DURHAM, N.C. — Nowadays, we’re always obsessed with what’s new. What’s the new best thing ever? What can supplant the thing we previously thought was the best thing ever? Unless we really like what the best thing ever used to be, of course.
And in college basketball, the best thing ever used to be — and, one might argue, still is — the Duke-Carolina rivalry.
Fans of the other two teams in North Carolina want no part of this discussion, understandably, and roll their eyes during Carolina-Duke week.
But the college basketball universe is eager to find the next big thing to replace it: is it Kentucky-Louisville, two schools that share plenty of hatred but aren’t even in the same league? Could it even be Duke-Syracuse, which certainly started off a potentially rivalry with an all-time classic a few weeks ago?
Or is this, actually, still the big thing?
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski thinks that it is.
"This is a great rivalry as opposed to a very good one. This is a great rivalry because it’s stood the test of time," Krzyzewski said. "When something is great, it means that it’s been there for a long time. It has a certain excellence about it that separates it from most. Our games against North Carolina over the decades have proven to stand that test of greatness and time and excellence. What do you need to have it be great and rivalry, Duke and Carolina can check all the boxes."
Still, there’s no denying that when No. 8 Duke (19-5, 8-3 ACC) heads to Chapel Hill for the first of two annual meetings with North Carolina (16-7, 6-4 ACC), it won’t have quite the luster it once did.
It will be the second straight year North Carolina will enter the game unranked, for one thing. In the last nine meetings, Carolina has been unranked in four of them. Duke has also won seven of the last nine.
The rivalry has ebbed and flowed over the years — as has the success of both programs, particularly Duke before Krzyzewski’s arrival — but it has been a hot one since the 1960’s, and just continued to grow and flourish ever since Krzyzewski’s arrival turned Duke into the program we know today.
North Carolina leads the all-time series 132-104, but since Krzyzewski’s arrival, neither team has had a win streak of more than seven games (North Carolina from 1993-96).
"We had a good run for awhile and they’ve had a good run here recently and I hope to live long enough to have another good run for us. But I don’t really focus on those kind of things," North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said.
"But sitting back and looking at it, I think it’s the greatest rivalry there is in college sports. I’m a basketball guy, so I’m always going to think basketball’s a better rivalry than anyone in football. It’s a very healthy rivalry. It’s one I think, again, out of respect and I think on both sides."
Duke sophomore Rodney Hood is from Mississippi, and he enjoys college football — and SEC football — more than most.
"Auburn-Alabama is truly hate," Hood said, pondering the question when asked to compare the two rivalries. "When I was growing up, (Duke-Carolina) was one of the most respected rivalries. It still is the most respected rivalry in all of sports. Just watching this game, you always wanted to play in a game like this. It’s just a different dynamic, but I think it’s just as big (as Auburn-Alabama), in my opinion."
For both teams, none of the players remembered a game that happened before the turn of the century. Which is understandable, since a college freshman would have been born in 1996 or so.
Unlike most college kids, though, they don’t lack for perspective.
"I just feel just the history and just the great players and the tremendous games here against each other, the success that both programs have had just for a long period of time, I think us two programs are just a cut above everybody," Duke junior point guard Quinn Cook said.
Not all of the players grew up watching college basketball like some of the rest of us did. Some of them needed a break from it when they weren’t playing it (understandable); some just had other interests.
But most, if not all, of them watched this game.
"I do remember the intensity level. It was just high. You could just tell both of those teams wanted it so bad. They were going back and forth against each other. One scored, another one scored," UNC senior Leslie McDonald said. "So it was just a high-intensity game and just by watching them, you respected them. You respected these two high-caliber teams going against each other, and everybody in America is watching."
Both of these teams have already played big games against big-time programs this year, so a game against each other is nothing new to them. They know what it looks like, what it feels like.
It can be tough, they said, to keep calm.
McDonald remembers his freshman season, taking the court against the Blue Devils, when all those memories of the games he watched flooding back to him.
"It was nerve-wracking when I was a freshman, just thinking, ‘Hey, I used to watch these teams go at it on television and now I’m playing for one of these teams. I’m in it. I’m in the rivalry.’ It was overwhelming at first but now, you’re used to it," McDonald said.
Yes, the Syracuse-Duke rematch on February 22 will have more meaning in the ACC race. Syracuse might still even be undefeated at that time, and it’ll be a revenge game for Duke. Maybe neither Carolina-Duke game this year will mean much in the grand scheme of things.
That doesn’t mean it’s ready to be replaced as the top rivalry in the ACC — not just yet, anyway.
"(It would take) one or both of us to go bad for a generation. If you go bad for 1-2 years, you’ve still got the old folks who are going to remember all the heated battles," Williams said. "So I think it’d have to go for a long, long time to erase what Coach (Dean) Smith and (Krzyzewski), that rivalry that they had for such a long time. I think it would have to go dead for a long period of time before people forget that."
It’s not dead yet.
Cook encapsulated the feeling well: around the Durham and Chapel Hill area, it’s like nothing else matters. At least, not if you care about college basketball. The air crackles with nervous energy, and it’s a feeling, something tangible.
"On Wednesday, you guys will be able to feel it in the air that it’s a Duke-Carolina matchup," Cook said. "I just think that it’s a cut above in front of all rivalries in the world."