It’s the “Tobacco Road Rivalry,” one of the biggest in all of sports and certainly that of college basketball. No matter how good or bad one or the other teams is, they can beat each other on any given day on any given court. But, usually they’re both good.
The rivalry stems mostly from the fact that the Duke Blue Devils and North Carolina Tar Heels are located only eight miles apart as the crow flies, and ten miles on U.S. Highway 15–501 (Tobacco Road). Duke is a private school, UNC is public. Both are prominent universities and they both play in the ACC and play each other twice each season.
They’ve been meeting regularly since 1920, with North Carolina owning a 136-110 victory margin. But the rivalry really came to the forefront in what is considered the modern era of college basketball. In 1982, UNC won a championship for legendary coach Dean Smith on a last-second jumper by Michael Jordan. College basketball, Smith, Jordan and the Tar Heels all gained national prominence simultaneously.
Meanwhile, Mike Krzyzewski took over Duke’s program in 1980 and soon enough, his teams too were regulars in the NCAA tournament. In 1991 Duke and North Carolina were both in the Final Four. UNC lost to Kansas in the semi-finals while Duke stunned UNLV, before going on to beat Kansas for their first NCAA championship. They would win again in 1992, followed by the Tar Heels in 1993.
Since 1991 Duke has won five NCAA championships under Coach K, including titles in 2001, 2010 and 2015. In 2003 UNC hired coach Roy Williams, a Dean Smith disciple, and the result has been national championships in 2005, 2009 and 2017. They were also the runner-up in 2016.
The Tobacco Road rivalry has gotten a little violent at times, including in 2007 when UNC’s Tyler Hansbrough got his nose broken. Fans of both teams taunt the other and celebrate their victories wildly in their home cities. Recently, however, the rivalry has been one of respect between the two coaches who often speak highly of the other’s players.
Some years, such as in 2017, these two teams meet more than once; facing each other in the ACC Tournament. An NCAA Tournament matchup has never happened and if it ever did, especially in the Final Four, it would be on a level of proportion bigger than anything prior in college basketball. For now, both teams are just trying to position themselves for another March Madness run.