The date was February 28, 1981. First year coach Mike Krzyzewski led his unranked Duke team against a North Carolina team that would go on to play for the national championship. It was Coach K's first home game in The Rivalry, the last home game for senior captain Gene Banks and wildman Kenny Dennard. Before the game, Banks loped from the locker room dressed in a tuxedo and tossed roses into the crowd.
North Carolina, #11 in the AP poll, came into Cameron without the services of injured star forward James Worthy. Pumped by the energy of the fabled Cameron crowd, Duke came out strong and battled the more talented UNC team. At halftime Carolina clung to a one point lead, and the second half was back and forth all the way through. A UNC bucket With two seconds to play put the Tar Heels ahead 58 to 56.
Duke inbounded from beneath its own basket. The Cameron scoreboard clock, which did not yet track tenths of seconds, ticked down to 0:01 left. Duke called a timeout and Dennard readied to inbound from midcourt. Coach K drew up the play. Junior Vince Taylor set a screen to spring sophomore Tom Emma, but Carolina slipped through it. Sharpshooter Chip Engelland, who despite taking most of his shots from the perimeter hit 55.7% of his attempts that season, set up in the corner, but too many Tar Heels intervened for Dennard to get the ball there safely. Banks saw the broken play and curled to the free throw line. Dennard floated the pass to Banks, who caught and spun. All American forward Sam Perkins hurried forward and extended his unnaturally long arms. Banks released. Perkins's fingers grazed the ball but didn't alter its trajectory and the shot descended through the hoop as the buzzer sounded, sending the crowd into a frenzy and the game into overtime. Four minutes and 41 seconds into the five minute overtime period, Banks rebounded a missed Taylor shot and laid it in for a 66-65 Duke win. Billy Packer was flabbergasted.
This was Duke/Carolina. The best rivalry in sports, where you throw out the record book and rankings don't matter. Anything can happen.
That's the narrative, anyway. But is it true? Can we really throw the rankings out the window when unranked North Carolina and top five Duke square off this coming Wednesday?
Well, no, not really.
During Coach K's tenure in Durham, including the classic "Gene Banks game" his first season, the historic rivals have met 23 times when one of them is ranked and the other unranked. The ranked team has won 19 of those 23 games, or 82.6% of the time. When Duke or UNC is ranked in the top five and the other is unranked, the top team has won 12 of 13 (92.3%).
"So?" you might say, "at least the underdog won a few of them. That means something, right?"
Maybe. But comparing those results to Duke's games against two randomly selected ACC opponents, it doesn't look that way. During the Coach K years, Duke has faced Wake Forest 46 times when one is ranked and the other unranked. The ranked team won 39 of those games for a winning percentage of 84.8%. We've had 43 such games
against Clemson during that span and the ranked team has won 37 (86.0%). Pretty similar to the 82.6% in the Duke/UNC rivalry. Also in Duke/Clemson, one team has been in the top five while the other is unranked 28 times and the ranked team has won all 28. At least in Duke/UNC, the unranked team won once (UNC back in 1990, if you're curious). Well, if you want to hang your hat on one game, go ahead. But in the Duke/Wake series during Coach K's tenure, the top five team has only won 22 out of 29 of the games (75.9%). WAY less predictable than Duke/UNC. But the announcers don't tell you to throw out the record book when Wake comes to town, do they?
Believe it or not, Duke/UNC looks even less unpredictable if you expand it to include games when both teams have been ranked. In such games during Coach K's time, the higher ranked team has won 30 and lost 22, thus winning 57.7% of the time. In Duke/Wake it's been 9 to 9 (50%) and in Duke/Clemson 6 to 5 (54.5%), so the team you'd expect to win has done so more often in the Duke/UNC rivalry than in the others.
How about when one of the teams is in the top five and the other is outside the top ten? Duke and Carolina have played 18 such games during Coach K's time here, with the top five team winning 13, for a 72.2% success rate. Pretty unpredictable, wouldn't you say? Alas, that number's not much different than similar games against Wake, where the top five team has won 5 of 7 (71.4%) or against Clemson, where the top five team has won 4 of 5 (80%). So no luck there.
Just to be thorough, let's look at when both Duke and UNC are in the top ten. In that case, the higher ranked team has won 16 and lost 17 (48.5%), which seems to support the "anything can happen" meme until you consider that in such situations during the Duke/Wake series, the higher ranked top ten team has only won 3 and lost 6 (33.3%). This has only happened three times in Duke/Clemson since 1980-81, with the higher ranked team winning 2 and losing 1 (66.7%). When both teams are in the top five, the tally for Duke/UNC is 5 to 5, for Duke/Wake is 1 to 0, and for Clemson hasn't happened during the Coach K years.
Bottom line, in the Duke/UNC rivalry the team you expect to win usually does. About the same, or even more so, than in Duke's series with other ACC teams.
So is ESPN just making it up? Is The Rivalry not what we thought it was? I'm going to say "no" again. It's real and it's wonderful, as anybody who's had the good fortune to attend a Duke/UNC game can attest.
For one thing, unlike the Wake and Clemson series, whether the Duke/UNC underdog wins has little to do with venue. The upset winners in Duke/Wake and Duke/Clemson are almost always playing at home (77% of the unranked winners and 79% of the lower ranked winners when both are ranked). While it's true in the Duke/UNC rivalry that 3 of the 4 unranked winners (75%) played at home, that's a very small sample. When both teams are ranked, the lower ranked winners only played at home in 36% of the upsets (8 of 22).
But even putting that aside, the real magic of the Duke/UNC rivalry is not that "anything can happen." No, what makes it the stuff of legend is how amazingly good both teams are, year in and year out. Since Gene Banks put his mark on Duke history in 1981, Duke and Carolina have met 75 times. And from 1982 to 2012, either Duke or UNC has been ranked in the top ten in 73 of those 75 games (the only exceptions coming in 1997 when #12 Duke beat #19 UNC, and in 1996, when #19 UNC beat unranked Duke). Both Duke and UNC have been ranked in the top ten 33 times in Coach K's 32 seasons here (not counting this one since they haven't played yet). Ten times they've both been in the top five.
I haven't researched my next statement, but I doubt any other series can match that standard of excellence on both sides of the rivalry. And because both teams are almost always so good, especially when you add in the close proximity of the schools and the genuine enmity the fanbases have for each other, the Duke/UNC rivalry truly is special. The players, the fans, and the coaching staffs bring a passion to the rivalry game unmatched in college sports.
So, relax, Duke/Carolina is still Duke/Carolina. And while I wouldn't want to offend the weauxf gods, considering that this week Duke is in the top five and UNC is unranked, you might also want to take at least a little bit of comfort in that 12 and 1 history, too.