It's not as if Duke-North Carolina needs any extra hype. The two teams enter Wednesday's game as No. 2 and No. 3 in the rankings, 3 and 4 in the RPI and 4 and 7 in kenpom.com's ratings. Duke (19-1) hasn't lost since Dec. 20. The Heels (21-1) won their first 18 games.
UNC's Tyler Hansbrough is the leading candidate for Player of the Year, while only Kansas and Memphis have a deeper bench than Duke (maybe UConn and Tennessee, too).
That alone would make it a monster matchup. Throw in the history between the two schools, and it's MEGA.
But, because it's Carolina-Duke, we get one more angle, involving Duke's Gerald Henderson and Hansbrough's nose.
To be honest, I'd nearly forgotten about that bloody play from last March, when Henderson's right arm struck the All-American in the nose, sending him crumpling to the floor. As a result, a brawl had to be averted, Henderson was ejected and Hansbrough wore a protective mask for the ACC Tournament and part of the Big Dance.
Now, with Henderson heading back to the Smith Center for the first time since that foul, I expect the game to be a little more heated than normal. But just a little. After all, it's Duke-UNC. It's always gonna be big.
About a week ago, my buddy Ben (die-hard Nebraska and Big 12 guy) and I were talking about Kansas and what kind of challenges the Jayhawks would have during conference play. Texas, for sure. Maybe A&M, maybe Baylor and maybe K-State (better than either of us thought). But we didn't consider Missouri, which makes me a little sad. Kansas-Missouri used to be one of THE rivalries that the networks had to broadcast and the national media swarmed upon. Now, it's just another game, with heightened local implications.
And without a major media market to ramp up the interest, Ben and I bemoaned the demise of KU-Mizzou as a rivalry. Frankly, I'm wondering if all the college hoops rivalries are going the same way.
Traditional ones like KU-Mizzou, Purdue-Indiana and Cincinnati-Xavier have lost national interest, mostly because one team dropped off as a hoops power. Even Kentucky-Louisville – two teams that have remained hoops powers – doesn't have the spark it used to nationally. To be clear, I think the localized interest is great -- and maybe even better in some ways because of how intense it can get -- but it's hard to get non-hoops diehards or non-local fans to care about what can be essentially two college towns going for bragging rights. (Maybe it's the timing. Playing after the NFL season is key has always been key to attract casual fans.)
Only North Carolina-Duke remains the must-see rivalry. This is because of two things: TV and the traditional excellence of both teams. Duke and Carolina are perennial title contenders with huge national fan bases. They churn out NBA players and their coaches are recognized as two of the game's best.
Still, the cynic in me wonders if even Carolina-Duke will always stand the test of time. When Coach K leaves, will Duke always be relevant? When Roy Williams retires, will Carolina endure another downswing? And if either happen, will ESPN still build a "Rivalry Week" schedule around their game? After all, Army-Navy football used to be the Duke-Carolina college football equivalent.
Maybe I'm being too pessimistic. Maybe the new rivalries – UCLA-USC, Florida-Tennessee, Marquette-Louisville, Texas-Texas A&M – will flourish. Maybe the traditional ones will be revived (Purdue-Indiana, with their combined records of 36-8 would be a good place to start).
Maybe both will happen. Then Ben and I can relive the good old days.