College basketball's only national rivalry
Posted February 13, 2013
DeLoss Dodds, the University of Texas director of athletics, recently undressed the sport of college basketball using the phrase "in shambles" to describe its current state. Dodds looked at stagnant (at best) television ratings, the perceived talent drain to the professional game and sagging attendance in general, and he aimed his barbs straight at the heart of college ball.
There are valid points to be made about the lack of upperclassmen in the sport. Five of the first 10 players selected in the most recent NBA draft were college freshmen. In all, 18 of the 30 selections last June had completed just one or two years of college, a record. In all, over the last five years, the college game has lost 33 of its best freshman players to the NBA, and if you don't think the quality of play has suffered at the top of the sport you haven't been paying attention.
Wednesday at 9 p.m. at Cameron Indoor Stadium, talk of the game in shambles, the decline in talent and sagging TV ratings and game attendance will garner nary a mention because the highlight of college basketball's regular season is here. Throw out all of those other classic match ups. Toss aside Michigan-Indiana, Louisville-Kentucky or Georgetown-Syracuse, great, traditional rivalries all. Duke versus North Carolina is the only national rivalry in college basketball.
The game airs at 9 p.m. on WRAL-TV and 620AM The Buzz. Stay tuned for postgame celebrations, coaches' press conferences and fan celebrations.
Of the five top-rated college basketball games since 1990 on ESPN, four of them are Duke-North Carolina match ups. When ESPN launched ESPN2, they did so by slotting this match up for the sister network, hoping to entice cable providers to make the new channel more available to basic subscribers. That Jeff Capel and Jerry Stackhouse provided two of the most memorable highlights in rivalry lore only adds to the mystique. Stackhouse authored the greatest dunk in series history, posterizing both Erik Meek and Cherokee Parks during a reverse, tomahawk, fast-break jam that has been shown on TV more than Duke games themselves. Capel's career highlight, for what it's worth, was in the same game, a running, 30-footer as the horn sounded that forced a second overtime.
That the Blue Devils lost that game matters only to the participants. So too, may be the fact that those teams could not have been more different. Duke would win only two Atlantic Coast Conference games that season, the only sub-.500 conference mark for the Blue Devils in the last 30 years. Meanwhile, that North Carolina squad boasted two of the top four players selected in June's NBA draft and was headed for the Final Four. Still, Carolina's double-overtime win provided an indelible memory for anyone lucky enough to experience these games over decades of match ups.
No one needs to hold a benefit for college basketball. It isn't the NBA or the NFL or Major League Baseball, or even college football, which, due to the evil Bowl Championship Series, has become a national phenomenon.
Television ratings are lower because so many more games are available every night. Wednesday alone, there are 15 college basketball games available on my cable system. Fifteen!
More so than the professional behemoths and college football, college hoops is a regional game. The only exception to that rule is showcased when the Tar Heels and Blue Devils meet. And while it doesn't always produce the best game, it is always captivating and steeped with historical timestamps and everlasting memories.
Because it's more than just a game when two of the most decorated, most storied programs in the history of the sport, two programs separated by a mere eight miles of asphalt yet joined by decades of similarities, get together for the first time each year. It's an event: The unofficial start of bubble season, college basketball's version of a pennant race.
And best of all, it's ours. The rest of the nation is just lucky we're nice enough here in the south to share it with them.