For the second time in the history of the Duke-UNC rivalry, the two teams are each a game away from meeting in the NCAA Tournament.
Duke will play Arkansas on Saturday night with a spot in the Final Four at stake. UNC plays Saint Peter’s with the same stakes on Sunday. And if both teams win, they’ll square off in New Orleans in what will be by far the biggest game in the history of sports’ biggest rivalry.
It’s still potentially one game away, which means that while the rest of the world is speculating, the teams are trying to focus on the business at hand.
“One of the things that I've talked to the guys a lot is I've given them this Bible verse, Proverbs 4:25,” UNC coach Hubert Davis said. “And it says, ‘Keep your eyes straight ahead, ignore all sideshow distractions.’ So what's straight ahead is Saint Peter's. So our full attention is on our preparation, our practice and making sure that we play our best against a great Saint Peter's team.”
In addition to playing a home and home series every ACC season, Carolina and Duke have met a total of 25 times in the postseason. Twenty four of them came in the ACC Tournament. The other meeting was in the 1971 postseason NIT, in the days when the NCAA Tourney would only take one team from each conference.
The Tar Heels and Blue Devils met in the NIT’s Final Four that season, with UNC winning 73-69, then winning the NIT championship in its next game.
In the 47 tournaments since the NCAA took multiple teams from each conference, Duke and Carolina have both received bids 36 times.
In 24 of those 36 tournaments, the two rivals were placed in regions that kept them from meeting until the national championship game. This is the 10th year they’ve been placed on the same side of the bracket, allowing for a clash on Final Four Saturday, in the national semifinals. (The other two times—1979 and 2004, they were in the same region and could have met in the Elite Eight.)
This is the seventh time the Blue Devils and Tar Heels have been two wins away from meeting. In five of them—1990, 2000, 2004, 2005 and 2009, one team made it all the way to the potential game, while the other team was eliminated two rounds away from the meeting.
This is just the second time that each team is one win away. The first time was in 1991, which is the only time both teams have been in the same building with a chance to play. Duke and Carolina both went to the Final Four that season. Duke beat UNLV in the national semifinals, but UNC lost to Kansas, in what remains the closest call for the rivalry game to end them all.