Seven years ago, a North Carolina basketball team visited N.C. State for a game that has the same feel as the one that will be played today at 9 p.m. in the RBC Center.
On Jan. 26, 2003, the Tar Heels were 11-6 overall and 2-2 in the ACC. State was 10-4 overall, 3-1 in the league and coming off a nine-point win over Duke in the RBC.
Carolina lost the game, 86-77, and Tar Heels coach Matt Doherty soon lost his job. The Heels dropped their next three en route to a 16-14 (6-10 ACC) record entering the conference tournament.
Roy Williams, who became Doherty's successor a few weeks later, obviously is not in any sort of job jeopardy. Never will be. But it's not much of a stretch to think his team (1-3 in the ACC) will lose control of its season if State (2-4) wins this game.
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A Wolfpack win and it's a near lock the Tar Heels will depart the court to "NIT" chants, which would be another analogy to the 2002-03 season.
It all adds up to something more than simple awkward footing for the Heels in the series.
Since 2002-03, State has one win over Carolina. The majority of the outcomes have been so one-sided that the sense of real rivalry has been worn threadbare. Included in the Tar Heels' run was a 95-71 win in the RBC Center on Feb. 22, 2006, that still qualifies as one of the defining moments in Herb Sendek's decade-long tenure as the Wolfpack's coach.
In fact, it's been so rare that the stakes were high on both sides that none of the current players on either roster can identify with that situation.
And while it's unlikely that the winner tonight suddenly will emerge as a hot contender for the league title, the downside for the loser is steep enough to create some of the tension that once was a staple of any State-Carolina meeting.
A win and the Pack, which was picked for last place in the ACC, has a decent shot at making the midseason turn at 4-4.
A Carolina loss and the Tar Heels very well could turn at 2-6, in last place or perhaps tied for last, and heading directly into the first game of the season against Duke.
The general drift of the ACC to this point has been toward a finish in the 9-7, 8-8, 7-9 range for several teams. Last season, five teams fell into that category, and that was without a single 8-8 finisher among the 12 entrants.
Not very long ago, the popular thinking was that the first State-UNC meeting of the season would find the Heels no lower than second in the standings and the Pack no higher than 10th.
But it didn't take long for the Tar Heels to play themselves into a corner, and it only took one game against Duke for the Wolfpack to get a glimpse of its potential. Suddenly, there's some long overdue mystery back in a rivalry that once was as compelling as any in the sport.