Duke vs. North Carolina Final Four: The Tobacco Road Rivalry Finally Meets in March Madness

by Chris Haney
(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

If you have friends or family that are alumni or dedicated fans of North Carolina or Duke, you might want to check on them. We’ve all been a bundle of nerves for the past week and it’s just getting worse the closer we get to Saturday night. I don’t want to overhype their upcoming Final Four matchup, but I’m going to since it’s arguably the biggest college basketball game of all time.

It’s shocking that the two blue blood schools and longtime rivals have never met in the NCAA Tournament. The universities are two of college basketball’s premier programs and each has had considerable success in the tourney. Yet after all these years of both schools making the NCAA Tournament on an annual basis, fans are just now going to witness college basketball’s biggest rivalry during March Madness. To make it that much crazier, they’re facing off in the Final Four with a trip to the National Championship on the line.

As Duke and North Carolina take center stage inside the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans this weekend, basketball fans across the nation will tune in. Don’t be surprised if the game breaks viewership records considering the magnitude of the matchup. Along with the wild statistics that encompass decades of UNC-Duke showdowns, which prove how close the rivalry truly is from a competitive standpoint, there are countless storylines to follow going into the Final Four. First up, the storied rivalry by the numbers:

UNC-Duke Rivalry By the Numbers

  • 258th all-time meeting, 1st-ever meeting in the NCAA Tournament
  • UNC leads all-time series 142-115
  • Under Coach K, Duke leads series 50-47
  • Duke leads UNC 14-9 in ACC Tournament wins
  • In the two school’s last 100 games, they’re tied 50-50
  • NCAA Tournament Wins: UNC – 130 (1st NCAA), Duke – 118 (3rd NCAA)
  • NCAA Final Four Appearances: UNC – 21 (1st NCAA), Duke – 17 (2nd NCAA)
  • National Titles: UNC – 6 (3rd NCAA), Duke – 5 (4th NCAA)
  • Duke Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski – 1,202 wins (1st NCAA), 5 NCAA Titles (2nd NCAA), 13 Final Fours (1st NCAA)
  • UNC Head Coach Hubert Davis – 28 wins, 1 Final Four (*First season as UNC head coach)

Duke Looking For Revenge Against North Carolina

It’s been an interesting season for both programs, to say the least. Once again, Duke had a top recruiting class led by freshman phenom Paolo Banchero. Therefore the expectations have been through the roof, per usual, for Coach K’s team. The team had its ups and downs in the regular season but never came close to falling out of the Top 25. In fact, the Blue Devils had the No. 1 offense in the country the entire season, including the NCAA Tournament.

As for North Carolina, they entered the season without their Hall of Fame head coach Roy Williams who retired in the offseason. No one expected a national title run out of this Tar Heels team, but expectations are always high in Chapel Hill as well. UNC struggled early in the season with a mix of returning players, recruits, and multiple transfers. They even fell out of the Top 25 for a portion of the season. However, Carolina righted the ship and rattled off 11 wins in their last 13 regular-season games.

Of course, that was highlighted by a huge upset of Duke in the last game of the ACC regular-season schedule. Duke beat Carolina in the Dean Dome earlier in the season. Yet the Tar Heels marched into Cameron Indoor Stadium on the return trip and ruined Coach K’s going away party, which was his last home game ever in Durham. Unranked UNC’s 94-81 victory over No. 9 Duke has haunted the Blue Devils ever since.

Players and coaches from both universities have attempted to downplay their upcoming Final Four game. But everyone knows, including the players and coaches, how big of a deal this historic matchup is for their programs and fans alike.

Coach K’s Last Season Before Retirement

There’s plenty to be said for Mike Krzyzewski and his Duke Blue Devils. He’s the winningest head coach in NCAA men’s basketball history and has every accolade that any coach could ever hope to achieve. His accomplishments since taking over Duke in 1982 are undeniable, even for a UNC fanbase that loathes their rival neighbors.

The landscape of college basketball will look very different next season without Coach K on the sidelines. Just a few months after his longtime rival Roy Williams announced his retirement in the offseason, Krzyzewski revealed that this would be his last season at the helm of the Blue Devils program. We’ve known all year that his time as Duke’s head coach would end in the 2022 NCAA Tournament. The only question is would Coach K’s career end with a tournament loss, or would he get his storybook ending and go out on top with his sixth championship?

North Carolina has its second chance to spoil Krzyzewski’s farewell tour on Saturday. However, Banchero and his teammates will be looking to not only get revenge but also to move on to the title game and send Coach K out with one more trophy to add to his extensive cabinet.

Hubert Davis’ First Season In Charge of the Tar Heels

Head coach Mike Krzyzewski of the Duke Blue Devils talks with head coach Hubert Davis of the North Carolina Tar Heels (Photo by Jack Dempsey/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

In stark contrast to Coach K’s iconic 40-year career at Duke, former Roy Williams assistant, Hubert Davis, is in his very first season as North Carolina head coach. As referenced earlier in the statistical comparison between programs, it’s almost comical to place Davis’ young career as head coach against Krzyzewski’s decades-long career. Yet here we are, one day away from the programs facing off in the Final Four for the first time ever.

As always in Chapel Hill, off years aren’t allowed no matter the situation with players or coaches. Yet anyone in their right mind that would have expected a Final Four run in Coach Davis’ first season is kidding themselves. For a time, it looked as if North Carolina might actually miss out on the NCAA Tournament altogether. They made every major media source’s “First Four Out” list, but dug themselves out of that hole by playing their best basketball late in the season.

After an impressive run to the Final Four as a No. 8-seed, Coach Davis is now in rare company. Hubie Davis is only the 10th head coach in men’s NCAA Tournament history to lead his team to the Final Four in his first season in charge. Further, he’s the only individual in ACC history to play and coach in the Final Four for his alma mater. North Carolina fans can’t ask for much more in Davis’ first season as head coach.

Duke, North Carolina, and the Biggest Game in NCAA Basketball History

Many college basketball analysts have said that all the pressure is on Duke to help Coach K cut down the nets one last time before retirement. In addition, many say Coach Davis and UNC are playing with house money since no one expected them to make it to the Final Four. Let us assure you that both sides feel the pressure and are more than aware of the historic implications of the matchup.

There’s only been one other time that the two teams came close to facing off in the NCAA Tournament. That was in 1991 when both UNC and Duke also made the Final Four, but they were on the opposite sides of the bracket. Duke beat UNLV to move onto the title game, but UNC faltered and ironically lost to a Roy Williams-led Kansas team. Duke would go on to beat Kansas and earn Coach K his first of five championships to date.

Now, 31 years later after their near-collision in the title game, college basketball fans are finally being treated to “the” game. After decades of intense matchups that have made UNC-Duke one of the best rivalries in all of sports, somehow they’ve outdone themselves once again, and just in the nick of time before Coach K retires. In a rivalry series that seems to never disappoint, and always delivers memorable moments, basketball fans are in for another wild ride on Saturday on the grandest stage of them all – the Final Four.