Roots of a Rivalry

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 5 North Carolina and N.C. State will square off for the 214th time on Saturday, but to understand the full depth of the rivalry, you have to look beyond the records and the statistics. There's no better place to begin than with the current head coaches of the respective programs.

If you happened to be sitting in a certain Maryland bar late at night on Jan. 17, 1979, you would have seen a 28-year-old version of Roy Williams standing on a table cheering a Tar Heel victory over N.C. State. The then-UNC men's JV squad coach was celebrating Dudley Bradley's steal of the Wolfpack's Clyde Austin and his ensuing dunk in the closing seconds that lifted North Carolina to a dramatic 70-69 victory.

Eight months later, a savvy Dematha point guard by the name of Sidney Lowe enrolled at N.C. State, setting the stage for yet another chapter in the decades-old rivalry between the Tar Heels and the Wolfpack. Both Lowe and Williams would win national championships over the next four seasons at their respective alma maters.

"It's been a big rivalry for me for a long, long time," Williams told reporters during his press conference on Friday. "Our kids probably don't understand the significance of it as much as the older people, or the people from this state, there's no question. So we talk about it. It's a great ACC opponent, and they're 28 miles away or whatever it is, depending on which way you go."

The Tar Heel program has long stood as a perennially national powerhouse, allowing its coaches to recruit on a national scale. While North Carolina has three North Carolinians on scholarship, its starting lineup consists of players arriving in Chapel Hill from Missouri, New York, California, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

"I didn't really know before I got here about State," said senior wing Danny Green, hailing from North Babylon, N.Y. "But once I got here Coach [Williams] broke down to us how much he does not like losing to them and how bad he wants to beat them, so…"

But N.C. State has fallen from its lofty perch in the past, suffering from a nearly 20 year slump – relative to its history – that began with the Jim Valvano-induced probation in December of 1989. North Carolina has posted a 29-12 record against its rival since that decision was announced, including having won 27 of the last 35 games in series.

Former Wolfpack head coach Herb Sendek, who coached his last five teams into the NCAA Tournament, technically left of his own accord to take the head job at Arizona State, but the majority of N.C State fans would have carried his bags to the airport, if asked. Sendek's downfall was not only his inability to dethrone North Carolina and Duke at the top of the college basketball landscape, but also because of his refusal to place any special significance on this rivalry.

Enter Lowe, a N.C. State alum that understood that he would immediately be judged against his Tobacco Road counterparts.

"I knew that coming in and I wouldn't have come in if I didn't expect that because I expect that out of myself," Lowe said on Thursday. "That is why I've said before that no one, no one, is more disappointed when we lose than I am. No one."

After an upset over North Carolina is his first coaching appearance against the Tar Heels, in which the Wolfpack shot a staggering 76.5 percent in the second half to pull off the 83-79 victory, Lowe has lost four straight to UNC.

He admitted to the hurt and disappointment that comes along with those losses on Thursday.

"Tremendously, absolutely, you can't hide that," Lowe said. "It is what it is. I think the feeling is the same way on the other side down the road. If we were beating them it would bother them a little more, too, on both of the schools. That's just the way it is. Having played here and been through some of those wars and knowing the feeling of winning those games and then turning around losing, it does, it frustrates me, it bothers me a little more, certainly."

The irony in this rivalry is that for these fan bases, as well as for these head coaches, this game carries substantially more mental weight than it does for the players.

Following Tyler Hansbrough's indoctrination into the rivalry during his freshman season, the eventual national player of the year said, "This rivalry is probably more than I thought it would be. I didn't know how hyped up it was until I came here."

Nearly four years later, Hansbrough has endured about everything the N.C. State fan base can dish out, and understands that in this rivalry, it's more than about statistics. It's about bragging rights and it's about pride. But most importantly, it's about the victories.

"They're not very nice over there, and I understand that," Hansbrough said on Friday. "I'm not going over there to be their friend, either. I'm going over there to win."

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