It hasn't always been this way, and it probably won't always be this way, but one of the great things about the Duke-Carolina rivalry at the moment is the obvious respect Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams have for each other's players.
That was so obvious in the handshake line Saturday night, when Krzyzewski took pains to talk to Reggie Bullock, who he would moments later call "one of the best players in the country, not just in our conference," and when Williams, only seconds after consoling senior Dexter Strickland on the bench, still found time to stop and compliment Seth Curry, among other Duke players, as he went through the line.
It’s possible the change swirling around them in the ACC and in college sports in general has drawn these two programs closer together than ever this season. Maryland’s departure was a shock to the system within the ACC -- a longtime cornerstone piece of the conference, especially in basketball, gone likely forever. That only reinforces the importance of the Duke-Carolina rivalry to the ACC, a point Krzyzewski highlighted both before and after the first meeting between the teams last month.
The increasing appreciation of the value of the rivals to each other even extends to N.C. State, which has often been the third wheel around here when it comes to heated rivalries. The Wolfpack’s return to relevance on the court helps immeasurably, but there’s no question the past few meetings with Duke and Carolina have had a fire and passion that’s been missing in recent years.
(That still leaves the fourth leg of the Big Four failing to hold up its end of the bargain, but Wake Forest never had the kind of rivalries with the rest of the Big Four that those schools had with each other. Nevertheless, given the circumstances, it’s fair to wonder if the Demon Deacons would be a more valued rival if they were more competitive.)
Globally, there wasn’t much on the line in either of the Duke-Carolina games this year, not with Miami establishing itself as the class of the ACC. Perhaps some reinforcement of various positive NCAA seeding scenarios for the Blue Devils, but that’s about it. Just bragging rights, really. Yet it feels like these two schools are doing more bragging about what they mean collectively.
As the world of college athletics changes on a daily basis and the ACC starts to resemble something that is the ACC only in name, Duke and North Carolina seem to be reveling not in what drives them apart, but what brings them together.