It's the game people in North Carolina don't want to see. Not many outside the state want to see it, either. But this much I can promise you:
|Beating Duke in the Final Four for UNC fans? Great. Losing to Duke in the Final Four? An absolute nightmare. (US Presswire)|
Which is ironic, considering most folks would rather it not happen. Around North Carolina, such a meeting is The Game That Must Not Be Named. People in that state don't root for it, don't pray for it, don't even talk about it. The stakes would be so high, and the losing side would be struck so low, that people in that state want no part of it. Winning that game would be heaven, yes, but losing it would be worse than hell.
No less an authority than Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski once said he hopes such a game never happens.
"I can live with losing to any school," he said in 1995. "But what would happen in this area, people-wise, if one of us beat the other in the championship game ... I wouldn't wish on anybody, it would be so horrible."
Outside the state, people aren't exactly clamoring for it either. It would mean Duke is in the Final Four, and it would mean North Carolina is in the Final Four, and for lots of folks that would be way too much. For whatever reason -- and I took a crack at this last season, before the Duke-Butler finale -- Duke is one of the most disliked schools in college basketball.
North Carolina doesn't generate national antipathy at that level, but the Tar Heels aren't exactly beloved. Like Duke, they long ago reached the point of saturation. They're on ESPN too much, and when they're on ESPN, they're usually beating someone. Perhaps your favorite team. And so you, and lots of people like you, wouldn't root for North Carolina (or Duke, duh) to reach the Final Four. Much less both schools getting there in the same season.
Yet here we are, two games away from the most cataclysmic game in decades.
Tempting as it is, I wouldn't call Duke-Carolina in the Final Four the most cataclysmic game in college basketball history, not with three other enormous games coming to mind:
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• The Bird-Magic game for the 1979 national championship. Some folks -- including CBS' Seth Davis -- say that ratings bonanza triggered the explosion of March Madness as we know it.
• The Game of the Century between UCLA and Houston in 1968, another March Madness ancestor that pitted two of the most dominant college players ever, Lew Alcindor vs. Elvin Hayes. The demand was so great that the game was played in the Astrodome, in front of a then-record crowd of 52,693, and became the first college basketball game to be broadcast nationwide in primetime.
• The national title game in 1966 -- amid the Civil Rights movement -- between Texas Western, with its black starting five, and Kentucky with its white starting five.
Not with a straight face could I say a Duke-Carolina Final Four would top all of those games, or any of those games. But it would be the biggest game in this tournament, bigger even than the national title game two days later, and not just because it's Duke and Carolina in the Final Four.
It also would represent Krzyzewski's first chance at career victory No. 903, which would break the record of his mentor, Bob Knight.
Can you imagine that? Duke beats Carolina on a Saturday night to eliminate the Tar Heels, propel the Blue Devils into a chance at a repeat national championship, and move Coach K past Knight for the all-time wins record? A record held for years by former UNC coach Dean Smith? It's almost too much to comprehend.
So is the flip side: North Carolina ending Duke's hopes of a second successive title, putting the Tar Heels a victory away from the title and forcing Coach K to sit on 902 wins for an entire offseason.
A lot has to happen between now and the Saturday night in question, of course. Duke has to beat Arizona in the Sweet 16 and then either UConn or San Diego State for the West Regional title. All of which seems likely, frankly.
But in the East Region, North Carolina would have to get past Marquette -- I'm assuming it will -- and then beat either Ohio State or Kentucky in the Elite Eight. The Tar Heels already have beaten Kentucky this season, barely, at home. So that's possible. But North Carolina over Ohio State? Ouch. Not sure that's possible.
But we can dream, and that's what I'm doing. Dreaming of a Duke-UNC meeting in the Final Four, and not out of cruelty. Not so I can watch an entire fan base -- whichever side loses -- sprint face-first into a jagged nightmare. I'm dreaming of Duke-UNC in the Final Four because it would be the biggest game of the year in this sport. Or any other sport.
And you'd watch. Whether you like it or not.