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Duke-North Carolina remains the standard for college basketball

The sport's biggest rivalry is the best part of the regular season. It resumes Wednesday at Duke.

February 11, 2009|CHRIS DUFRESNE

Two days after Alex Rodriguez, we get Dick Vitale on steroids for North Carolina at Duke.

So that makes it Psycho V (Vitale), vs. Psycho T (North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough) vs. Psycho Fans (Cameron Crazies).

Tonight's game represents the closest ESPN can get to bringing you an NCAA championship game without getting sued by CBS.

It's no all-points bulletin to suggest college basketball, from November through February, has become diluted and overexposed. The sport is so back-loaded now to three weeks of NCAA tournament madness in March that college football actually uses it as a cautionary tale in its anti-playoff argument.

What, and have our regular season become as meaningless as basketball's?

If eight teams from the Big East are going to make this year's NCAA tournament, and eight teams from the Atlantic Coast are getting in, what do conference standings mean?

Arizona won the 1997 national title after finishing fifth in the Pacific 10 Conference.

If you don't win your conference's regular-season title, no problem, just win your conference tournament.

Duke vs. North Carolina is an exception. Genuine excitement does not have to be feigned. The rivalry has earned its place next to Yankees-Red Sox and Michigan-Ohio State in football because it doesn't matter who the players or the coaches are, or what year or day it is.

More than 5,000 regular-season basketball games will be contested this year but there are only two that need to be savored: North Carolina at Duke and Duke at North Carolina.

The fact these schools have never met in the NCAA tournament only adds to the intrigue.

To the players, it's just the biggest game of 2008-09. North Carolina is 21-2 and ranked No. 3 while No. 6 Duke is 20-3. With both teams at 7-2 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, sole possession of first place is at stake.

"Kids can't identify with history," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said this week. "They're too young . . . they're not 30-, 40-, 50-year-old people. They're kids. And they need to be put into the now. And the now is that this is a hell of a game. 'Now' is both tied for first place."

Historical significance is tied to the elders who have lived and suffered and died with a series that started with these schools, which are located just eight miles apart, in 1924.

The backdrop involves yellow-stained newspaper clippings, lost wagers and misty-colored memories of 1968, 1974, two great games in 2005 and, more recently, Gerald Henderson's jarring blow to Hansbrough's nose-bleed section.

The pursuit of excellence, in such close proximity, drives the competitive juices.

Numbers only tell part of the story. North Carolina leads the series, 128-97. The schools have met 64 times when both have been ranked in the Associated Press top 25, and have split those games. The last time neither team has been ranked was 1960.

North Carolina has won four national titles and appeared in 17 Final Fours; Duke has won three titles and appeared in 14 Final Fours. The schools have combined to win 79% of the league titles since the ACC was formed in 1953.

Duke has won 17 of the last 24 games but North Carolina is seeking its fourth straight win at Duke.

Imagine that.

"You don't have to promote this game," North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said. "Everyone else is going to do that for you."

Loose ends

* Austin Peay last week retired the jersey No. 35 worn by James "Fly" Williams, the school's most famous player. Williams averaged 29 points as a freshman in 1972-73 and led the Governors to their first NCAA tournament, where he scored 26 points in a win over Jacksonville and 26 more in a second-round overtime loss to Kentucky. Fans used to wait five hours in line to see the flamboyant Williams play in the school's red-brick gymnasium. Williams is also responsible for one of the most famous student-section cheers in hoops history: "Fly is Open, Let's Go Peay!"

* Here's a line you don't read very often mid-way through February: Indiana finally won a Big Ten basketball game (thank you, Iowa).

* UCLA has won four straight since a Jan. 24 loss at Washington, with the closest margin a 15-point win over California. The Bruins are 19-4 overall, No. 6 in this week's ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll, yet are still showing up as a No. 4-seeded team in many mock NCAA brackets. The Bruins' No. 67 strength of schedule is no doubt a factor, but it's hard to imagine UCLA will be lower than a No. 2 if they win the Pac-10 title.

* Arizona's record of 24 straight NCAA tournament appearances seemed in serious jeopardy when the Wildcats fell to 11-8 after a Jan. 21 home loss to Arizona State. But since then, Arizona has won five straight and is now back in tournament contention.

Arizona Coach Russ Pennell says it's too early to start printing tickets. "All we've done to this point is put ourselves in position," he said.

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