The NCAA basketball tournament has become one of the most beloved events of the year because it is perfectly designed to generate chaos. It is not, however, designed to pit hated rivals against each other on the sport’s biggest stage. This is especially true when it comes to the championship. Almost every title game in the men’s tournament’s history has featured two schools with little in common. Last year’s national championship game was between Villanova and Michigan—great programs that probably don’t have a single bad word to say about each other. In 2017, North Carolina took on Gonzaga—a 29,000-student flagship state school in the Southeast facing off against a 7,500-student Catholic school in the Pacific Northwest. Outside of their 1983 classic, how many times do you think North Carolina State and Houston have played in any sport? I suspect some Duke grads have butlers, but how much did the average Duke fan know about Butler hoops before Gordon Hayward almost ruined the Blue Devils’ 2009-10 season?
But this year could bring the championship matchup to end all championship matchups. On the left side of the bracket is Duke, the top overall seed in the field that also happens to boast the biggest college hoops star in years, Zion Williamson. On the right side of the bracket is North Carolina, also a no. 1 seed. Both teams play Friday in the Sweet 16.
Duke and North Carolina have never met in the NCAA tournament. They once played in the NIT—the Tar Heels won 73-69 in 1971—and play regularly in the ACC tournament, including in the semifinals in each of the past three seasons. I attended two of those games, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. You know how every once in a while Twitter spends all day roasting a tweet that says something like “New York has the world’s best barbecue!” next to a photo of a sad snippet of meat and a pickle that the menu probably calls an artisanal gherkin? That’s sort of how these Duke-UNC showdowns in Brooklyn felt. Sure, the games had all of the same ingredients that they do in Carolina—they just weren’t made the same way.
A Duke-UNC national championship would be different. It wouldn’t just shift the rivalry from its rightful home. It’d take a game that already feels like the most important in the world to everyone involved and actually make it the most important game in the world. And it’s time to start considering the possibility that we could soon get college basketball Armageddon.
It makes sense that big rivals rarely meet in championship matchups. Sports fans keep their enemies close, and most rivalries are formed on the basis of teams being in the same division or geographic region. The major U.S. professional sports leagues specifically mandate that teams from opposing conferences face off for championships. The Yankees can’t play the Red Sox in the World Series, the Packers can’t play the Bears in the Super Bowl, and the Capitals can’t play the Penguins in Stanley Cup final. Sure, the Yankees met the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series seven times during the 1940s and 1950s, and the Lakers and Celtics have a storied history of clashing in the NBA Finals. But the former happened before the advent of color TV, and the latter only became a rivalry because the teams kept playing each other in the championship. We’re looking for two teams that already hate each other meeting in a championship for the first time.
Some sports have championship formats without matchup restrictions, but I can’t think of anything that’s happened that would compare to a potential Duke-UNC national title game. LSU played Alabama in a college football national championship game in 2011, but the rivalry that would truly fit the bill is Bama-Auburn. Real Madrid and Barcelona have played El Clásico in the Champions League semifinals (as have AC Milan and Inter Milan), but not the finals. (Real did play its less-famous crosstown rival Atlético Madrid twice in the Champions League final.)
A Duke-Carolina championship game has long been possible. And honestly, it feels like such a matchup should have happened by this point. There have been 34 NCAA men’s basketball tournaments since the event adopted a 64-team format in 1985. Duke or UNC has been a no. 1 seed in 24 of those tournaments (70.5 percent); Duke or UNC has reached the Final Four in 22 of those tournaments (64.7 percent); and Duke or UNC has appeared in the national championship game in 14 of those tournaments (41.1 percent). But they have held no. 1 seeds concurrently only twice before this year—and in the most recent occurrence, 2005, the schools were on the same side of the bracket, making a championship showdown impossible. The Blue Devils and Tar Heels have reached the Final Four in the same season only once, in 1991, with Kansas playing the spoiler and taking down Carolina to prevent a Tobacco Road matchup in the championship. (The Kansas head coach at the time? Roy Williams.) That was the only instance of the 14 years when one team made the title game that the other advanced past the Sweet 16.
The tournament’s format should theoretically help make a Duke-UNC title game more likely. The selection committee always takes steps to prevent early-round rematches of regular-season games, so UNC and Duke have been placed in the same region only once, in 2004. (Carolina lost to Texas in the second round.) That means the programs should regularly land on opposite sides of the bracket, and sure enough that’s been in the case in 21 of the 30 years that both schools have been in the field since the tourney expanded to 64 teams. A title matchup has just never panned out. (In fact, there hasn’t been an intraconference men’s basketball championship game since 1988, when Kansas defeated Oklahoma.)
This year, the stars seem aligned. Both Duke and UNC are still alive and favored to win their respective regions. And I feel like we deserve another game between these teams. In their first matchup, Williamson was injured less than a minute into the action, setting the table for a UNC rout. In the second matchup Zion was still hurt, and the Tar Heels rolled again. In the third matchup, at the ACC tournament, Zion rose—and missed, and rose again, and hit the game-winner to put Duke in the conference title game.
We shouldn’t get too far ahead of ourselves. According to FiveThirtyEight’s projection model, Duke has a 33 percent chance of making it to the title game, while UNC has an 18 percent chance. Combined, that means there’s a 5.9 percent chance of this year’s national championship game being a Tobacco Road showdown. This tournament has had relatively few upsets, with just one double-digit seed remaining and 14 top-four seeds left heading into the Sweet 16. That means there are no easy games ahead on the road to the title game.
But I’ll take that 5.9 percent chance. Most of the magic of March Madness tends to come from the first two rounds, and by the time the national title game rolls around, most of us are eliminated from our bracket pools. The final is often underwhelming: 36 of the 80 title games in tourney history were decided by double digits—that’s 45 percent. There have been 17 national title games decided by 15 or more points, and 17 decided by five or fewer points.
Duke-Carolina would probably be a great national title game. They’re clearly two of the best teams in the sport, and their one neutral-site game this season came down to the final possession. But the nature of the rivalry would guarantee that whatever happened would be iconic. No matter the result, blowout or buzzer-beater, we’d forever remember the time college basketball’s most intense rivalry decided the sport’s championship.