As Duke and North Carolina approach Act One of their annual passion play, something seems amiss. Neither is a No. 1 seed in Bracketology.
The Blue Devils, admittedly, were on the top line as recently as last weekend. Then they found a way to lose to a St. John’s team that was winless in the Big East. Suddenly everyone from the head coach on down began questioning Duke’s staying power.
North Carolina, meanwhile, has had a fairly bumpy ride with last year’s NCAA trophy. Not only did the Tar Heels suffer perhaps the worst-ever home loss by a defending champion — insert obligatory Wofford shout out here — but they already have five losses in ACC play. With four of their last six ACC games on the road, including the Duke rematch, more are likely.
Yet history suggests we ignore the present and focus on the big picture. The chance of the 2017-18 season ending without at least one of these teams making a sizable imprint is extremely remote. And by "sizable" we mean No. 1 seeds and Final Four appearances.
There have been 34 tournaments since the NCAA expanded its championship field in 1985. In 24 of those years, at least one of these giants has been a No. 1 seed. In two more years (1998 and 2005), both made it to the top line.
Think about that for a minute. In any given Duke-Carolina game, the odds we are seeing at least one No. 1 seed are over 70 percent. There isn’t a rivalry in any sport with that kind of sustained excellence and frequency.
In nine of those 34 years — more than a quarter of the time — the NCAA title has landed in either Durham or Chapel Hill. In 14 of them (41 percent), one of the two schools played in the championship game. Overall, since the 1985 tournament expansion, there have only been 11 Final Fours without either the Blue Devils or Tar Heels.
Those who call this an overrated rivalry do so at their own risk. And it’s not like either team is dead in the water.
How March might look
The Blue Devils boast the second-best offense in the country per possession despite only one team in the land — you’re right, it’s Kentucky — having less experience. They are not catching Virginia for the ACC regular-season title, but who’s to say winning a rematch in the ACC tournament is impossible?
On paper, Duke remains one of the five most talented teams in the nation. Our prediction from way back at the Champions Classic of both an upset loss to St. John’s and a Final Four trip are very much in play.
With seven losses, the Tar Heels are underperforming their metrics. While this is not a Final Four team, they should finish far above their current one-game-over-.500 ACC pace. The closing schedule is daunting, but a season split with Duke and a revenge win over N.C. State in Saturday’s rematch seem likely.
The end result of all that should be a top four seed and no worse than another Sweet 16 appearance. In other words, for Carolina as well as Duke, we’ll have another serving of the usual.