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Posted: Tuesday February 10, 2009 3:10PM; Updated: Wednesday February 11, 2009 6:12PM

Mythbusters: Duke vs. UNC rarely lives up to the hype

By Jacob Osterhout

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The intense look on Tyler Hansbrough's face sums up the heated North Carolina-Duke rivalry.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It's that time of year again when college basketball fans go nuts over what many consider the greatest rivalry in sports. On Wednesday night, No. 3 North Carolina travels eight miles down the road to play No. 6 Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

So let the hyperbole flow like the swallows of Capistrano. This is why Dick Vitale hired a personal masseuse for his vocal chords. This is why North Carolina coach Roy Williams hits the tanning salon. This is why Mike Krzyzewski still has a full head of black hair after 29 years of coaching Duke.

But before we submerge ourselves in the whole "Dook vs. the Tar Holes" rhetoric let's take a second to debunk the myth that this game is the best of the year.

I'm not denying that this is a great rivalry, probably the best in college basketball, if not sports as a whole. Most of my family lives in the state of North Carolina and is split evenly between Duke and UNC fans. I have seen first hand the intensity of this rivalry. Depending on which team wins, one half of my family won't speak to the other until the rematch at the end of the season. No, this is certainly a passionate rivalry, but recently, the actual basketball game hasn't lived up to the hype.

This can be partly blamed on the excessive amount of hype surrounding the matchup. ESPN has managed to turn a local rivalry into a national publicity campaign. The Duke-UNC game now highlights an entire week of showdowns, during which we can see six other basketball foes slug it out on the court. Only a truly amazing game can live up to so much hype and, in the last few years, the Duke-UNC matchup has failed to deliver any nail-biting magic or late game heroics.

On Monday night, Missouri came back from a 14-point halftime deficit to beat Kansas 62-60 on a last second shot. It will be hard for the Duke-UNC matchup to top such on-court excitement.

For almost five years, the games simply haven't been competitive for an entire 40 minutes. Last season, in particular, the series ended anti-climactically. Duke won the first contest by 11 points and North Carolina won the second by eight. In Duke's win, North Carolina forgot to play defense on the perimeter and never led after half. And in North Carolina's win, Duke didn't score for the last 5:47 of the game.

In fact, there hasn't been a really good Duke-UNC game, since 2005. The Tar Heels beat the Blue Devils in their second battle of the season, 75-73. The first game ended in a 71-70 Blue Devils win, but even that contest, which came down to the last possession, ended when North Carolina guard David Noel dribbled the ball off his foot. A turnover to end the game seems like an anti-climatic conclusion to a game of this magnitude.

This season, in particular, the emergence of Wake Forest as an ACC contender deflates the Duke-UNC rivalry as well.

Traditionally, Duke and North Carolina have dominated the ACC, turning their season series into a competition for the conference crown. (The two teams have combined to win 79 percent of the ACC's regular season titles since the conference was founded in 1953.) And while the winner of Wednesday night's game will temporarily take sole possession of first place in the conference, the ACC is certainly not a two-team league this season. Wake Forest has beaten both Duke and North Carolina and the Demon Deacons did it without the hype of this nation's most intense rivalry.

Ironically, sometimes the rivalry itself detracts from the quality of basketball as the games end up being more about hatred of the opponent than love of the game of basketball. For example, the most memorable matchup between these two teams in recent memory was the 14-point North Carolina blowout in 2007, in which Duke's Gerald Henderson broke Tyler Hansbrough's nose with his elbow. The video of Hansbrough rising from the floor with blood streaming down his face will forever symbolize the intensity of a Duke-UNC matchup, but many forget that by the time Henderson committed his "combative" foul, there were 14.5 seconds left in a game that had decided at half.

I understand that, in the end, whether the basketball is competitive or not isn't important to Duke and North Carolina fans. All that matters to them is which team wins and which team loses. The rivalry will always be compelling to those who have already taken sides. But for college basketball fans who hold no allegiance to either school, what matters is that the actual game lives up to the hype. And, of late, that just hasn't been the case.

 
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