's today?” Berry was sure to add that “I have some guys over there that are my friends.” But during the game: hatred.
2. Justin Jackson on his first time at Cameron.
Also enjoyed what Justin Jackson, the junior forward, said about his first time playing at Cameron Indoor Stadium. That was two years ago, his freshman season, when UNC lost 92-90 in overtime. It wasn't a great game for Jackson. He scored two points in 17 minutes.
“First four minutes, I felt like I was just running around,” Jackson said, and he sort of just let it the words hang there while he shook his head. “Didn't know what I was doing, just heard the crowd and was trying to do whatever I could to try to get into the game.
“That's definitely and eye-opener when you play there for the first time. So yeah, I was just running around like a chicken with a head cut off.”
Justin Jackson: Just running around.
Jackson played better last year, when he scored 13 points in UNC's victory at Cameron, but in two years there he's 4-for-17 from the field. He's much more of a focal point of the Tar Heels' offense this season, though, and (some good analysis here) he'll need to shoot better on Thursday night.
3. This is a crazy stat.
I didn't see it but I've been told that ESPN showed a graphic during a game on Wednesday night that contained a truly crazy statistic. Here it is: In the past 96 games between UNC and Duke, both teams have won the same number of games (48) and scored the same number of points (7,437). The skeptic I am, I went back and checked and yes, those numbers are accurate.
Yes, the 96-game mark is a little arbitrary but, still, how wild is that? The first game of that 96-game stretch was on Feb. 26, 1977. UNC defeated Duke 84-71 in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Starting with that game, these teams have been exactly even with each other – points, wins – for the past 40 years.
That’s pretty insane, when you think about. You don’t see that sort of back-and-forth competitiveness too often in a seven-game playoff series in other spots. Now try playing 89 more games over 40 years.
4. Roy Williams called the Cameron Crazies “sort of cute.”
Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski always receive some interesting questions in the days leading into these games, and Williams was asked earlier this week about how he's able to block out the student section at Duke. Williams could've easily dismissed the question with a short answer and moved on with his day -- because he doesn’t think about such things -- but he actually entertained the thought.
“I look at the signs early,” he said, “because I like to see if any of them make me laugh. And then once the game starts, it's not a problem. Wait a minute, let me back up. It's not a problem to focus. It's a problem getting my team to hear what I'm saying, because they're really loud …
“I can remember days when they were really vicious. Now they're very loud and very enthusiastic and sort of cute. I remember when they were throwing crap on the floor, and I mean almost crap.”
So there you have it. The Crazies are “sort of cute,” according to Roy, and that’s a change from when they used to throw “almost crap” on the court.
5. The ol' chess match of mismatches.
This comes up more and more these days because more and more teams have gone away from the kind of traditional, position-based system that UNC uses – especially on the inside, with two prototypical post players. UNC, as always, uses that inside-out approach on offense. Duke doesn't.
The Blue Devils, like a lot of teams these days, like to spread things out, and often have bigger guys playing on the perimeter. Brandon Ingram did that last year. Jayson Tatum does that this year. It creates some mismatches on both sides, with UNC wanting to exploit its size down low.
Williams has said over the years that he always wants to force the other team to adjust to what he's doing, and not the other way around. And so he wants to establish that post presence, and force Duke to adapt.
Here's what Williams said about this earlier this week:
“We may have the advantage, but that gives them an advantage, because one of our big guys got to be running around guarding a guy that's on the 3-point line. And so which factor of the game's going to be the most dominant. … But it's going to be a difficult challenge for us, again, having our guys chase guys.”
Williams noted that sometimes Duke only plays with one post player.
“So that means,” he said. “that our four man's got to go out and guard them out there, or we have to go small and that takes away our advantage. So we'll just have to wait and see how it works out.”
I like to imagine Roy and K sitting on a bench in Central Park, a chess board in between.
6. Along the same lines, Roy really does admire K.
The fans of these teams get into the hatred and, as Berry said, so do the players (though to a lesser extent than the maniacal tendencies of fans). Between the coaches, though, there's a lot of mutual admiration. I really believe that Williams and Krzyzewski respect each other – and certainly it's not always that way between coaches that spend a large part of their lives going against each other.
Remember how K had Roy on his radio show earlier this season? Some fans didn't get that, why both men would be so chummy. And UNC fans – some – were bothered not ago when UNC recognized Krzyzewski before a game at the Smith Center, and gave him a plaque (I think it was a plaque).
Here's what Williams had to say about his relationship with K:
“I found out a lot time ago that he and I have very similar beliefs. Had mentors that had very similar beliefs. And so it's not a me against him kind of thing. And it really never has been with me. Fans get caught up in a lot of those different kind of things. But he was a much better basketball player, and has accomplished a lot more as a coach.”
7. Will Theo Pinson play?
I think Theo Pinson will play. Just look at this Instagram post from the man himself. Doesn't that look like the Instagram post of a man who expects to play basketball this evening? And look at the emoji. Doesn't that emoji mean anything to you?
It makes me happy to know that generations from now people will study primitive iPhone emojis the way Eyptian scholars study hieroglyphics today. “The angle of the smile here, and the tilt of the eye, indicates the user of this emoticon knows something others don't ...”
8. Read my words.
Wrote stories this week on Isaiah Hicks' growth since he was a “deer in the headlights” at Cameron Indoor two years ago. And about Grayson Allen receiving support from an unlikely source. And about the supposed cultural differences between Duke, which embraces one-and-dones, and UNC, which hasn't had a one-and-done in while. Roy Williams hasn't planned it that way, by the way.
9. I really did sneak into Cameron Indoor Stadium once.
All right, so here's the story. It was 1999, my senior year of high school. I'd always wanted to go to a UNC-Duke game at Cameron. A scalped ticket, even back then, would have cost a couple of hundred dollars. I did not have a couple of hundred dollars.
I did have an idea: One of my good buddies and I would simply sneak in. We'd show up hours early, find a way in, and hide. So that's what we did. It was a 9 p.m. game, and we showed up at around 3:30, not long after school. We dallied around in the woods for a while.
We noticed that the TV crews were using a side door at Cameron that was loosely patrolled. We acted like we belonged and walked through the door, which happened to be near the visitors' locker room. We snooped around for a bit, checked out the court and looked for a place to lay low.
A bathroom? A storage closet?
Finally we noticed a little door behind a vending machine next to the visitor's locker room. The door led to a dark crawl space sort of thing, with a bunch of cables and wires poking out everywhere. Looked like a good idea. We wedged our way behind the vending machine and through the little door.
And there we waited for hours. UNC eventually showed up and took its place in the visiting locker room. We could hear everything. I remember Jason Capel and Ademola Okulaja complaining about the size of the place, and how cold it was. I remember guys talking trash. I remember Bill Guthridge talking. Good times.
About 15 minutes before tip-off, it was time to make our move. The plan was to crawl out from behind the vending machine, go up the stairs, and blend into the student section, with the bleachers being right there. So we made our way out and up the stairs.
And then there, in front of us, stood a couple of police officers, looking at us like we were two of the dumbest kids they’d ever seen. They asked to see our bracelets. All the Duke students had these bracelets that allowed them entry. Being in high school and all, we had no such bracelets.
One of the policeman escorted us out. He told us he should arrest us. He told us that he better not see us back in the building. And so we waited outside for another chance to get back in the building. It came at halftime, when a kind older couple left the game and gave us their ticket stubs.
We walked back in. they had good seats: near midcourt, a couple of rows up from the student section. Somewhere I still have my ticket stub. Every time I cover a game at Cameron I look at that vending machine and the little door behind it, and I remember.