Take the Red Sox-Yankees, Alabama-Auburn, Ohio State-Michigan and any other rivalry that is a worthy competitor, but none of them equal the Duke-North Carolina basketball rivalry. None of them.
Had the Red Sox been worth a darn prior to 15 years ago, aside from a few flare-ups, that rivalry might have an argument. But the bottom line is the Yankees have dominated the series over time, and great rivalries can’t be so lopsided.
Alabama and Auburn have been at their combined best in recent years going back-and-forth on the last three BCS championships, but Auburn football over time should never, ever be compared to UNC or Duke basketball.
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The Buckeyes and Wolverines are a tremendous rivalry and belong in the discussion, but they’ve each won just one national title since the late 1960s, and both have had rather lengthy mediocre stretches in each of the last two decades.
Army-Navy, Oklahoma-Texas, Kentucky-Louisville, Giants-Dodgers, Cardinals-Cubs, Celtics-Lakers, Eagles-Giants, and so on, are great rivalries that should not be diminished, but none are Carolina and Duke.
The Tar Heels and Blue Devils square off tonight at the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill for the first of at least two meetings this season, and the environment will be off the charts. It always is.
What separates this series from the others isn’t just that both are two of the best three or four programs in the history of college basketball, nor is it because they’ve exchanged back-to-back national titles twice in the last 20 years and have combined to win seven during that frame to go with 16 Final Four appearances, or because they’ve dominated what is historically the best conference in college hoops.
It also isn’t because Duke and UNC have done things the right way and without scandals, their players graduate and the programs have built families without peer in sports. With respect to Bama and Auburn, Ohio State and Michigan, and so many others, they simply have no case on the topic of integrity.
But it also isn’t because the schools are just eight miles apart, and the players often find themselves using the same barber, going to the same movie theater, or even dating siblings from the other side, like injured UNC guard Dexter Strickland dating Duke freshman Austin Rivers’ sister.
And it isn’t because perhaps the two greatest coaches in the history of the sport led these programs into greatness, and another Hall of Famer has stepped in to continue the amazing run in Chapel Hill.
It’s because of all of the above.
Duke and North Carolina is the greatest rivalry in American sports because it offers the fiercest level of competition between teams that are loaded with future NBA talent and almost annually are in contention for national championships. And they do this exercising integrity that has been slowly slipping away in all walks of American life for a long time now, and at an alarming rate in sports.
Duke and UNC play in unmistakable arenas, wear unmistakable uniforms, have coaches and players who have been, are and will be household names. Their games are memorable and epitomize competitiveness. How’s this as evidence: In the last 75 games played vs. each other, Duke has scored 5,858 points while UNC has scored 5,857.
It doesn’t get any closer than that and it doesn’t get any better than Carolina and Duke.