Scientific observations indicate that there is no center of the universe — but when it comes to college basketball, Gov. Roy Cooper has found it.
In anticipation of the upcoming Final Four matchup between UNC and Duke, Cooper proclaimed North Carolina as "the center of the college basketball universe" in a press release Thursday.
"The stakes are high on Saturday and fans across the nation will get a firsthand look at two programs that have for decades competed fiercely and divided the loyalty of family and friends, but made our state proud,” Cooper said in the press release.
The announcement came with a hype video post on Cooper's social media.
N.C. Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Caswell, Orange, said he agrees with the statement and that other college basketball rivalries pale in comparison to UNC and Duke.
“There is no rivalry in college basketball like this one,” Meyer said. “Everyone's gonna be watching.”
Jonah Garson, an N.C. House candidate for District 56 and UNC alumnus, said he wishes Cooper was less neutral in his declaration, citing the governor’s UNC roots.
“I believe him to be a proud Tar Heel,” he said. “I would love to see him plot precisely on a map where the center is.”
Despite a significant history between the Tobacco Road rivals, Saturday's Final Four game will be the first time the teams meet in March Madness.
Tyler Smith, a sophomore political science and peace, war and defense double major at UNC, said Cooper’s announcement signifies the impact of this game on the state.
"It shows how deep this thing goes," he said.
The storied rivalry
When UNC sophomore Ally Wren moved to North Carolina at the age of 7, she said, the first thing she had to do was pick a side in the rivalry.
Before moving to the state, she hadn’t paid attention to college basketball.
Since then, Wren has become a fan of the North Carolina program. She said Cooper's declaration on Thursday was fitting because UNC and Duke are both powerhouses of college basketball.
“The entire state is gonna be watching this game,” Wren said. “I don't think there's like a household that won't know who won as soon as that happens.”
Four Corners Grille owner Kristian Bawcom said the fact that this is Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s last Final Four and Hubert Davis’ first at the helm of UNC's program makes it even more special.
“I don't even know if there's a better storyline,” Bawcom said.
The fact that the highest elected official in the state recognized the game demonstrates how important this rivalry is to North Carolinians, Smith said.
“I think that shows a wider impact of the game, on not just not just sports culture, not just regular culture — but actual politics and national government, which is serious stuff,” he said.
Meyer said that after two years of uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the game is an opportunity to focus on something more positive.
“It's a fantastic opportunity for us to focus on something other than the pandemic and other than our ongoing political polarization,” Meyer said.
The energy on UNC’s campus is a mixture of excitement and apprehensiveness, Smith said. The outcome of the game — no matter who wins — will be a huge point in discourse about the rivalry, he said.
Wren said the winner of the game will have bragging rights for many years to come.
“If we win this game, we're better than Duke," she said. "Period.”
Colin Campbell, editor of the North Carolina Tribune and a UNC alumnus, said he doesn’t consider himself a huge basketball fan, but this game is one of the most exciting and unprecedented ones of his lifetime.
Campbell added that it was fun to see a political leader like Cooper join the conversation surrounding the upcoming Final Four matchup.
"To see the governor get in on the fun and do it in that formal, 'whereas' proclamation format that governors use, but to make some statements about basketball and help get people more hyped up," he said.
Although Garson is campaigning in areas with both Duke and UNC fans, he said this game is not a time to remain neutral.
“At this time, and at this particular juncture, I feel like I need to say firmly and on the record: Go heels, and go to hell Duke,” he said.
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