Duke/UNC: The Bane Of Sendek's Existence

I don't know if y'all heard or not, but there was a basketball game over in Chapel Hill Tuesday night.

I'm not sure if it was on TV or not, but there might have been a small writeup in the paper about it. In case you didn't hear, these two ACC teams, Duke and North Carolina, squared off against one another in a pretty good game.

Of course I'm being facetious. If you somehow managed to NOT see or hear the game then you either live in a Saddam-grade hole or are missing two of your five senses.

Two television networks, at least three radio networks (the two team networks, plus at least one national one), scores of local television stations, a bazillion print media and photographers, and probably some form of media invented at the game that we don't even know about yet were all on hand to broadcast the spectacle that IS the Duke/Carolina game. To paraphrase Ron Burgandy, it's kind of a big deal.

And for all the hype surrounding the game, the two teams didn't disappoint. The game ebbed and flowed like a great game always does, with neither team pulling away from the other, with the final possession determining the outcome.

Yes, it was a great time for all involved, and the millions of folks watching or listening across the country and world were no doubt entertained.

But this is PackPride.com, not DukeRules.com or CarolinaIsFreakingAwesome.com, so what bearing does this game have on we State fans? What's our take on the whole affair? Well if you're like most, the glad-handing and never-ending gushing over "The Game" and "The Rivalry" that went on before, during and after the game was a bit much to take.

If you watched the JP telecast like I did, you were treated to Tim Brando throwing out gems like, "For a lot of folks, THIS is the game that truly begins college basketball." One can only imagine what the ESPN telecast must've sounded like. If you kept watching WRAL after the game, they took it upon themselves to basically shun the rest of the news taking place in the world in favor of going to the well—the Old Well, if you will—early, often and until it ran dry.

As I fought through the telecast, it occurred to me that this—the Duke /Carolina game and all the hype that surrounds it—is at the center of the argument for those still not in favor of Herb Sendek. While all of the other major arguments against Sendek—can't develop a big man (Simmons), can't progress deep into the tournament (sweet 16 appearance last season), can't recruit a true point guard (Chris Wright), can't stay in the upper-half of the conference (top-3 regular season finish last season, second place currently in the league)—have gradually faded away, the one nagging negative aspect of his tenure at State is that his record against Duke and Carolina is well below .500, and is so despite winning four in a row against Carolina during the Doherty years.

To wit, State's record in-conference this season so far is a blistering 8-2 mark through the first half of the season, a two games ahead of Miami in third. But those two losses? At Duke, and at Carolina.

So when all of the free world anoints the Duke/Carolina matchup as the end-all, be-all of college basketball, to say it irritates State fans is an understatement. The Rivalry casts a mighty large shadow over the triangle, and it's dark enough to block out State's success to just about everyone—including State fans witnessing it first-hand.

The disturbing thing is that no matter how good State gets, or how far Carolina or Duke fall, The Rivalry will almost invariably take precedent of everything else. The hype is its own entity at this point. Last season, ESPN set up a College Basketball Gameday set prior to the game at Cameron. There was WRAL's over-coverage of the game, and Nike ads (I'm thinking of one in particular featuring Steve Wojo and, appropriately enough, two caged rats) in the past have all added to the scope of the hype.

Meanwhile, the State games against Duke and Carolina this season—a battle for first place in the conference at the time in Cameron and a once-proud State/Carolina game relegated to ESPN2 (likely edging out competitive eating or poker for the timeslot) despite State entering the game with a higher ranking—seemed to pale miserably in comparison. Both games, despite their outcomes, were highly entertaining and closely contested, but without the mystique of The Rivalry, it's likely few outside the triangle really cared.

To many Pack fans, The Rivalry and its shadow are too much to live with. Imagine a family photo with the two darling sons up front and the redheaded stepchild in the back elbowing for as much space as possible, and that's the Duke/Carolina/State relationship in a nutshell. The only way for State to claim some space up front will be to smack the other two around consistently, and that's a tall order for anyone to accomplish.

And yet, for the Herb haters that still remain, that's just what it will take to convince them that he's the man for the job. If Sendek were to even out his record against Duke and Carolina in the coming years—and it would take a lot of sweeps and streaks to do it—he would no doubt win those last few holdouts still unwilling to join the rest of Wolfpack Nation behind the man. Anything short of that, however, and it's likely that there will always be pockets of Herb haters for Sendek to account for.

The Rivalry definitely deserves a place among the great yearly games in college basketball. The numbers (four national titles for Carolina to Duke's three, and 15 ACC titles apiece) certainly back that up. But as long as the The Rivalry is bigger than the game itself (anyone notice or care that matchup was between the league's best team and a middle-of-the-road program?), its impact will always be adversely felt here in Raleigh.

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