Either Duke or North Carolina has played in the ACC tournament final for 14 consecutive seasons, and one of the conference’s preeminent powers has won the crown 13 times in that span.
It’s hard to imagine it’s been a decade since they’ve gone head-to-head.
College basketball’s most storied rivalry resumes Sunday afternoon in Greensboro, where a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament may be on the line in the first ACC final between the fifth-ranked Blue Devils and sixth-ranked Tar Heels since 2001.
North Carolina (26-6) has won nine straight games since a 79-73 loss in Durham on Feb. 9, including an 81-67 victory over Duke (29-4) on March 5 in Chapel Hill that earned it the tournament’s top seed.
Blue Devils guard Nolan Smith, the ACC player of the year, wouldn’t want his team to chase its third consecutive conference tournament title any other way.
“We were matched up for the regular-season championship, and it’s the two best teams again,” said Smith, who averaged 32.0 points against North Carolina this season.
Yet as hot as the Tar Heels were heading to Greensboro, they’ve barely showed up for the first half of their first two conference tournament games. They trailed Miami by 19 in the second half in Friday’s quarterfinals before rallying to win 61-59 on Tyler Zeller’s buzzer-beater, then overcame a 10-point halftime deficit in Saturday’s semifinals - and a seven-point hole with four minutes left - to outlast Clemson 92-87 in overtime.
“At halftime we just ripped into them,” coach Roy Williams said. “I’m getting tired of saying this - we can’t do anything about that 20 minutes but we can do something about the next 20.”
Harrison Barnes, the first freshman to make the AP preseason All-American team, has put a poor first two months behind him since point guard Kendall Marshall was inserted into the starting lineup, but he outdid himself Saturday. Barnes set a freshman tournament record with 40 points, making 6 of 8 shots from beyond the arc.
“Early in the year, the young man took a lot of doubters and criticism from people who said, ‘Oh, he’s not that good,”’ Williams said. “He just stayed focused on being Harrison Barnes.”
It looked like Duke’s top scoring threat might not even play in its semifinal game, but Smith did more than show up - he dominated Virginia Tech. Shrugging off a toe injury that he suffered while missing 9 of 11 shots Friday against Maryland, Smith had 27 points and six assists as the Blue Devils beat Virginia Tech 67-53.
“An injury is not going to stop me at this time of the year,” Smith said. “We only have a couple more games to go. I’m a senior, and I just want to help my team win games.”
Duke won the last ACC title game between the teams in a runaway, 79-53 en route to its third NCAA tournament title.
Both schools are playing in their 30th ACC championship game, and this is the 11th head-to-head meeting. The Tar Heels, who can tie the Blue Devils for the most conference crowns at 18, have won six of those 10 contests.
More crucial than anything, though, might be the potential for Sunday’s winner to earn a No. 1 seed next week - which could be awfully significant. Of the eight national championships North Carolina and Duke have combined for since the NCAA began seeding in 1979, seven came as a top seed.
To coach Mike Krzyzewski, though, looking to lead the Blue Devils to their 10th conference tournament title in 13 seasons take precedence above all else.
“The thing that makes this game is, it’s for the ACC championship.”