Despite high stakes, Krzyzewski and Davis downplay historic UNC-Duke Final Four matchup
For the first time ever, the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels are going to play each other in the NCAA Tournament.
The men’s basketball teams from Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill will square-off on Saturday in New Orleans in the Final Four. On the line is the right to play for a national championship.
“It’s the most amazing day in college basketball, to bring four champions together and then play for another championship,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
Ahead of their first-ever postseason meeting, Krzyzewski and Tar Heels’ coach Hubert Davis held press conferences on Tuesday with local media, but both coaches tried to downplay the significance of Saturday’s historic game.
You can’t go into the Final Four just thinking rivalry, payback or any of those things. You got to go in thinking, ‘We want to win a championship.’
“I haven’t looked at it as us against Carolina,” Krzyzewski said. “I’ve looked at it as: ‘We’re playing in the Final Four.’ So, the history of that, I’ve not paid any attention to.”
Davis is doing his best to ignore the magnitude of the rivalry, keeping the focus on his team.
“The significance of it? I don’t know and I don’t really care and I’m not even thinking about it,” said Davis, who is the sixth Tar Heels coach to reach the Final Four. “Duke-Carolina, the significance, Coach K’s last season – those things, even though that is a story, and that’s relevant, it doesn’t help us on the floor.”
Similarly, Krzyzewski – who is retiring at the end of the season – isn’t looking back at the Blue Devils’ previous two meetings with the Tar Heels. Duke and Carolina split regular season games, with the Blue Devils winning 87-67 at the Dean Dome on Feb. 5, and then the Tar Heels taking a 94-81 victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium on March 5, spoiling Krzyzewski’s final home game.
“You can’t go into the Final Four just thinking rivalry, payback or any of those things. You got to go in thinking, ‘We want to win a championship.’ This is who we are now,” Krzyzewski said. “And we got to beat them. And then we got to beat someone else. And if you go in with those other two things, there’s a good chance you’re not going to win.”
It will be the 21st Final Four appearance for the Tar Heels, who have now gone to more Final Fours than any other program in the history of Division I men’s college basketball. The Blue Devils have been 17 times, with 13 of those trips coming during Krzyzewski’s 42-year reign in Durham.
While Davis did his best to not feed into the rivalry while talking with reporters, he did admit that he was surprised that Duke and Carolina had never met in the NCAA Tournament before.
“I can’t believe that the last time we’ve both been in the Final Four was when I was 20-years-old,” Davis said. “I think it’s very funny that the last two times we’ve been at the Final Four, I’ve been at the Final Four.”
Duke-Carolina, the significance, Coach K’s last season – those things, even though that is a story, and that’s relevant, it doesn’t help us on the floor.
Indeed, the last time – and only other instance – where Duke and Carolina both made the Final Four was in 1991, but the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels were on opposite sides of the bracket. Back then, Davis was a starter on a Tar Heels squad coached by Dean Smith that lost in the semifinals to a Kansas team coached by Roy Williams. Duke beat the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels in the semifinals and then bested Williams and the Jayhawks for the national championship, which was Duke’s first as a program.
“As big and exciting as this game is... I’ve been to the Final Four. I played 12 years in the NBA. And so, it’s a game. There’s nothing to be nervous about,” Davis said.
Even back in 1991, according to Davis, the Tar Heels weren’t trying to look ahead to a potential meeting with Duke. They were focused on Kansas.
“No, that was not even talked about with Coach Smith. It would be a waste of time to think about a possible matchup, that we could play Duke. We were playing Kansas,” Davis said. “There was no thought, no time, I don’t have any memory (thinking about Duke).”
Saturday will be the first time that two teams from the same conference and the same state have met in the Final Four.
The Road Here
Both UNC and Duke have had their fare shares of ups and downs this season. In Davis’ first season at the helm, the Tar Heels started the season ranked in the AP Top 25 Poll, but then lost a pair of neutral site games to Purdue and Tennessee. Carolina started ACC play with a 4-3 record, and were projected to not make the NCAA Tournament after a home loss to Pitt on Feb. 16.
Still, Davis always believed Carolina had national championship potential.
“We had an ability to be a really good defensive team. And, at the beginning of the year, that was an area that was up and down,” Davis said. “And, over the last, I think, 10 or 11 games, we’ve held teams to 41% (shooting). We’re not only being good defensively – it’s been consistent.”
Since that loss to Pitt, UNC has won 11 of its last 12 games. It’s only hiccup was an ACC tournament loss to Virginia Tech. And now, Davis is the only person in the history of the ACC to play in and coach in the Final Four with the same team. He’s also the first since Bill Guthridge in 1998 to guide a team to the Final Four in his first season as a head coach.
“Why wouldn’t I stay positive? I love these kids. They’re great.” Davis said.
The Blue Devils have a 32-6 record, but with the shadow of Krzyzewski’s retirement hanging over them, they haven’t always played their best in big games – like the loss to Carolina in Cameron. Duke also lost in the ACC Championship game to Virginia Tech. Since that loss to the Hokies, Duke has rolled through the NCAA Tournament, winning by an average margin of 10 points.
“What happened during that time is that we played really good teams who played well against us, and we didn’t practice to that level,” Krzyzewski said. “So, that hurt us. Our approach hurt us.”
Back in 1995, Krzyzewski was asked by Sports Illustrated about how a potential matchup between Duke and Carolina in the national championship would impact folks in the Triangle. Back then, Krzyzewski told Alexander Wolff: “I can live with losing to any school. But what would happen in this area people-wise, if one of us beat the other in the (national) championship game, I wouldn’t wish on anybody. It would be so horrible.”
Asked about that quote on Tuesday, Krzyzewski said, “Well, I was a lot younger. And I’ve probably learned from my mistakes, in that regard. I think the area, no matter what, will still go on… The fan-bases are different, with the proximity, so it evokes things that can’t be done in other areas. So, go at it. Whatever. But I’m not going to be a part of it.”
Saturday’s game won’t be for the all the marbles, but it’s pretty close. The winner of Duke-Carolina will face the winner of Kansas and Villanova on Monday for the national championship. A win for Krzyzewski would be his sixth.
For the Blue Devils and Tar Heels, the stakes have never been higher.