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UNC vs. Duke Rivalry Caps Off Men's Basketball’s Weird COVID Season

North Carolina head coach Roy Williams reacts during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Louisville in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.
Gerry Broome

Last July, when the men’s basketball players at UNC-Chapel Hill returned to campus for the first time, head coach Roy Williams was, as he says, “scared to death.”

The pandemic was raging on and a vaccine wasn’t available yet. This is Williams’ 18th season as the head coach of the Tar Heels and he spent the prior 15 seasons at Kansas. He’s been around college basketball for a long time and seen a lot of things, but he didn’t have a manual for how to coach his players amid COVID-19.

“You know, COVID-19, there's no blueprint, nobody had any idea what the heck we were going to face,” Williams said during a Zoom call Thursday. “I think if you told all the coaches we were going to play as many games as we played, I think they would have been surprised… It's been a challenge all year long. And it is still a challenge.”

Indeed, college basketball has looked, felt and sounded much differently this season. Fans have been scarce, players have been socially distanced on the bench, coaches have worn masks, and games have been postponed, rescheduled and canceled. Some players – and teams, like the Duke women – have opted out of playing completely.

“For everyone coaching, it's been their most incredible season,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said earlier this week on a Zoom call. “Because you are dealing with so many things. And the very first thing you're dealing with is the physical and mental health of the kids that you have the honor to coach.”

Through it all, college basketball went on. The men’s teams at UNC and Duke conclude their regular seasons this Saturday at the Smith Center by rekindling their long standing rivalry. It will be the 255th meeting between the Tar Heels and the Blue Devils. The  series between the two schools separated by less than 11 miles has been played since 1920.

Aside from the implications of COVID-19, something else is odd about this college basketball season. Neither Duke nor North Carolina are being discussed as contenders for the Atlantic Coast Conference crown, much less the national championship. Neither team is guaranteed to even make the NCAA tournament, and neither are ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll.

For two programs which have combined for 36 Final Four appearances, 12 national championships and 53 ACC titles, that’s just straight-up weird.

“This is unusual, but, from my viewpoint, I don't know that it makes any difference at all between the two teams or the two coaches," Williams said. "It's still Duke vs. North Carolina, an ACC game to end the regular season. For me, we're just going to try to play as well as we can play and see what's going to happen.”

UNC and Duke squared in men's basketball last month at Cameron Indoor Stadium. It was the first time since 1960 that neither team was ranked.
Credit Natalie Ledonne / Courtesy of the ACC
Courtesy of the ACC
UNC and Duke squared in men's basketball last month at Cameron Indoor Stadium. It was the first time since 1960 that neither team was ranked.

Flexible schedules, unpredictable play

UNC’s schedule this season has been full of anomalies and inconvenience because of COVID-19. The Tar Heels had four ACC games postponed, three of which were set to be played at home at the Dean Dome.

Additionally, between Jan. 12 and Feb. 23, UNC played four straight ACC games on the road, marking the first time the Tar Heels had done that since the 1964-65 season. To indicate how long ago that was, the South Carolina Gamecocks were still in the ACC – they left the conference in 1971, when Williams was a student at Chapel Hill. UNC has also had five non-conference games canceled.

A year ago, UNC played 33 regular season games. This season, they’ll finish with 25 games-played heading into the ACC tournament.

When the Tar Heels have taken the court this year, their play has been unpredictable. If anything, they’ve been consistently inconsistent.

Just take a look at their last four-game stretch. After thumping a decent Louisville team, the Tar Heels took a 13-point loss four days later to a below-.500 Marquette team inside the Smith Center. Then, three days later, they turned around and beat then-ranked No. 11 Florida State by eight points. And then, on Monday night, UNC lost on the road to Syracuse. Overall, the Tar Heels are 15-9 and 9-6 in ACC play.

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi’s Andy Katz are projecting the Tar Heels to be a No. 10 seed in the NCAA tournament, but they are by no means a lock to make the Big Dance. A loss to Duke and a quick exit in the ACC tournament next week in Greensboro could be a disastrous recipe for UNC’s postseason hopes.

Duke in danger of missing postseason

Duke, on the other hand, has much more work to do to secure its spot in the NCAA tournament, according to those latest projections. Lunardi has the Blue Devils among his “first four out” and Katz doesn’t mention them in his projected field.

