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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: UNC-Duke is great, but where do we go from here?

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Hunter Nelson Sports Editor

Fans have long yearned for a postseason matchup between college basketball's two largest rivals, but 307 days after that dream finally became a reality, I'm beginning to wonder if the hoop gods surrendered their souls to give the Tobacco Road faithful the closing act it deserved.

When Caleb Love's dagger dropped through the New Orleans night to send the winningest coach in the history of the sport into retirement at last year's Final Four, a line was etched in the history books. After Armando Bacot dubbed the outing as the "greatest college basketball game of all time," decades of memorable moments and verbal battles between the two sides came to a screeching halt, as it immediately became clear that no moment could ever reach the magnitude of what transpired that evening. 

Hype-induced offseasons might have tricked us into believing that chapter one of the new era would be exciting enough to provide an admirable sequel to all the events that happened last April. However, with both teams struggling to maintain national relevance midway through the season, such hopeful ambitions haven’t been fulfilled, sadly.

For a team that entered the new season as the consensus favorite to cut down the nets, the Tar Heels have spent more time sitting outside the top 25 than playing as a group that was supposedly hungry to complete its unfinished business. Similarly, the Blue Devils, under first-year head coach Jon Scheyer, have supplied ample evidence that nabbing three top-five recruits does not make a team immune to falling by 24 points to N.C. State or narrowly escaping a Boston College side that boasts a losing record.

In terms of basketball watchability, it is encouraging to note that both programs have shown signs of promise in recent weeks. Although both teams will enter the game unranked, the Tar Heels – winners of 10 of their past 12 – have started to share the ball more en route to inching their way out of an early hole to slide into fourth place in the ACC. Last Saturday, Duke upped the ante by earning its most impressive win of the year in a 43-point drubbing over Georgia Tech.

But still, maybe I’m just spoiled from the gifts of the past, but doesn’t it feel like there’s something… missing? Last year’s Cameron curtain call to Coach K featured the likes of Ken Jeong, Jerry Seinfeld and a cheering section of 96 'who’s whos' from the NBA. This time around, the primary viewers of the opening clash will likely be the more common crowd of students anxiously waiting for the buzzer to sound to spark the late-Saturday cramming of the physics exam that awaits them two days later.

I’ve been around the rivalry long enough to hear all the noise about how the names on the front of the jersey will always be enough to make the game must-see TV. ESPN analyst — and friend of the DTH program — Jay Bilas, routinely emphasizes that the rivalry “always delivers”, and there are enough objective facts to supplement that claim. 

Over the years, I’ve seen Tre Jones and Wendell Moore Jr. make students punch chairs as they stymied a historically bad UNC team from improving to 11-12 in a lost season. I was also an impartial bystander hundreds of miles away a season earlier when I watched Zion Williamson's shoe explode in the early stages of a convincing North Carolina triumph. 

With a clean slate in play, who knows what can happen when both teams take the court. Maybe Pete Nance and Ryan Young drop 20-point showings to show who is the more impactful Northwestern transfer. Perhaps Love and Duke's Jeremy Roach — now the chiseled veterans of their respective squads — turn back the clock and deliver a performance that reminds fans of the rivalry's glory days.

With each program looking to find its way, it is unclear whether the upcoming matchup can align with the lore of the past, but if both blue bloods can come together to share a single hope, it would be this.

For UNC-Duke, please, basketball divinity, the only thing we ask for is amazing.  

@hunternelson_1 

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com 

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