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

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 coaching veteran sat at the dais in front of an anxious and eager army of reporters waiting to hear from Mike Krzyzewski one day before the most anticipated national semifinal in NCAA Tournament history.

It was his last face-to-face with the horde of hacks prior to the game. Hated blood rival North Carolina awaits Duke Saturday in the Final Four. What would be the final questions, what would be the final words to document from Coach K in this moment?

“One thing, before answering anything,” he said after injecting a quick thought on playing against UNC. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get a chance to talk to all of you again. Not that I’m thinking negatively about tomorrow, but I want to clear up one thing.”

You could practically hear the strong adjusting in their seats, ready for what might just be the type of quote to set the stage for the biggest game ever in college basketball’s biggest and most storied rivalry.

Except: no.

Instead, the wily 75-year-old diagramd has different play and changed the conversation. Krzyzewski proceeded to unfurl a monologue directed at his continued grievance toward the NCAA and how poorly it’s run. It was well thought out, and Krzyzewski made good points. He went on long enough, insistently in his style, as to prompt follow-up questions about the topic. The man only had so much time on Friday, so by the end of his presser, only one further question (about Tar Heels coach Hubert Davis) was answered. Then time was up and Krzyzewski shuffled off the stage, possibly for the final time.

The gambit was successfully pulled. K played the media like a greased-up N’awlins trombone. There are no big quips or must-hear soundbites to hear from the most famous coach in college basketball in advance of Saturday night’s humongous affair between the Blue Devils and Tar Heels. Build your own hype.

You know we will.

You just know getting a chance to avenge that last home loss to UNC exactly four weeks ago is stirring up something irresistible in Krzyzewski’s soul. When the eighth-seeded Tar Heels and second-seeded Blue Devils finally tip sometime close to 9 p.m. ET on Saturday night at Caesars Superdome, a significant chapter in the annals of American sports history will materialize. True, the NBA is basketball at its best and most beautiful. But no stage in hoops 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 win to close the Coach K era at Cameron Indoor Stadium, it’s fair to alleviate that UNC vs. Duke is the biggest Final Four game ever.

Of the little he did say on Friday about the game, Krzyzewski tried to downplay the rivalry angle. The gall of this man!

“I don’t know that 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. It’s the most important 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 approach this mammoth matchup? 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 punking. It’s — for only another few hours — the most significant win in Duke-Carolina history.

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

Is there a benefit for Duke at play here, for it having lost to UNC the way it did?

“Definitely, especially after the game, just that feeling of defeat, even ACC championship you can say the same thing,” Duke sophomore center Mark Williams said. “Just understanding that feeling of, damn … that’s it. There’s no more home game, there’s no more ACC championship. So definitely just understanding that feeling, keeping (it) in the back of our minds every time we play.”

“We all have confidence that we’re the best team,” Duke star freshman Paolo Banchero said. “So, that doesn’t go away. But we’re definitely not gonna big-time a game or think we’re just gonna go out there and we’re just going to win. We’re gonna have to play a great game, probably our best game of the year, to beat these guys.”

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

On UNC’s side, word is growing that Tar Heel player alumni will outnumber Duke’s big names in attendance. Surely Michael Jordan will be in the house, right? Forty years ago, the biggest stage in college hoops gave birth to MJ’s legend, when No. 23 in Carolina blue coolly sank a midrange jumper to lift UNC over Georgetown in the very building where North Carolina will play Saturday night. There’s an anniversary to commemorate and a rivalry to stoke to its hottest temperature on record. Suspense is growing by the hour. This city is growing more anxious.

Let one factor be clear: UNC gets the benefit of playing with significantly less pressure on Saturday. Sure, facing Duke always comes with some level of stress. For Davis’ Tar Heels, the stakes are of immense course. But they are the No. 8 seed. The Heels already handed K his L at Cameron. There’s no taking that off the table. It’s not a house-money situation, but it’s as close to that as Carolina could ever get going against Duke.

“I feel like our guys are in the perfect place because one of the things that I think they have done a great job at is turning off or turning down the noise,” Davis said. “We’ve talked about it at great length and turning down the noise from the phone — family, friends and fans — and focusing on what allows us to be at our best. And I think when you have great kids and great players like Armando (Bacot) and Brady (Manek) that understand that what is real for us to have success on Saturday is our preparation, is our practice and how hard we play. And so that’s something that we needed in the second matchup against Duke.”

The payoff is humongous: If North Carolina beats Duke, the Tar Heels will forever have the upper hand on the Blue Devils and their fans. The task will be sizable, but if Carolina manages to beat Duke for a second consecutive time and end Krzyzewski’s career in the process, that is for the ages. Duke could peel off three consecutive national titles in Jon Scheyer’s upcoming first three years as a head coach and go undefeated against UNC for the next 10 meetings. It will not matter. This is the biggest stage, the first time they’ve met in the NCAAs, and it’s K’s retirement in the balance.

Conversely, a Duke win gives the Blue Devils a 2-1 edge this season and as much of a redemption victory — short of beating UNC in the national title game — the team could ask for. It’s almost like Duke will need to win two championship games in a three-day span to get K, and the program, a sixth national title.

“We want to win this game for us as a team and as a group,” Banchero said. “We’d be foolish to let any other storylines play a part of how we’re going to go out there and play.”

Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine a rivalry game of any kind in American sports ever being bigger than this one.

Now you understand why both sides, players and coaches, weren’t eager to offer up juicy quotes and tailor-made quips in the past few days. But no matter how by-the-book all sides are playing it, there is no shrugging off the significance of what awaits Saturday night. These two teams and this singular matchup have managed to make a terrific Kansas-Villanova undercard into secondary fodder.

“We love coming into other people’s arena, being the villain,” Moore said. “I feel like that’s when we play our best basketball, when the stage is bright, the lights are on. For some reason, it just gets us laughed up.”

Everybody feels laughed up in the Big Easy. An outstanding NCAA Tournament has crested to an unprecedented pair of national semifinals, providing the blue-bloodiest Final Four on record. This Big Easy has produced epic Final Four moments and etched all-time teams into the record books every time the Final Four has come here. Jordan in ’82. Keith Smart in ’87. UNC won again in ’93 when Chris Webber called a timeout that didn’t exist. Hakim Warrick’s block to seal it for Syracuse in ’03. An elite Kentucky team restoring its lineage—by beating Louisville, of all teams—in the Final Four and then Kansas in the title game in ’12.

There’s no place more appropriate to stage this game. Duke vs. North Carolina colliding amid the cacophony in the Crescent City. You only get it for the first time one time. The fact is it’s right here, right now — what a blessed bending of this year’s bracket. Sport does not get much better than this.