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski greets Jordan Goldwire (14) as he is introduced before an NCAA college basketball game against Pittsburgh, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Pittsburgh.
Credit Keith Srakocic / AP
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski greets Jordan Goldwire (14) as he is introduced before an NCAA college basketball game against Pittsburgh, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Pittsburgh.

"The season hasn’t gone how we’ve wanted, but we just try to keep our head down and keep working every day,” Duke sophomore forward Matthew Hurt said after a Feb. 13 win over N.C. State. “The most important thing is us, and if we just focus on ourselves getting better and better every day, whether it's the weight room, whether it’s on the court – everything.”

The Blue Devils have been streaky this season. Beginning at the start of the new year, Duke won two in a row, then lost three straight, then won two more, then lost three straight again. Krzyzewski’s side seemed to turn the corner in mid-February when they broke off a four-game win streak, highlighted by a victory then-ranked No. 7 Virginia – giving Coach K his 100th victory over a team ranked in the top 10 of the AP Poll.

But that recent roll came to a frustrating halt in the past week, as Duke lost a pair of games in overtime – at home vs. Louisville and on the road vs. Georgia Tech. Still, despite Duke’s record, Coach K has been impressed with his players.

“I’m really proud of my guys. They’ve hung in there,” Krzyzewski said. “There’s nothing you can compare this year to.”

So, now saddled with an 11-10 record, Duke’s season is on the ropes. Not counting last year’s tournament that was canceled, the Blue Devils are in danger of missing their first NCAA tournament since 1995.

“Over the years, we’ve been very fortunate, so I don’t know if the basketball gods are evening things up a little bit,” Krzyzewski said after Duke’s loss to Georgia Tech.

Like UNC, Duke has also had its hurdles with the pandemic. The Blue Devils had three non-conference games canceled and saw two of their ACC games get postponed. They’ll finish the regular season having played three fewer regular season games than the Tar Heels.

‘The rivalry is there regardless’

When Duke and UNC met earlier this season at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 6, it was the first time since 1960 that the two teams were facing off without at least one of them ranked in the AP Poll. UNC won that game 91-87, sparking an ill-advised celebration on Franklin Street that was frowned upon as the country continued to battle the pandemic.

One thing that will be different about this Saturday’s game will be the presence of fans. Duke hasn’t allowed fans – or media, aside from the crew necessary to broadcast games on TV – all season long. The absence of the Duke student section, better known as the Cameron Crazies, was noticeable for Blue Devils’ junior forward Joey Baker in the team’s tough loss to UNC last month.

“We fought all game and it would’ve been nice to have the Crazies just giving us that extra push,” Baker said. “We all know how important they are for us, especially in the UNC games. We missed them.”

UNC sophomore Armando Bacot throws down a dunk on Feb. 6, 2021 at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Credit Natalie Ledonne / Courtesy of the ACC
Courtesy of the ACC
UNC sophomore Armando Bacot throws down a dunk on Feb. 6, 2021 at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

But following a loosening of COVID restrictions from Gov. Roy Cooper announced last week, UNC began allowing a limited number of fans into the Smith Center. Cooper made it so large indoor arenas could host up to 15% capacity. There were about 3,200 Tar Heel fans in the building last Saturday to see UNC beat Florida State. The Tar Heels are 9-1 at the Smith Center this season, with or without fans.

“I think the players really appreciate the group that was here last weekend,” Williams said. “The crowd was sensational. They were in it. They were in it the whole game. They were important to us at the end.”

The vibe of the Duke-Carolina game will be different than it was when the Heels played Marquette or Florida State. There’s isn’t a No. 1 seed or an ACC championship on the line this season – just bragging rights. And any year on Tobacco Road, that’s enough to make it a big deal.

Even with their cheers muffled by masks, Williams expects the smattering of folks in the stands Saturday to make the importance of the rivalry feel familiar in a season where not much has.

“It is Duke-North Carolina,” Williams said.  “The rivalry is there regardless.”

Mitchell Northam is a Digital Producer for WUNC. His past work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, SB Nation, the Orlando Sentinel and the Associated Press. He is a graduate of Salisbury University and is also a voter in the AP Top 25 poll for women's college basketball.
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