Close calls, upsets, bad luck: Why Duke and North Carolina have never met in the NCAA Tournament. (Yet ...)
UNC and Duke fans can’t agree on much, but every year on Selection Sunday, both engage in the same exercise: They scan the bracket, find their hated rival, hold their breath and wonder whether this will be the year it finally happens.
Usually, they are on different sides of the bracket … the lone possibility of the ultimate meeting coming on the final Monday night of the season. Occasionally, they’re targeted to meet in the Final Four. Just like this year.
The potential for a Final Four or title game showdown has existed seemingly forever. Some years, like this one, it’s been more realistic than others.
This year marks the 16th time that UNC and Duke appeared in the same Sweet 16.
That means this is the 16th time they’ve had the potential to send the other back home early and permanently scarred to RDU International.
Despite so frequently being on this path to what would be the most consequential game in this storied rivalry’s history, sometimes thisclose, they’ve never met in the NCAA Tournament.
Here we are again. One win away from history.
Duke is in the Final Four, thanks to a beatdown of Arkansas on Saturday night. UNC must take out Cinderella Saint Peter’s on Sunday afternoon to get there. If the Tar Heels win, their reward is a date with Duke — in New Orleans, no less, the exact spot everybody outside of North Carolina learned who Micheal Jordan was.
We’ll spend all week looking ahead to next Saturday’s potential showdown. But for now, let’s look back on the 15 previous times these rivals who are famously separated by 8 miles and share the same area code (#919) were staring straight ahead at each other in the Sweet 16 before fate intervened.
This was Krzyzewski’s 6th team — and best to that point.
Duke started 16-0 — and then UNC handed them their first loss in Chapel Hill in a typical UNC-Duke scoring fest. Call it a rivalry hangover, but 3 days later, Duke lost to Georgia Tech. They didn’t lose again until the national championship game.
Like most years, Duke and UNC were on opposite sides of the bracket, meaning a potential Round 3 could only occur in the national championship game.
Alas, UNC’s run ended with a loss in the Sweet 16.
North Carolina swept the season series against Duke and showed up in the Sweet 16 as a red-hot No. 1 seed.
Kenny Smith, now a senior, was UNC’s star, but 6 other Tar Heels also had at least a cup of coffee in the NBA.
Dean Smith’s talented Tar Heels reached the Elite 8 but lost to Syracuse.
Duke’s run ended in the Sweet 16 in a loss to eventual champion Indiana. Mentor (Bob Knight) got the better of mentee (Mike Krzyzewski).
Duke beat UNC 3 times that season, including in the ACC Tournament championship game.
Round 4 could have happened in the NCAA Tournament championship game — but both fell short. UNC lost in the Elite 8. Duke reached the Final Four but lost to Kansas.
Again on opposite ends, a national title game was their only chance to meet.
UNC, which beat Duke twice, including in the ACC Tournament championship game, lost in the Sweet 16. The Blue Devils shook off the ACC final loss and made it to the Final Four, where nothing went right in a 95-78 loss to Seton Hall.
North Carolina and Duke could have met in the Final Four, with the winner advancing to the title game.
Duke held up its end, beating UConn in the Elite 8.
UNC, an 8 seed despite sweeping Duke in the regular season, lost to Arkansas in the Sweet 16.
Duke then toppled Arkansas to reach the title game, where they walked into the biggest national title game beatdown in history — a 103-73 loss to the UNLV Running Rebels.
Oh, so, close!
Duke beat UNC twice, but the Tar Heels gained revenge in the ACC Tournament, beating Duke in the championship game.
UNC was a No. 1 seed in the East. Duke was a No. 2 seed in the Midwest.
Both reached the Final Four — the only time that’s happened.
Duke gained revenge against Larry Johnson and UNLV, knocking out Grandmama to reach the national title game.
Kansas spoiled the historic meeting, however, beating UNC 79-73.
Two days later, Mike Krzyzewski celebrated his 1st of 5 national championships.
Again, the brackets teased a national championship winner-take-all.
Duke repeated as national champions, but UNC was never a threat to derail that dream. The Tar Heels lost in the Sweet 16 to Ohio State.
Both made it to the Elite 8 again, allowing fans to dare to dream — again — about a national title game showdown.
UNC made it to the Final Four, but Kentucky stopped Duke in the Elite 8 en route to the national title.
The wait continued …
They were seeded to meet in the Final Four, Duke as the top seed in the East, UNC the No. 1 seed in the South.
Alas, it didn’t happen. UNC got to the Final Four, but Duke’s run ended with a Sweet 16 loss to Florida.
Yet again, the draw teased to a potential blue-blood bath in the Final Four.
No. 1 seed North Carolina made it, en route to winning another national championship.
No. 1 seed Duke fell in the Sweet 16 to Michigan State.
ACC fans in North Carolina remember that bracket not only for the Tar Heels’ first championship under Roy Williams but also the what-could-have-been path.
In an alternate universe, UNC could have met NC State in the Elite 8 and then Duke in the Final Four. Alas, both rivals lost before either dream matchup could be played.
UNC lost in the Final Four in 2008, but was a near-lock to make it back as soon as Ty Lawson and Tyler Hansbrough announced they were spurning NBA interest and returning to Chapel Hill.
Led by upperclassmen, the Tar Heels went 34-4, winning by an average of 17 points. They swept Duke in the regular season, beginning with a 101-87 win at Cameron Indoor. UNC spent most of the year at No. 1 and never dipped below No. 5.
Duke was a No. 2 seed … and yet again on Selection Sunday, all eyes sped ahead to a potential Round 3 in the Final Four. Instead, Duke lost in the Sweet 16 to Villanova.
UNC sped through the field, winning every game by double digits to claim its 2nd national title in a 5-year span under Williams.
They could have met in the Final Four, but only UNC made it to the Elite 8. That was shocking considering Duke was a No. 1 seed and UNC was a 2 seed.
Once again on opposite ends of the draw, the drama faded quickly when No. 4 seed UNC lost in the Sweet 16.
Duke, seeded No. 1 and led by freshmen, potentially caught a break when an undefeated and supremely talented Kentucky team lost in the Final Four. Krzyzewski’s Kids then then took out Wisconsin to win his 5th and most recent national championship.
This time, the seeds were reversed and the results nearly the same.
No. 4 seed Duke lost in the Sweet 16.
No. 1 seed UNC cruised into the national championship game — winning its first 5 games by double digits — before falling in dramatic fashion to Villanova on Kris Jenkins’ walk-off 3-pointer at the buzzer. Jenkins’ shot spoiled arguably the 2nd biggest bucket in UNC postseason history — Marcus Paige’s double-clutched 3-pointer to tie the game in the final seconds.
Duke and UNC were No. 1 seeds on opposite ends of the draw.
Virginia also was a No. 1 seed — giving the ACC 3 of the 4 No. 1 seeds.
UNC exited in the Sweet 16. Duke bowed out in the Elite 8.
Virginia, on the wrong end of history the year before in its 16-vs.-1 upset loss to UMBC, rewrote the narrative, winning the first NCAA championship in program history.
Neither Duke nor UNC were in the Cavs’ way.
Here we are again. One final chance for Coach K to square off against his most bitter rival, the program that pushed him to raise his Blue Devils to the Tar Heels’ level.
Duke is there … waiting.
Can North Carolina join the fun?
We can only dare to dream.