Saturday’s game at Smith Center will be the 261st time North Carolina and Duke have met on the basketball court.

It only seems as though Armando Bacot, RJ Davis and Jeremy Roach have played in them all.

The trio of upperclassmen have been part of the best rivalry in college sports for the past 4 – and in Bacot’s case 5 – years.

That’s forever in today’s one-and-done environment. Long enough to experience nearly everything there is to experience in a series that has produced some of the best, most memorable moments in basketball history.

They’ve been through COVID, a Final Four, Coach K’s farewell – twice – the first time since 1960 in which the Tar Heels and Blue Devils were both unranked when they played and now, the first time since 2019 that they’ll meet when both ranked in the top 10.

It’s been a wild and eventful ride that has helped each of them cement their places in the epic legacy of the unique matchup between blue-blood programs located only 8 miles apart.

And yet, as players on both sides noted Thursday, playing in it never gets old.

“It doesn’t matter if we’re top-ranked or not top-ranked. It’s going to be a bloodbath every time we step across those lines,” Roach said.

“Every time you play in it,” Bacot added, “it seems to get bigger and bigger and more stuff is at stake.”

The stakes will never get higher than they were 2 seasons ago, when they met at Cameron Indoor Stadium in the final game of Mike Krzyzewski’s Hall of Fame career and then again 4 weeks later in New Orleans in the national semifinals.

Bacot, Davis and UNC got the best of Roach and Duke in both of those games.

While Saturday’s renewal will only be the first of 2 regular-season games this season with little more than 1st place at the midway point in the ACC schedule on the line, it has special meaning to the most senior members on both teams.

This is their last go-round. And you always want to leave on a high note.

“I gotta win it. Gotta go out on top,” Bacot said. “ I want to beat Duke 2, maybe 3 times this year. That’s really all there is to it.”

This first meeting is especially important to Bacot and Davis.

They’ve beaten the Blue Devils in Chapel Hill only once during their careers. And even then, it came in an empty Smith Center during the COVID season of 2020-21.

As much as the 3 veteran players have invested in the rivalry and want to beat the daylights out of each other on the court, they all have a healthy respect for each other that predates their arrival at their respective schools.

Bacot and Roach are both from Northern Virginia and have played with or against one another since they were in middle school. Davis, who’s from New York, got to know Roach well from going head-to-head against him on the AAU summer circuit.

All 3 currently share the same representation and have done some name, image and likeness deals together.

But that friendship will be checked at the door when they all get together Saturday.

“Stepping between the lines with those guys, it’s always a competition,” Roach said.

“We have a good relationship,” Davis added. “But whenever we face off with each other, we put that off to the side and just go out there and hoop.”

Each of the 3 veteran players has had his share of highs and lows in the rivalry.

Roach put up 20 points and 7 rebounds in a win at Cameron last year but suffered 2 heart-wrenching defeats amid the Coach K circus in 2022 – thanks in part to a pair of hot-shooting performances by Davis.

Bacot also played a major role in both of those games, scoring 23 in the win at Duke and then pulling down 21 rebounds in the rematch in New Orleans.

His most vivid memory other than the Final Four, however, came in a game with a much less enjoyable outcome – a 2020 loss in which Duke came from behind to tie the game in the final second of regulation and won as time expired in overtime.

“I can remember being on the bench with 2-3 minutes left,” said Bacot, who had fouled out by that time. “Me and (Christian Keeling) were like ‘Man, it’s going to be a fun time. We’re ready to beat them. We’re going to storm Franklin (Street).’ And they came back and won. That was an awful experience.”

It’s the kind of experience that comes with the territory in a game that means so much to everyone involved.

Or as former Blue Devils player and current coach Jon Scheyer put it, “This is the reason you come to Duke. To play in games like this.”

Same goes for UNC.

And yet, as much as freshmen Jared McCain of Duke and Elliot Cadeau of UNC or veteran transfers such as Harrison Ingram and Cormac Ryan might know about the rivalry through watching it from afar, there’s nothing that can adequately prepare them for the noise, the emotion and the intensity of actually being a part of it.

That’s where veterans Bacot, Davis and Roach come in.

All 3 will be called on to try and help educate their 1st-time teammates on what to expect on Saturday. If anyone has the knowledge and experience to do it, it’s them.

They’ve been around forever, after all. At least it seems that way.