North Carolina has won seven in a row and Duke has lost only one of its past 10 games, and that was at the No. 1 team in the country, which makes it a little strange there’s nothing on the line Thursday night but pride.
So often over the years, the two games between these teams have gone a long way toward determining the ACC’s regular-season champion, if not settled matters outright on the final day of the season. Duke or North Carolina (or both) has finished within a game of first place in the ACC in 10 straight seasons and 29 of the past 32. That streak is at risk this season, with Syracuse 12-1 after Wednesday’s shocking loss to Boston College. Duke is 10-3 and North Carolina 8-4.
Syracuse’s March 1 visit to 13-1 Virginia remains the pivotal moment at the top of the standings, leaving Thursday’s game and the March 8 rematch in Durham largely irrelevant in that regard – although only in that regard.
“Regardless of the circumstances, it’s still North Carolina and Duke,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “Now, if one is No. 1 in the country and the other is No. 2, yeah. But I don’t think it’s losing much luster with where we’re both sitting right now.”
This game never lacks luster, given the depth of the rivalry and the friction the proximity creates, but even without an ACC title on the line, there’s a little extra juice in this one.
For one thing, it’s very possible the only games either team loses the rest of the way will be against each other. That presumes a Duke victory against No. 1 Syracuse at home Saturday, which is possible but anything but certain. After that, Duke’s other remaining opponents (Virginia Tech and Wake Forest) do not exactly conjure fear.
As for the Tar Heels, they face those same two teams and visit N.C. State – winnable, but no freebie – and have a home game against Notre Dame. Still, of their final six games, the two most difficult will be against Duke. Even if the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament isn’t on the line, the stakes are high for both teams.
They’re higher even than they were a week ago. Since then, North Carolina has beaten then-No. 25 Pittsburgh and produced a remarkable comeback at Florida State, two of the more challenging games on the second half of the Tar Heels’ schedule. Duke, meanwhile, was taken to the final possession by Maryland at Cameron before tearing apart Georgia Tech on Monday. If the Blue Devils had played North Carolina last Wednesday as scheduled, who knows if they still have the energy to fend off Maryland three days later.
That’s not the only lingering effect of the postponed game that will be felt Thursday. A certain segment of the Tar Heels fan base worked itself up into a rabid lather over the ludicrous belief that Duke was scared to play at the Smith Center in front of a crowd made up almost entirely of screaming students, as was the case in 2000’s memorable snow game against Maryland.
Putting aside for the moment what that says about the game-day atmosphere those same fans generate on a regular basis at the Smith Center, it is nevertheless the kind of unhinged conspiracy theory that can be generated by the enmity that occasionally pollutes the air between these two schools – and who would have it any other way?