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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: Both UNC and Duke are finally good again, and that’s the way it should be

Assistant Sports Editor: Daniel Wei
Assistant Sports Editor: Daniel Wei

It always delivers. Well, until it doesn’t.

The one time I covered a UNC-Duke men’s basketball game was coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final trip to Chapel Hill in 2022. The Daily Tar Heel's then-sports editor PJ Morales invited me (I'm pretty sure it was just because press row had an extra seat) and I was ecstatic beyond belief. Who wouldn’t be?

But I watched, dumbfounded, as AJ Griffin dropped 27 points in the Blue Devils’ 87-67 win — Krzyzewski’s second-largest victory in the Dean E. Smith Center. For college hoops’ greatest rivalry that supposedly “always delivered," it was underwhelming to say the least.

And while the next two months’ events — UNC spoiling Krzyzewski’s Cameron Indoor Stadium curtain call and the once-in-a-lifetime Final Four meeting — practically shooed that blowout into insignificance, I still haven’t forgotten.

Which is why, as The DTH newsroom works around the clock for its annual rivalry edition, I can’t help but notice why this matchup just feels different from recent years. Let’s start with the obvious reason.

Is it crazy to say that UNC and Duke are finally both good again?

Think back to five years ago — the last time both blue bloods were ranked heading into this matchup. There were five future NBA lottery picks between the two squadsNorth Carolina’s Coby White and Cameron Johnson, along with Duke’s Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish. Round it out with another All-American in UNC’s Luke Maye, and you’ve got yourself a top-8 showdown. 

Both teams went on to earn No. 1 seeds in the 2019 NCAA tournament. But since then?

North Carolina’s 14-19 record in 2020 was the only losing season of coach Roy Williams’ 33-year career. Duke followed it up in 2021 with its worst finish in over 25 years, going 13-11.

The 2022 season blessed us with a monumental stroke of fate, but even the bluest of hearts could understand that the No. 8 seeded Tar Heels were never expected to make it that far in the Big Dance. It’s called a Cinderella run for a reason.

Duke’s 63-57 and 62-57 wins in 2023 were close, but close doesn’t always mean easy to sit through. Nobody wants to watch two unranked teams shoot sub-40 percent from the field on national television in two of the lowest-scoring rivalry games in the last 20 years.

And even if last year’s scores were flipped, I’d still be sitting here, writing the same column. My job is to report on UNC basketball, not root for it. This isn’t the team website.

All that being said, the mediocrity of one — or both — programs in recent years only dampened the hype that the Tobacco Road rivalry is typically known for. Thrillers like Tre Jones’ takeover in 2020 were the exception, not the rule. To rephrase ESPN analyst Jay Bilas’ iconic phrase around this time of the year, UNC-Duke has sometimes delivered in recent years.

Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, right?

But on Saturday, Feb. 3, No. 3 North Carolina and No. 7 Duke have a chance to restore their neighborly feud to the greatness it’s been known for. With both programs back in the national spotlight, it’s shaping up to be an instant classic.

RJ Davis and Kyle Filipowski are playing at All-American levels. Rookie guards Jared McCain and Elliot Cadeau have been sensational to watch. Scrappy do-it-all wings Mark Mitchell and Harrison Ingram will go head-to-head.

Sure, you could point to a myriad of other storylines, like how Caleb "Cameron Killer" Love won’t be there this time. But ultimately, the main difference about Saturday’s matchup just boils down to this: at long last, UNC and Duke are both good again.

And regardless of which shade of blue you're pulling for, nothing should be more exciting than that.

@danielhwei

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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Daniel Wei

Daniel Wei is a 2023-24 assistant sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. He has previously served as a senior writer. Daniel is a junior pursuing a double major in business administration and economics.