I’ve never been to Springfield, Mass. — or to the state of Indiana, where my dad was born — but I can think of a singular moment in April that would solidify the notion that I’d never have to go there to reach the center of the basketball universe.
One of the hottest topics of this year’s March Madness is that North Carolina and Duke could meet in the national championship game. The two schools, separated by eight miles, have never played in the NCAA Tournament, let alone the national title game, but as both programs have reached the Sweet 16, the possibility that ends this season has become increasingly likely.
But many Tar Heel and Blue Devil fans have thought of that as the apocalypse, a worst-case scenario and argument-ender for this storied rivalry. Though last time I checked, the basketball programs in Chapel Hill and Durham haven’t been cancelled when one beats the other.
Rather, that builds the anticipation until the next matchup between the two schools. UNC has lost five times in the national championship — including, most recently, to Villanova after the big shot by Kris Jenkins two years ago — while Duke has lost six times.
Yet both programs continue to field teams on the court, even after gut-wrenching losses on the biggest stage.
So before you cast it aside as too much to handle, first consider — and maybe even give into — the idea that the Tar Heels and Blue Devils meeting on college basketball’s biggest stage would be a good thing for both programs.
In fact, Tobacco Road, the state of North Carolina and college basketball couldn’t ask for a better opportunity to lay claim to sports greatness, especially given the high stakes. Beyond seizing the undivided attention of America for two hours, the relevance of such a game would be legendary — reaching far beyond what either could imagine one game could.
Think of some of the most culturally relevant sports moments of all time. Like the Michael Jordan flu game in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals, Babe Ruth calling his shot or Muhammad Ali knocking out Sonny Liston. These are iconic sports moments — legendary even — that have lasted the test of time, transcended sports and seeped into American culture.
Now consider a UNC-Duke final in 2019 joining that impressive list, as a “where were you when...” moment for the entire country to talk about for years to come.
UNC has the chance to take down Duke with Zion Williamson, a generational player, on the court. The Blue Devils have a unique opportunity to assert dominance after losing three of the last four to the Tar Heels.
The three prior games this season were already some of the most watched college basketball games all year. How much more might that increase if a national title was at stake?
By all accounts, a game of this magnitude would be uncharted territory for college basketball. No other major hoops rivals — not Kentucky-Louisville, Indiana-Purdue, UCLA-USC — have ever played for a national title. Would top recruits think first of those programs that have never played each other in the big game before, or would this matchup of two blue bloods come to mind year after year?
Capturing the attention of the country — in a legendary matchup with a million storylines — would make both programs relevant in recruiting far beyond when Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski stop patrolling the sidelines.
If that's not enough, consider what a Tobacco Road national championship would do to ratchet up the hate between Tar Heels and Blue Devils, on and off the court, moving forward. If you think you've seen hate between two shades of blue, imagine what that might be like if one of them had a national title to hang over the other's head.
You say it would end all arguments. I counter that the stakes would be at an all-time high for the foreseeable future, as one program tries to live down the blemish, while another looks to build on a huge win over the other. It's a dream scenario.
There's much to consider about this potential matchup beyond how you'd feel in the moment. If you ask me, the impact of bestowing the title of Hoop State to North Carolina far outweighs the risk to either fan base.
Imagine making Orange and Durham counties the center of college basketball moving forward, even more than the rivalry already has been. Or, if you prefer, close your eyes and wish away what might be the greatest basketball game of all time.
But that's not what I'll be doing.
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