Duke Vs. UNC in the Final Four is as big as college basketball gets, even if coaches and players downplay it

NEW ORLEANS – The 47-year veteran coach sat at the podium in front of an anxious and eager army of journalists, waiting to hear from Mike Krzyzewski a day before the most anticipated national semifinal in the history of the NCAA Tournament.

It was his last face to face with the horde of hacks before the game. The hated blood rival North Carolina is waiting for Duke Saturday in the Final Four. What would be the last questions, what would be the last words to document from Coach K at this moment?

“One thing before you answer anything,” he said after injecting a quick thought of playing against UNC. “I do not know if I will ever get a chance to talk to you all again. Not that I am thinking negatively of tomorrow, but I would like to clarify one thing.”

You could almost hear the crowd adjusting on their seats, ready for what might just be the type of quote that sets the stage for the biggest game ever in college basketball’s biggest and most historically rivalry.

Except: no.

Instead, the cunning 75-year-old drew another play and changed the conversation. Krzyzewski went on to unfold a monologue directed at his continued complaint about the NCAA and how badly it has run. It was well thought out and Krzyzewski came up with good points. He continued long enough, insisting in his style, to ask follow-up questions on the subject. The man only had that much time last Friday, so by the end of his press, only one additional question (about Tar Heels coach Hubert Davis) was answered. Then time had passed and Krzyzewski mingled from the stage, possibly for the last time.

The gambit was successfully drawn. K played the media like a greased N’awlins trumpet. There are no big jokes or must-hear soundbites to be heard from the most famous coach in college basketball ahead of Saturday night’s huge affair between the Blue Devils and Tar Heels. Build your own hype.

You know we will.

You just know that getting a chance to avenge the last home loss to UNC exactly four weeks ago evokes something irresistible in Krzyzewski’s soul. When the eighth-seeded Tar Heels and second-seeded Blue Devils finally tip once near 9pm ET Saturday night at Caesar’s Superdome, a significant chapter in annals of American sports history will materialize. True, NBA basketball is at its best and most beautiful. But no scene in hangers is bigger than a men’s Final Four – both literally and figuratively. Given the sagas behind these programs and with North Carolina’s emphatic 94-81 victory to close the Coach K era at Cameron Indoor Stadium, it is fair to say that UNC vs. Duke is the greatest Final Four game ever.

From the little he said last Friday about the game, Krzyzewski tried to downplay the rivalry angle. This man’s bile!

“I do not know if it’s more important, but it’s not more important because it’s North Carolina,” Krzyzewski said. “It would always be important if it’s North Carolina. That’s the most important thing, because if you win, you get a chance to play for the national championship. And that has to be your focus. That’s the focus.”

How will it play out? How will these teams tackle this colossal battle? For Duke – a four-point favorite – it has a chance, if it chooses, to adopt an underdog mindset specifically because of the way it lost the last time these teams met. It was a punk. It is – in just a few hours more – the most significant victory in Duke-Carolina’s history.

“For us, I think we’ve always gone in with the underdog mentality,” Duke’s Wendell Moore Jr. said. “Because even if we’re chosen as the favorite to win, everyone wants us to lose. So for us, it puts us as an underdog, and it gives us the chip on the shoulder that we need. To really go out. and play confident and free. “

Is there an advantage for Duke at stake here because it lost to UNC as it did?

“Definitely, especially after the game, just the feeling of defeat, even the ACC Championship you can say the same thing,” Duke second-year center Mark Williams said. “Just to understand that feeling, damn it … that’s it. There’s no more home game, there’s no more ACC championship. So clearly just to understand that feeling, keep (it) in the back of your mind, every once we play. “

“We all have confidence that we are the best team,” said Duke star Paolo Banchero. “So, it does not disappear. But we certainly do not want to make a big match or think we’re just going out there and we just have to win. We’ll have to play a great match, probably our best match this year, to beat these guys. “

Bless these players as they have done a pretty good job of not taking too much of the bait all week.

On the UNC side, word is growing that Tar Heel player alumni will be more than Duke’s big names in attendance. Michael Jordan will definitely be in the house, right? Forty years ago, the biggest scene in college hoops gave birth to MJ’s legend when No. 23 in Carolina blue coolly lowered a midrange jumper to lift UNC over Georgetown in the very building where North Carolina is to play Saturday night. There is an anniversary to be celebrated and a rivalry to reach the warmest temperature ever. The tension grows from hour to hour. This city is getting more anxious.

Let one factor be clear: UNC gets the benefit of playing with significantly less pressure on Saturday. Of course, facing Duke always comes with a certain level of stress. For Davis’ Tar Heels, of course, the effort is huge. But they are seed No. 8. The Heels have already given K his L at Cameron. You can not take it off the table. It’s not a house money situation, but it’s as close to it as Carolina could ever get started against Duke.

“I feel like our guys are in the perfect place because one of the things that I think they’ve done a good job with is turning off or turning down the noise,” Davis said. “We’ve talked for a very long time about it and turned down the noise from the phone – family, friends and fans – and focused on what allows us to be the best. And I think when you have great kids and great players like Armando (Bacot) and Brady (Manek) who understand that what’s right for us to be successful on Saturday is our preparation, our training, and how hard we play, and so it’s something we had needed in the second match against Duke. “

The payoff is huge: If North Carolina beats Duke, Tar Heels will have forever taken over the Blue Devils and their fans. The task will be significant, but if Carolina manages to beat Duke for the second time in a row and end Krzyzewski’s career in the process, it’s for the times. Duke can rip off three consecutive national titles in Jon Scheyer’s next three years as head coach and go undefeated against UNC in the next 10 meetings. It will be just as much. This is the biggest scene the first time they’ve met each other in the NCAAs, and it’s K’s retirement in balance.

Conversely, a Duke victory gives the Blue Devils a 2-1 advantage this season and just as much of a redemption victory – short of beating UNC in the national title fight – the team could ask for. It’s almost as if Duke has to win two championships in three days to get K, and the program, a sixth national title.

“We want to win this match for us as a team and as a group,” Banchero said. “We would be foolish to let other storylines play a part in how we want to go out there and play.”

Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine that a rival game of any kind in American sports is ever greater than this.

Now you understand why both sides, players and coaches, were not eager to come up with juicy quotes and tailor-made jokes in the last few days. But no matter how bookish all sides play it, there is no one to shrug off the meaning of what awaits Saturday night. These two teams and this unique matchup have managed to turn an amazing Kansas-Villanova undercard into secondary fodder.

“We love getting into other people’s arena and being the villain,” Moore said. “I feel like it’s when we play our best basketball, when the stage is bright, the lights are on. For some reason, we just get upset.”

Everyone feels excited in Big Easy. A unique NCAA tournament has reached an unprecedented pair of national semifinals, yielding the blue-blooded Final Four ever. This Big Easy has produced epic Final Four moments and etched all-time teams into the record books every time Final Four has come here. Jordan in ’82. Keith Smart in ’87. UNC won again in ’93 when Chris Webber called a timeout that did not exist. Hakim Warrick’s block to seal it for Syracuse in ’03. An elite team from Kentucky that restores its lineage – by beating Louisville by all teams – in the Final Four and then Kansas in the title fight in ’12.

There is no more appropriate place to stage this game. Duke Vs. North Carolina collides in the middle of the cacophony of Crescent City. You only get it for the first time once. The fact is, it’s right here, right now – what a blessed bend of this year’s bracket. Sports do not get much better than this.

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