College Basketball

Why Duke-UNC rivalry starts so late this year

Duke guard Austin Rivers is mobbed by teammates after he hit a 3-pointer as time expired to beat UNC 85-84 on Feb. 8 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill.
Duke guard Austin Rivers is mobbed by teammates after he hit a 3-pointer as time expired to beat UNC 85-84 on Feb. 8 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill. cliddy@newsobserver.com

So this is what it’s come to.

The first Duke-North Carolina meeting of the year will occur Wednesday in Durham with the ACC regular season nearly two-thirds complete. The return match will come in Chapel Hill on March 7.

At this rate, if the date of their initial engagement recedes much further through the calendar, the rivals’ home-and-home series will be a doubleheader.

Meanwhile the newly – and quietly – branded ACC tournament looms less than three weeks after the first clash of the Blue Devils and Tar Heels. The date of the North Carolina-Duke game and the sale of tournament naming rights – a touch of commercialization the ACC long resisted – were dictated by television, the governing entity in college sports.

The most recent ACC contract gave ESPN the option to sell tournament naming rights, a privilege it took for a three-year spin.

Ironically, when the league convenes in Greensboro to determine the New York Life ACC tournament champion, it will do so without its single New York member. Syracuse is voluntarily skipping postseason play in apparent strategic anticipation of NCAA sanctions.

TV also dictated shoehorning the Blue Devils and Tar Heels into a period when the NBA is on all-star hiatus and the NFL is in the rear-view mirror.

The game is a feature of ESPN’s rivalry week, along with a pairing of those ancient basketball antagonists, Virginia and Pittsburgh. They’ll be playing for the 13th time ever, compared to 239 for UNC and Duke.

Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers are the ACC’s hot new flavor. Their success conjures memories of the best of UVa basketball, most of it 20 or more years past. Almost as refreshing, Virginia’s contained style is apt to irk folks who crave scoring, and dismiss defense, in order to sustain interest in any sport they watch.

The rise of Virginia

During the past two years, as arbiters of basketball taste fretted over the game’s modest scoring, the ACC added several programs noted for high-powered offense. Yet it’s Virginia that has prospered with an artfully minimalist offense averaging 66.6 points per game.

Last season Virginia averaged 66.2, 12th in the league, en route to a first-place finish and the ACC championship. If the Cavs keep it up, this would be the third year in a row, and only the eighth ever, a first-place ACC finisher averaged fewer than 70 points.

Other noteworthy instances: Miami in 2013 (69.7-point average), UNC’s 1982 NCAA championship squad with James Worthy, Sam Perkins and Michael Jordan (66.7), and Duke’s 2004 Final Four team (62.1).

Far more obvious, though, is UVa’s ability to stifle opponents, holding them to a measly 50.9-point average prior to facing Pitt the other night. That scoring defense is tops in Division I (for the second year in a row) and would be second-best in ACC history, after N.C. State’s 49.1 points allowed per outing under Jim Valvano in 1982.

Last week at Raleigh, playing for the first time without injured wing Justin Anderson, arguably the Cavaliers’ most impactful player at both ends of the court, the second-ranked visitors beat N.C. State 51-47.

In its preceding game, Virginia likewise smothered Louisville, one of those newly added ACC offensive juggernauts, holding the Cardinals to 13 points in the first half of a 52-47 victory. Anderson is expected to return before season’s end.

Virginia’s fortunes, like those of Georgia Tech and Wake Forest, have fluctuated markedly over the years, with periods of prosperity – Final Fours in 1981 and 1984, an ACC championship in 1976, and National Invitation Tournament titles in 1980 and 1992, all but the last under coach Terry Holland – alternating with long stretches of obscurity.

Bennett used to delight in reminding listeners that, upon his 2010 arrival, UVa had been to a single NCAA tournament in eight years and three in 14. Now the Cavs are about to earn their third NCAA bid in four seasons.

Starting four upperclassmen in an era when many coaches can’t stop lamenting their squads’ youthful inexperience, Virginia reeled off 19 straight wins to start the 2014-15 season. (There must be something special about a 15-member league – last year, the ACC’s first at that size, Syracuse opened with 25 consecutive victories.)

The Wahoo express derailed at home against Duke, but that was the only blemish in the opening two dozen games, tying a school record.

Top-10 rivals

Virginia’s run-out might leave the Tar Heels and Blue Devils in unfamiliar roles as pursuers, but doesn’t detract from the neighbors’ first matchup.

For decades their games automatically have been season highlights, at least beforehand, transforming a multitude of ACC fans into history buffs eager to savor the series’ lore. Key to appreciating past encounters is this single fact: 1955 was the last time neither Duke nor North Carolina ranked in the Associated Press poll at their initial meeting.

Fifty-four times, including this year, one or the other was a top-10 team when they first met. That’s Duke this season. Fifteen times both were in the top 10. UNC has been up and down in 2015, on the floor and in the polls.

Regardless, precedent built on nearly 60 years of consistent excellence burnishes every clash – without resort to hype from anyone.

The second annual meeting between UNC and Duke – a lingering echo of defunct round-robin play – is traditionally held on the last day of the regular season. That hasn’t changed since 1957.

Now that the ACC tournament is a five-day, Tuesday-through-Saturday affair, there’s barely time to catch a breath before turning to the end of league play and the only opportunity for competitive equality afforded its basketball participants.

Syracuse’s voluntary abstention because of academic improprieties figures to be a topic of tournament talk. At least Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim need not be present to discuss the situation, or to suffer a visit to Greensboro, a city he mocked as a backwater despite hailing from a metropolis with half as many residents.

Syracuse’s absence marks the third time in 62 years the ACC will stage its tournament with a member school missing. Maryland was involuntarily sidelined at Charlotte in 1991 because of NCAA restrictions incurred under coach Bob Wade.

The only other team absent from the conference’s concluding party was North Carolina in 1961. Hall of Fame coach Frank McGuire, a critic of the ACC tournament, anticipated NCAA punishment and withheld his team from the ’61 edition. He’d been caught supplying money to a New York recruiting operative and then manufacturing receipts to account for expenses.

McGuire departed the next season to coach the NBA’s Philadelphia Warriors and center Wilt Chamberlain. That left it to UNC Chancellor William Aycock and, presumably, athletics director Chuck Erickson to entrust the reins of the basketball program to a virtually anonymous 30-year-old assistant.

“Don’t embarrass the university,” Dean Smith recalled Aycock’s instruction. “He didn’t want any problems. He wanted good students and he wanted no fights on the court and no NCAA problems. He said, ‘Do it legally, and don’t worry about winning.’”

By all accounts, despite a slow start as a head coach, Smith did all right.

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