With apologies to iLoveMakonnen, the first North Carolina-Duke game isn’t going up on a Tuesday. Or a Wednesday. Or a Thursday, for that matter.
This year, Round One of the blue bloods’ historic men’s basketball rivalry will tip off on Saturday, Feb. 8 at 6 p.m. in the Smith Center.
As noted by Pat James of GoHeels.com, you’d have to go back nearly three decades — when Duke hosted UNC on Saturday, Jan. 19, 1991 — to find the last time the Tar Heels and Blue Devils played their first game on a day other than a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday.
In a perfect world, they’d go three more decades before they have to open on the weekend again.
Don’t get me wrong — this scheduling quirk won’t change the main things we already know and love about college basketball’s greatest rivalry. A sell-out crowd. A prime-time slot on ESPN. National media galore. Future NBA lottery picks in battle. A month’s worth of bragging rights for the victor until the rematch, which traditionally comes on an early March weekend.
But the lack of a midweek game this time around just doesn’t sit right with me. How so? Let’s backtrack to last February to understand why.
North Carolina’s trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 20, 2019, was deservedly hyped from a basketball standpoint. No. 1 Duke featured a generational talent in Zion Williamson, plus R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish. No. 8 North Carolina boasted a fun mix of vets (Luke Maye, Kenny Williams, Cameron Johnson) and youth (Coby White, Nassir Little).
The Tar Heels’ 88-72 win that night became ESPN’s most viewed midweek men's college basketball game of all time (4.343 million viewers, per Nielsen) and its third highest-rated regular-season game ever. As you may remember, a former President was also in attendance.
Here in Chapel Hill, Barack Obama’s sheer presence somewhere in the Triangle that afternoon sent the student body into a collective frenzy. Whispers of Obama and his younger daughter, Sasha, taking a secret visit to UNC’s campus and journalism school spread like wildfire.
Pretty soon, an increasingly large crowd was running through the rain and mud to rumored building after rumored building to … Cosmic Cantina? … for a chance to see the world-famous family — malfunctioning umbrellas and all.
It was fun and spontaneous and idealistic and stupid. Most of all, it was memorable: The kind of moment that will live on forever through friend groups and party stories. You had to be there.
That’s the whole point. You had to be there. Physically. There’s this wonderfully weird energy in common spaces — the office, the classroom, the grocery store — ahead of big sporting events.
It blossoms even further when that big sporting event falls on a weeknight. There’s a tangible buzz and nonstop chatter and, here at UNC, a meticulously detailed plan on how you’ll go to your 11 a.m. class, skip the 1 p.m. class since you have a free absence left, get in line at Four Corners, take shifts with your friends so someone can drop off backpacks or pick up food and … well, you get the point.
It’s a bit of a burden, sure, but it’s just once a year. You may be up until 1 a.m., yet the following Wednesday/Thursday/Friday brings a boatload of fun. There’s morning-after trash talk, bleary-eyed (or hungover) water-cooler conversations and couch- or bench-burning stories to swap, depending on which Tobacco Road school won.
This issue is mostly above the rivals’ heads. Scheduling is, above all else, a game for conferences and their respective television partners. So in the same vein of Mack Brown, who despises Friday night college football games, and Roy Williams, who despises 9 p.m. tip-off times, I direct my subtle frustration toward those bigwigs.
Long live the midweeker.
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