For a few decades now, it has been generally accepted by most college basketball fans living outside the state of Kentucky that Duke-North Carolina is the sport's best rivalry. That assertion has been increasingly called into question in recent years thanks largely to the national success of both Kentucky and Louisville, and partly because of the parrallel relationship between social media and the need to debate everything.
As a native Louisvillian who deals with the insanity of the Cards vs. 'Cats rivalry every single day of the year, I am reluctant to cede any passion points to the feud on Tobacco Road. I am, however, more than willing to make this admission: North Carolina-Duke is still college basketball's most recognized rivalry, and there's a perfectly understandable explanation for that.
The main reason Carolina-Duke succeeds as a "must-watch" rivalry (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 both the consistent success of each program, and the historical competitiveness of the games that comprise the series.
Hate the fact as much as you want, but the name "Duke" is still more synonymous with college basketball than any other in the country. 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 has also been one of the sport's highest-profile programs both all-time and in recent years, winning national titles in 2005 and 2009 as well as 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 some of the country's top talent, future professionals also happy to achieve the highest level of success during their sometimes-brief stay in college.
The tables have turned a little bit in recent seasons, with Coach K bringing in one-and-done talent like Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor, but there's still a sense, rightly or wrongly, of conflicting ideals at play. The dueling philosophies angle might not be as seductive as the culture clash present in Kentucky-Louisville, but it has resulted in an unrivaled combination of sustained success.
The last 136 times these two teams have played, at least one of them has been ranked in the Associated Press Top 25. The last time neither was ranked by the AP was on Feb. 27, 1960, and even then, North Carolina was No. 12 in the coaches' poll. The last meeting where neither was ranked in either poll was Feb. 25, 1955. In all, UNC has owned a national ranking in 108 of the past 135 meetings with Duke, and the Blue Devils have also been ranked in 88 of those matchups.
In evidence that might strike a stronger chord with those not impressed by deep history, either Duke or North Carolina has been a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed in every NCAA Tournament since 2004, and one of them has been a top seed in all but two of those big dances. If you want to go back a little further for an even more insane statistic, every Final Four played from 1989 to 2001 except one featured the Blue Devils or the Tar Heels. The two teams have also combined to win seven of the last 23 national championships.
Of course, individual success of the highest order doesn't always translate to great games, but that has not been the case here. Remarkably, the combined score of the past 79 Duke-UNC games comes out to 6,314-6,306. The Devils lead by a mere eight points. Jeff Capel's buzzer-beater, Tyler Hansbrough's bloody face, Austin Rivers over Tyler Zeller; these are moments that even the most casual of college basketball fans are familiar with, and that's why the series remains the sport's most visible.
People who don't like North Carolina-Duke look at it the same way the general public looks at 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 person chasing the same top prize. And yet still, everyone watches and everyone picks a favorite because the importance of the game/election in the grand scheme of things is readily apparent.
If you're looking to attend a game where you can experience what pure hatred filling an entire arena is like, go to at least one Kentucky-Louisville clash. But if you're looking for a contest that's almost guaranteed to feature two top 15 teams playing at the sport's highest level, book a late winter trip for either Chapel Hill or Durham.
Duke and Carolina have earned their place in the national spotlight through sustained success and impossible to forget games in a series that resumes Wednesday night. Whether you love to hate the rivalry or just plain love it, you're going to be watching.