RALEIGH, N.C. — In the span of about an hour on Tuesday, in buildings about 10 miles apart, in rooms connected to the home courts where their basketball teams play, Hubert Davis and Mike Krzyzewski attempted to make the same point — that their players must somehow find a way to block out just about everything that will surround them this week.
“I told the guys, you’ve got to turn down or turn off the noise from the phone, the family and the friends and the fans,” said Davis, the first-year coach at North Carolina. “And focus on what’s ahead of us.”
“I know there’s going to be TV, radio, a Duke guy, a Carolina guy, and they’re going to be talking stupid stuff to one another and that means nothing,” said Krzyzewski, in his 42nd and final season at Duke. “But that’s what sport for fans is about. It’s not for coaches. And it’s not for players.
“Let’s just stick to what we’re doing.”
It can be difficult enough for both men to help their teams silence the noise of the average regular-season game between the two, given that Duke and North Carolina almost always play amid considerable hype and attention — the endless ESPN television promos; the millions watching on TV; the pressure to perform on one of college basketball’s grandest stages. That and more has all long become inherent to the Duke-Carolina basketball rivalry.
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But this? There’s no playbook for this, no blueprint; no past experience that will be comparable to what’s coming for the Tar Heels and Blue Devils. Davis can tell his players to turn off the phones and turn down the noise, just as Krzyzewski can implore his team to ignore the talking heads, who undoubtedly will have much to say as Saturday grows closer. For two teams that know each other well, though, planning the X’s and O’s and the match-ups might be the easy part now.
The more difficult part: The pursuit and calm and poise amid “the noise,” as Davis called it.
This is, after all, historic even for two schools that have made no shortage of college basketball history. For after everything — after 102 seasons and 257 games competing against each other; after more than 4,500 combined victories; after 11 combined NCAA championships — Duke and North Carolina on Saturday will do what no Duke or North Carolina team has ever done. They’re playing each other not only for the first time in the NCAA tournament, but in the Final Four in New Orleans.
It is difficult to do justice to the moment in words, though fans of both teams attempted to do so when they responded earlier this week to an invitation from The News & Observer to share some thoughts about what this week would be like, leading into what’s undoubtedly among the most anticipated college basketball games ever. Those who responded shared feelings of dread and elation.
Mostly dread, though, given the impossibly high stakes.
This is not for regular-season bragging rights or first place in the ACC or a conference tournament championship or even to send off Krzyzewski a winner in his final home game, as the Blue Devils failed to do earlier this month in what was considered, at the time, to be the ultimate trump-card moment in the history of the rivalry. Well, until now, that is.
Duke will either avenge that earlier loss while securing its place on the final Monday night of the season, or the Tar Heels will move onto the national championship game while dealing the Blue Devils a devastating, historic blow for the second time in a span of five Saturdays. No pressure.
“I’m gonna have to watch that game in a (expletive) bunker, man,” wrote one fan. “Go Heels.”
“The ultimate trump card,” wrote another.
“Let’s be honest,” went another. “I’m gonna have to drink to get through this.”
“I didn’t want this. I’m not sure it’s good for the rivalry. Whoever wins will forever have the upper hand. … This is going to be a very stressful week. It’s like watching a hurricane coming from thousands of miles away. I’m not sure there’s a bright side if our boys lose.”
And on it went, fans insisting that they wouldn’t be able to watch; others writing that they’d find a way to watch above all, even during a wedding; still others questioning how to watch, whether alone or with friends, and wondering how they’d handle it if their team lost.
This is only a game, yes, but the anxiety surrounding it is enough to conjure visions of a sporting apocalypse or, at least in North Carolina, the sort of scenario that Bill Murray’s character described in the movie Ghostbusters. In the scene, the film’s titular characters are meeting with the mayor of fictional New York to describe what might happen if the paranormal activity gripping the city isn’t stopped. Murray’s Peter Venkman warns of the impending chaos:
“Human sacrifice; dogs and cats, living together — mass hysteria!”
And so it is with a Duke-Carolina national semifinal. As if their meeting in the Final Four isn’t enough of a storyline, it also happens to intersect with that of Krzyzewski’s final season, and his quest for one last national championship to end perhaps the greatest coaching career in the history of the sport. And then there’s the UNC side of things, where Davis resuscitated the Tar Heels after a start that had some fans questioning whether his hiring had been a mistake.
Both Davis and Krzyzewski on Tuesday expressed surprise that these programs hadn’t shared this sort of stage before, at least not in this way, given their long record of sustained success. The Tar Heels and Blue Devils have reached the same Final Four only one other time, in 1991. In the semifinals that year, Duke defeated UNLV after the Tar Heels lost against Kansas in a game that is remembered for Dean Smith’s ejection in the final moments. Had UNC prevailed, it would’ve played Duke for the national championship and “that would’ve been something,” Krzyzewski said.
As it is, though, the schools never again came all that close to playing each other on this stage, until now. As Krzyzewski pointed out, “Usually, we’ve (both) been high seeds, if we’re in, and if you’re in a high seed, they’ve tried to put conference teams where you wouldn’t meet until the end.”
Indeed, the Tar Heels and Blue Devils have been placed on opposite sides of the NCAA tournament bracket — ensuring they’d play no sooner than the national championship game — 20 times since 1985, when the tournament expanded to include 64 teams. There have been only 10 tournaments since then in which UNC and Duke could have advanced to play each other in a national semifinal, and one other, in 2004, in which they were seeded in the same region.
For all their shared history and similar success, the great majority of NCAA tournaments have come and gone without a Duke-UNC game ever becoming more than a fantastical what-if. This is the first time since 2011 that the Tar Heels and Blue Devils were placed on the same side of the bracket; it’s the first since 1998 that both teams advanced to a regional final in the same year.
“I can’t believe the last time that we’ve both in the Final Four was when I was 20 years old, in 1991,” said Davis, who was a junior guard on that UNC team. “And so I am surprised that it hasn’t happened before, and I think it’s very funny that the last two times that we’ve been to the Final Four (together), I’ve been to the Final Four.”
UNC is scheduled to arrive in New Orleans on Wednesday night, after departing RDU around 7:30. Duke, meanwhile, left on Tuesday. A couple of hundred Duke students and employees gathered outside of Cameron Indoor Stadium to see the Blue Devils off, and the spectators shrieked and cheered at the sight of Duke players who arrived to board the bus.
Some of those players, along with Duke assistants Chris Carrawell and head-coach-to-be Jon Scheyer, made their way along a barricade and traded high fives with those gathered.
“Let’s do it, let’s do it, y’all,” Carrawell said again and again as he made his way down the line.
Soon, Krzyzewski emerged to chants of, “We love you, Coach K!” It was his final appearance on Duke’s campus as the Blue Devils’ head coach, a position he has held since 1980. He smiled at those who cheered for him, offered a short wave and gestured as if to show he appreciated the support.
Soon he and his wife, Mickie, climbed into the bus, and not long after that, three sheriff’s deputies on motorcycles led an escort to the airport. Less than a month earlier, a much more somber scene engulfed Duke’s campus after that defeat against UNC in Krzyzewski’s final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Now he and the Blue Devils were on their way to New Orleans and the Final Four and the most unlikely of rematches, one that is the first of its kind and could well be the last.
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