North Carolina and Duke will play tonight in the first of (at least) two meetings between the arch-rivals. That means it's time for the rest of the sports world to start paying attention to college basketball.
Though it comes well after the literal halfway point of the season, the first meeting between North Carolina and Duke essentially serves as college basketball's All-Star break. Strategically scheduled the first or second week after the Super Bowl, the sport's highest-profile rivalry ushers in the frenzied seven week period in which the sports world transitions fro gridiron hangover to March Madness.
Serious hoop heads can tell you who won the Maui Invitational without giving it a second thought. They remember catching the bulk of the 24-hour marathon in November and have thoroughly enjoyed the madness of the first six weeks of conference play. For the rest of the sports world, however, the season starts with tonight's de facto "Tip-Off Classic." Refresher courses for the preceding three months are generally taken through Google searches and glances at the current AP Top 25 poll.
There are more than a few college basketball diehards who object to the fact that The Battle of Tobacco Road is the sport's foremost series and rivalry, but it's an established status that won't be challenged anytime soon.
The public's biggest problem with Duke vs. UNC -- aside from the fact that it's shoved down their throats, pulled out and then shoved back down at least one more times every winter -- is that the claimed "hatred" between the programs doesn't seem genuine. There doesn't appear to be the same history of pure vitriol between the players, coaches or (most importantly) fan bases like there is with Kentucky-Louisville, Kansas-Missouri (R.I.P.) or even Cincinnati-Xavier. Roy Williams did once say he'd rather beat UNC's in-state rival than eat ... but he was talking about NC State. When it comes down to it, there's almost too much respect between the two programs for a culture that's always thirsty for a fight.
Detractors view Duke-North Carolina the same way the general public views a presidential primary. These two have their differences and they act like they legitimately hate each other when on television, but they're essentially the same dude chasing the same top prize. Still, everyone watches and everyone picks a favorite because the importance of the game/election in the grand scheme of things is readily apparent.
The main reason Carolina-Duke succeeds -- in addition to having the advantage of playing its games during a period when flipping over to football isn't an option -- is because of the success of each program.
Hate the fact as much as you want, but the name "Duke" is still more synonymous with college basketball than any other in the game. Fans gripe about the Blue Devils constantly popping up on their television and slapping the floor, but it's a nuisance they wouldn't be plagued with if people didn't want to watch them play ... even if replacing "play" with "lose" makes that sentence more accurate.
North Carolina, meanwhile, has been the sport's top program for the past decade, winning national titles in 2005 and 2009, and crashing another Final Four in 2008. In the same way their rivals from Durham are known for "grit" and "teamwork," the Tar Heels have earned the reputation of possessing the country's top talent, future professionals also happy to achieve the highest level of success during their sometimes brief stay in college.
The result of the dueling philosophies is an unrivaled combination of sustained success. The last 130 times these two have played, at least one has been ranked in the Associated Press Top 25. The last time neither was ranked by the AP was on February 27, 1960. But even then, North Carolina was No. 12 in the coaches' poll. The last meeting where neither was ranked in either poll was February 25, 1955. In all, UNC has owned a national ranking in 107 of the past 131 meetings with Duke, and the Blue Devils have also been ranked in 86 of those matchups.
In evidence that will strike a stronger chord with those not impressed by deep history, either the Blue Devils or Tar Heels have been a No. 1 seed in every NCAA Tournament since 2004. They've also combined to win one third of the last 21 national championships.
Individual success of the highest order doesn't always translate to great series games, but that has not been the case here. Remarkably, the combined score of the past 75 "Battle of the Blues" comes out to 6,030-6,013. North Carolina leads by 17 points. Jeff Capel's buzzer-beater, Tyler Hansbrough's bloody face, Austin Rivers over Tyler Zeller a year ago; these are moments that even the most casual of college basketball fans are familiar with, and that's why the series gets top billing.
High-profile teams playing extremely competitive games is an unrivaled recipe for success in the sports world. It's the reason the Duke-North Carolina rivalry is - like it or not - the "face" of college basketball, and why Wednesday night's game ushers in the sport's unofficial second season.