On Thursday night, UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University will meet for the first time this season in one of the greatest rivalries of college basketball. And they both have a lot to prove.
Earlier in ACC conference play, both teams faced North Carolina State University and lost. At a first glance, NC State plays a limited role in the Tobacco Road rivalry. But before Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski were big names in college basketball, former NC State coach Everett Case popularized the sport throughout North Carolina.
History professor and adviser Matthew Andrews explained that when Case arrived in North Carolina, UNC-CH and Duke were considered big football schools. Case was hired to bring basketball to the university so that N.C. State could compete against their neighbors in a sport that wasn’t as expensive as football.
“His original players all came from Indiana, where basketball was huge then," Andrews said. "He wanted it to be huge here, so in the off-season, he would actually travel the state and give talks to Rotary clubs and civic organizations about basketball, and how basketball would turn young boys into men.”
Through what Andrews considers to be Case’s “Johnny Appleseed” ventures, basketball spread quickly. In 1949, Case started the Dixie Classic tournament, which lasted for 11 years. The event included the top four regional teams — Wake Forest University, NC State, UNC-CH and Duke — facing four other top teams from across the country, which helped the Southern teams grow and gain respect nationally.
In addition to better publicity from the Dixie Classic, North Carolina schools were able to recruit top-notch players from New York in the early 1950s. In 1957, these New Yorkers made history at UNC-CH by winning the University’s first national championship.
“As good as Everett Case was at NC State, he never won a national championship,” Andrews said. “As good as the football teams were at UNC and Duke, they never won a national championship. So this is the first national championship of any renown in North Carolina, here at UNC.”
Now, the UNC-Duke rivalry is as strong as ever. Junior Matt Fedder, the public relations chair for Carolina Fever, plans to wait outside the Dean E. Smith Center on Thursday for several hours to stand behind the basket in the risers. Like many UNC-CH students, he has great respect for the basketball program.
“I definitely think there’s a cultural difference between UNC basketball and Duke basketball where, as much as Duke tries to say there’s a brotherhood, it’s really a ‘one and done’ culture,” Fedder said.
Students are not the only ones preparing for the UNC-Duke game. Every year, the Chapel Hill Police Department monitors Franklin Street festivities in case of a win.
“We understand that any time UNC and Duke are playing, it doesn’t matter if neither team has a win, it’s a big game and there’s a lot riding on it,” said Ran Northam, community safety communications specialist at the Chapel Hill Police Department. “So we expect a celebration in the community if UNC wins, and we’ll be prepared for that.”
Whether or not UNC-CH wins on Thursday, fans can be consoled by a timeless rivalry.
"To hate Duke is to love UNC," Andrews said.
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