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Duke vs. North Carolina in Coach K’s last Final Four feels too good to be true

Two of the biggest programs in the sport on the sport’s biggest stage in what could be the biggest name in the sport’s final game? Unbelievable.

Duke v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

There’s always some Duke-North Carolina fact that’s so outrageous it makes you think there’s no way it could possibly be true.

Like how at least one of them has been a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed in every NCAA tournament but one since 2004.

Or how absurdly even the series has been over the last half-century:

Or how absurdly close things have been since Coach K was hired.

Or how every Final Four played from 1989 to 2001 except one featured either the Blue Devils or the Tar Heels.

Or how, before the COVID-eclipsed season of 2020-21, either UNC or Duke had been nationally ranked in the AP top 25 poll for each one of their meetings dating all the way back to Feb. 27, 1960 ... and even then, North Carolina was No. 12 in the coaches poll.

In summary, there’s a reason ESPN typically rolls out the first of the two guaranteed meetings between the Devils and the Heels on the week after the Super Bowl. There’s no better way to kick off college basketball’s unofficial second season than with the sport’s most famous and widely recognized rivalry.

Despite all that history and despite all those facts, there’s always been one chapter of the Duke-Carolina rivalry the sports world has been waiting longer than George R.R. Martin enthusiasts to read.

Next Saturday night in New Orleans, it’ll be written. Duke and North Carolina will meet in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament for the first time in history.

The script isn’t 100 percent Hollywood perfect, but it’s damn close.

Yes, North Carolina is an 8-seed that was beaten by 17 points or more four times during the regular season. Yes, the biggest storyline surrounding this Duke team coming into the tournament (outside of, you know, the thing) was that the Blue Devils were almost certainly not deserving of being a 2-seed. But every other storyline within arm’s reach of the shortest sportswriter more than makes up for the fact that these might not be two of the greatest teams ever fielded by these perennial national powerhouses, even if one has a couple of more wins left in them.

For starters, the first NCAA tournament meeting between Duke and North Carolina happening on Final Four Saturday in Mike Krzyzewski’s final season is bonkers enough to make pretty much anyone at least Google simulation theory.

Not enough? Sprinkle in a little bit of this:

Three weeks ago it seemed like North Carolina had given Coach K the ultimate retirement gift: A 94-81 ass-kicking in Krzyzewski’s final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. A clearly perturbed K having to speak to a large group of fans, family and former players in a pre-scheduled postgame ceremony was so sweet it almost felt excessive.

And then a little bit of this:

Following UNC’s upset win in Durham, members of the Duke coaching staff either refused to shake first-year Tar Heel head coach Hubert Davis’ hand or refused to look him in the eyes when they did.

“I don’t know what that’s about,” Davis said after the game. “I didn’t play against him. I don’t know him personally.”

Chris Carrawell, the Blue Devil assistant who refused to shake Davis’ hand, said afterward that it was retaliation for Davis not being on the court for the traditional pregame handshakes with members of the Duke staff.

Still not buying into the hype?

What if I told you that once upon a time, the major thing the basketball world knew about Coach K was that he couldn’t seem to ever win the big one? What if I added that all of that narrative was obliterated in 1991 when Duke toppled Kansas to win its first national title? And what if I finished by telling you that the Jayhawks are in the Final Four on the other side of the bracket, setting up the possibility for Krzyzewski to go out with a national championship game win over the team that he also beat to reach the mountain top for the first time? Jim Nantz is already salivating.

In another odd piece of symmetry, the last time the Final Four was played in New Orleans, another pair of hated rivals — Kentucky and Louisville — battled for the right to (potentially) face Kansas two days later. The heavily favored rival that year (Kentucky) went on to win its semifinal game and topple the Jayhawks to claim the national crown.

Looking for a Carolina angle? How about the opportunity to create an even more imperfect curtail call for your ultimate foil?

Closing the door on K’s history in the rivalry with style was incredible. The only thing that could possibly be better would be closing the door on K’s history, period, with style. Having a first-year head coach on the sidelines — one who some had said seemed in over his head just a couple of months ago — to fully set the tone for the rivalry’s next era would only add to the experience.

For the first time in its lengthy and well-known history, the Tobacco Road Rivalry hitting the largest of college basketball stages. That fact is going to be hitting you in the face from every direction between now and around 9 p.m. on April 2 when the two blue-bloods tip things off inside the Superdome.

Maybe you’ll get annoyed with all of this talk, maybe you already are, or maybe you’re ready to ingest every bit of the hype over the course of the five days ahead. Regardless, you’re eager to see how this thing plays out, and you’re going to be watching when it does.

How could you not?

Two of the biggest programs in the sport on the sport’s biggest stage in what could be the biggest name in the sport’s final game. It’s almost more ludicrous than a 15-seed with a Peacock mascot crashing the party would have been.