Luke DeCock

Despite Virginia’s excellence, still more than enough on the line for Duke, UNC

‘On the court, it’s vicious’: UNC’s Roy Williams on the Duke-Carolina rivalry

UNC basketball coach Roy Williams talks about the Duke-Carolina rivalry and facing what he calls the most talented team the Blue Devils have put on the court since returned to UNC as head coach.
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UNC basketball coach Roy Williams talks about the Duke-Carolina rivalry and facing what he calls the most talented team the Blue Devils have put on the court since returned to UNC as head coach.

Thanks for nothing, Virginia. If it weren’t for the Cavaliers and their infuriating persistent and consistent excellence, the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament and the regular-season title would be indisputably on the line Saturday.

Alas, such matters are only at hand between North Carolina and Duke if Virginia loses to Louisville earlier Saturday, which would deliver the top seed to the Duke-Carolina winner in Chapel Hill.

Unlikely. But possible.

As things stand, North Carolina would share the title with Virginia if both win but lose the seeding tiebreaker, and Virginia would claim sole possession of the regular-season championship with a win and a Duke win.

So things are still very much up for grabs, but not nearly as up for grabs as they would be if not for Virginia, whose emergence as a third perennial ACC power has not only diminished the stakes typically attached to this second meeting of North Carolina and Duke but sent one or the other packing for the first weekend of the NCAA tournament when they normally would have shared in-state quarters in the past.

Virginia bumped Duke from Charlotte in 2018 and Raleigh in 2016 and North Carolina from Charlotte in 2015, although in a couple of those years, as when North Carolina was a No. 6 seed in 2014, it’s hard to blame Virginia too much. In the years before that (2009 and 2011 and 2012), North Carolina and Duke staying home together had pretty much become a foregone conclusion.

Not that it went very well for Virginia or North Carolina last year.

Naturally, the most recent year the tournament skipped North Carolina, because of House Bill 2, Virginia wasn’t even a factor, putting Duke and North Carolina together in Greenville, S.C., in 2017, when they should rightfully have been in Greensboro were it not for the disastrous fallout from HB2.

Virginia figures to do more bumping this year, with Virginia and Duke likely to be together in Columbia while North Carolina is packed off to Columbus or Jacksonville. North Carolina and Duke could potentially switch places depending on results over the next week, but at the moment the Blue Devils have the resume edge in the committee’s eyes.

But enough rambling about Virginia being so good. The Cavaliers will have determined basketball fate before Duke and North Carolina take the floor Saturday.

There’s still so much on the line here even if Virginia wins, which is entirely in keeping with the usual state of things in the second game. North Carolina is playing for a share of the regular-season title either way, and Duke is playing to get back on track after bumbling and stumbling through (almost all of) five games without Zion Williamson.

Even beyond the losses to North Carolina and Virginia Tech and the excruciating near-miss against Wake Forest, Duke hasn’t been the same team without Williamson. Hasn’t had the same swagger, the same confidence. Whether he plays or not, Duke needs to recapture that attitude before the postseason. Where better than Chapel Hill?

Never mind Duke hasn’t won a regular-season title since 2010, which may or may not be in play.

Another regular-season title would be less uncommon but no less meaningful for North Carolina, which has won two of the past three, the only ones in the past five years not claimed by Virginia. In some respects, the shadow of the 2017 national championship still hangs over this team, just as last year’s unexpectedly early exit does. That combination of expectations and disappointment is just one reason why this team seems to be on a mission to not only create its own legacy but leave last season behind.

And besides all of that, even if there was nothing on the line, it’s still Duke-Carolina, in the Smith Center, the biggest game they’ll play all season, at least until, roughly, next Friday or Saturday.

UNC coach Roy Williams talks about his admiration of Duke's Zion Williamson and recruiting him before he committed to Duke.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.