Basketball college  ACC          Duke  North Carolina '91

North Carolina and Duke met in the ACC tournament championship game in Charlotte in 1991. Both reached the Final Four, where Coach Roy Williams' Kansas Jayhawks defeated his mentor, Dean Smith, and the Tar Heels. Smith was ejected late in the game for arguing with officials. Duke beat Kansas to win its first NCAA championship under Coach Mike Krzyzewski.

CHUCK BURTON / AP

What goes around comes around.

And vice versa.

Duke and North Carolina. North Carolina and Duke.

Two universities separated by a creek will come together once again Thursday night in the 246th meeting between the Tobacco Road rivals in what has become nothing less than the best rivalry in all of college sports.

And while the coaches and even the players try to tamp down the stakes and mute the noise, the fans of this remarkable rivalry won’t allow it. And while the national media and a nation of coaches watch from afar to try to explain it, we’re once again reminded that unless you’re here, you can’t.

To those on either side of New Hope Creek, the relationship is about far more than basketball. While there are those who pretend to hate the other, those closest to the heart of the rivalry itself feel something far more reserved, something closer to respect.

For the most part.

And it’s about more than basketball.

In 2015, the Nobel Prize for chemistry went to three scientists, one of them from Carolina and one from Duke. Together with Tomas Lindahl, they’d studied how cells repair damaged DNA.

+4 
Aziz Sancar

Dr. Aziz Sancar, one of the three scientists to receive the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2015.

At the news conference announcing the prize, Aziz Sancar of Carolina and Paul Modrich of Duke joked about the rivalry while burying the sword.

“He may not know this, but even though we all hate Duke, I have been nominating him for the last, I would say, 10 years for the Nobel Prize,” Sancar said.

+4 
Paul Modrich

Dr. Paul Modrich, with his dog Dover in Rumney, N.H. Rumsey was one of three scientists, including Dr. Aziz Sancar at Carolina, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2015.

That’s a far cry from the noise you’ll hear Thursday night. When the doors close behind the crowd inside the Dean E. Smith Center, it will seem as if the very DNA of the rivalry is being tested once again.

And this isn’t even that big of a game.

There have been far bigger games than this one, which will pit ninth-ranked Duke against 21st-ranked Carolina. Twice, the schools have met ranked 1-2 in the nation. This will be the 146th straight game in the series when one or both of the schools were ranked, a streak going back to 1960.

In fact, since the inception of the AP basketball poll, one of the two has been ranked in 164 of the 178 meetings. This will be the 80th time both schools are ranked.

There have been brawls and controversies, simmering feuds between players and coaches, pranks between the student bodies that were in fact felonies never solved.

+4 
web hardin 020718

North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough after being struck by an elbow from Duke’s Gerald Henderson during their game on March 4, 2007, in Chapel Hill.

And yet, the schools have never met in the NCAA tournament, and a lot of us hope they never do.

“There’s a respect there,” Coach Mike Krzyzewski said of the rivalry with Carolina. But he also understands how fragile that respect can be sometimes. Several years after arriving at Duke, he was asked about how the game affects those who can only watch and scream.

“You see doctors, lawyers, businessmen, politicians and professors kind of lose it,” he said.

Carolina coach Roy Williams said the emotions rise and fall with the characters of those involved.

“There’s much more of a bond amongst the players than the fans, by far,” Williams told HBO Sports a few years back. “For the fans, there is the hatred, if you want to go that far, the animosity, the desire to have your team beat the other team by 4,000 points. But there is a bond with the players.”

Though it’s not so much the case now, in recent years the Duke players would go over to the Carolina campus and play pickup games with the UNC players over summer. In time, that would change and the Carolina players would go over and play against the Duke players.

For a short period of time, the players shared barbers and sat in the same chairs and joked with and about each other.

Those days seem quaint now, but they’re a part of the lore of this rivalry.

Now the schools are more likely to compare Rhodes Scholars. In 2000, the two universities came together to form the Robertson Scholars, merit awards that allowed students to study at both Duke and Carolina.

That’s a far cry from the early 1970s when Carolina fans mocked Duke for being the first of the two to play in the NIT, the secondary national tournament in which Duke played in 1967, 1968 and 1970. But what goes around comes around in this rivalry. In 1971, for the only time in history, both Duke and North Carolina played in a national tournament against each other.

+4 
Basketball College Games NIT Tournament  1967

Duke's Mike Lewis rebounds against Southern Illinois during the 1967 National Invitation Tournament in New York City.

It was the Final Four of the NIT. Carolina won that game 73-69. It was a harrowing experience for both schools.

Then 20 years later, UNC suffered its greatest ignominy when both schools ended up in the Final Four of the NCAA tournament and Dean Smith himself was ejected in a semifinal game against Williams and Kansas, setting up Duke’s first national championship two days later.

What goes around comes around. The current runs deep. And it's much bigger than just a game.

Earlier this year, a lawsuit was filed accusing the Duke and UNC medical schools of conspiring NOT to hire each other's doctors, nurses and faculty. The case, based on one doctor's wish to move from one medical school to the other, is pending.

Two great universities will come together Thursday in what some will see as the game of the year in the greatest series in the history of the sport and others will see as just the next chapter of Duke-Carolina.

But first, all the students will go to class, some on one side of New Hope Creek and some on the other. And a few possibly even going to both.

Get today’s top stories right in your inbox. Sign up for our daily newsletter.

Contact Ed Hardin at 336-373-7069, and follow @Ed_Hardin on Twitter.

Recommended for you