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DURHAM, N.C. – Mike Krzyzewski’s first game against North Carolina as the coach at Duke was on Dec. 5, 1980, as part of the old Tobacco Road Big Four tournament in Greensboro.
The Blue Devils lost, 78-76, to a Tar Heels team that would finish the season as the national title runner-up. Carolina fans were impressed by the pluck of underdog Duke and its new coach.
“They were cheering for me,” Krzyzewski recalled Wednesday, a day before meeting the Heels for the 83rd time.
The cheering continued “for a long time” after that game, Krzyzewski joked. “When I went to get gas, even.” He was referring to the fact that he wasn’t much of a threat to Carolina’s primacy back then. Coach K lost eight of his first nine against Dean Smith.
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The Carolina faithful stopped cheering for Mike Krzyzewski decades ago. He’s beaten the Heels more times (43) than they’ve beaten him (39). But he remembers the indoctrination to the rivalry, and the education that came with it.
“I did not understand, from the outside, what it meant,” Krzyzewski said. “Until you’re in it, I don’t know how you could.”
Which means the 2016-17 Duke team is about to have another teachable moment in a season full of them.
Half of the Blue Devils’ eight-man rotation is comprised of freshmen who, like Krzyzewski in 1980, don’t know what this rivalry means, either. Harry Giles, who is from Winston-Salem, presumably has some idea, but watching on TV is far different than entering the cauldron as a competitor. The other three freshmen of import – Jayson Tatum of Missouri, Frank Jackson of Utah and Marques Bolden of Texas – will get their education starting at 8 p.m. ET Thursday.
They’ve seen the Krzyzewskiville tent city come to life outside their home gym this February. They’ve felt the buzz building on campus. Now it’s about time to play against Duke’s ultimate rival.
Thus this might be as good a moment as any to get a feel for whether this star-crossed team that began the season ranked No. 1 has the chops to contend when everything is on the line later. After enduring nearly non-stop tumult – early-season injuries to three freshmen, a third act in the Grayson Allen tripping trilogy, Krzyzewski missing a month with back surgery, a foot injury to vital senior Amile Jefferson – Duke has steadied itself.
“We’ve been through so much,” said senior Matt Jones. “We know what it feels like to be up, and we know what it feels like to be down.”
Sometimes in the same game. Not only has Duke’s season been melodramatic on the large scale, but on the small scale as well: down 16 at halftime against Virginia Tech in a miserable ACC opener; beat Georgia Tech by 53 next game; get outscored 30-18 in the final 10 minutes against Florida State; roar from down 11 at half against Miami to up 21 in 15 minutes; blow a nine-point lead with six to play at home against woeful North Carolina State; come back from nine down in the final five minutes at Wake Forest.
So many wild mood swings.
But now the Blue Devils have won three straight, and everyone should be available for this game. So, with the NCAA tournament selection committee set to give a sneak peek of its top 16 seeds Saturday and the real bracket to be released a month later, Duke-North Carolina will at least provide a significant milestone on the way to March.
“You have to be careful that it’s not an end-all, either way,” Krzyzewski said. “I’ve told my teams for years, ‘It’s not about beating somebody, it’s about winning something.’ “
Yet to win at least a share of the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title – something Duke hasn’t done since 2010 – you have to catch the team at the top. That’s Carolina, at 9-2. Duke is two games behind, at 7-4, with four teams between it and the Tar Heels. So in this instance, beating somebody could lead directly to winning something.
There is, of course, the return game in this rivalry March 4 in Chapel Hill. And there are road trips to Virginia and Syracuse and a home game against Florida State – all teams currently ahead of the Blue Devils in the ACC. That’s a tough finishing gauntlet.
The Devils have to hope that all the challenges they’ve encountered so far – some self-inflicted, others inflicted upon them – have seasoned them for the stretch.
“Those things didn’t happen for nothing,” Jefferson said. “They build maturity and build character and build toughness.”
Do they build a team capable of being as good at the end as everyone expected at the beginning?
“They are coming together,” Mike Krzyzewski said. “We’ll see if they come together at a high enough level to compete at the level we’d like to compete.”
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