So yes, even as Joel Berry’s full attention is focused on Texas Southern, when the bracket came out on Sunday he saw the same thing everyone else did, and had the same thought everyone else did.
North Carolina, the No. 1 seed in the South.
Duke, the No. 2 seed in the East.
On opposite sides of the bracket. Both thinking they have the moxie to get to Phoenix. Both wondering if a fourth, potentially apocalyptic matchup is in the cards. Both looking at each other, wondering.
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No matter how much both teams try to focus on the intervening five games, it’s impossible to keep the eyes from wandering to the middle of the bracket and visualizing Duke and North Carolina colliding there. Again.
As one does.
“I’ve thought about it,” said Berry, the North Carolina junior guard. “I would love to get revenge on them again. But you never know. This is the NCAA tournament.”
Could the Triangle handle it? Could the world handle it?
It would be matter and antimatter colliding, Independent George meeting Relationship George, the final and ultimate battle of good and evil (pick a side depending on which shade of blue you happen to prefer), cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria.
It almost happened in 1991, before Roy Williams (at Kansas) intervened with a win over his future employer in the semifinals. Disaster was averted then. And it will probably be averted again. While there’s a pretty good chance one of the two will make the Final Four, the odds are much longer that both would, and relatively infinitesimal that they could meet in the title game. Basketball stat guru Ken Pomeroy puts the probability at 1.2935 percent.
But for the first time since 2012, both teams are legitimate national-title contenders in the same season. This is the 12th time both teams have been either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, and the seventh time they have been on opposite sides of the bracket, and yet 1991 was the closest it ever got. For 13 of 14 seasons, from 1988 to 2001, one of the schools was in the Final Four. And only in 1991 were they ever there together.
So the arc of basketball history clearly bends toward this cataclysm, and why not? If Duke can win four games in four days to win the ACC tournament, a feat never before successfully accomplished, there’s no reason both teams can’t win five games in three weeks, with a maximum of two upsets needed – Duke over No. 1 seeds Villanova and Gonzaga – to make it happen.
Just as Mike Krzyzewski is bound to win an NCAA tournament game in the Pacific time zone at some point (although not this year), this is bound to happen eventually, just as an infinite number of monkeys filling out an infinite number of brackets will eventually fill out the perfect one. (Who but an infinite monkey would have Syracuse in the Final Four last year?)
Duke and North Carolina have been too good for too long not to play an encore on the biggest stage there is. And this year, with these three compelling meetings – especially the back-and-forth second in Chapel Hill and the dramatic third in Brooklyn – feels like the year.
The problem is, if that game does ever take place, whether it’s now or in the future, one side of the rivalry will own the ultimate bragging rights over the other in perpetuity. No amount of ACC championships, wins in the other gym on Senior Night (a k a the Full Hansbrough) or even future NCAA titles achieved against other opponents would be able to top that one victory, the game to end all games, the title to end all titles.
As Hemingway wrote about wagering on bullfights, the stakes are high enough already: “It would be like betting on the war. You don’t need any economic interest.”
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock