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Duke-North Carolina the quintessential rivalry

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There are lots of great rivalries and matchups in college basketball. When Purdue and Indiana hook up in the Big Ten, that is something special. When the coaching duel pitted Bob Knight against Gene Keady, you could really feel it in the air.

Shane Battier
While he may not agree, Shane Battier's overall game made him the ACC's best player this season.
When talking about rivalries, the Louisville-Kentucky one is intense. You see a sea of red against a sea of blue. In that state, they love the game of basketball and have such a passion for the competition.

Georgetown and Syracuse in the Big East ... over the years, this has stood out, with great players like Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Pearl Washington, to name a few.

When it comes to looking at the best rivalry, one clearly stands above the rest, baby! I'm lucky enough to be calling Thursday night's showdown when Duke hosts North Carolina (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2) at Cameron Indoor Stadium, with first place in the ACC on the line.

There's nothing finer than to see Carolina vs. Duke. You can make a case for it being the top rivalry in all of college athletics, though some Michigan-Ohio State football fans, among others, might beg to differ.

To me, having two schools separated by just eight miles -- two teams which have dominated and combined to make 11 Final Fours since 1990 -- is special. There have been so many great moments when these teams have squared off, and that adds to the legacy of the rivalry.

This year's game has ramifications beyond the ACC race. With both teams among the top four in the current poll, there are national implications riding as well. This is so unique, so get ready for the first of two important matchups between the Tar Heels and Dukies.

Both teams are unblemished in league play, two of 12 Division I schools to have a perfect conference record entering this week.

You have a great sideline battle. The emotional Matt Doherty has brought a special enthusiasm to the bench at Chapel Hill. It has become contagious among the players and fans. Chapel Hill has become a rowdy bunch, especially along the baseline. It will be interesting to see him coach in this rivalry at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Duke must find a way to neutralize North Carolina's Brendan Haywood inside.

On the other side is Coach K. He's a master in this rivalry as Duke has dominated in recent years.

The North Carolina fans are going to see some cheering, baby! The Tar Heels will invade a hostile environment, and it will be bedlam. The fans will be rockin' and rollin' big-time at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Duke has some momentum after its gutty win over a very good Maryland team. The Terps dominated the action for 39 minutes, but the game goes 40. In the last minute, you couldn't tell Jason Williams and Shane Battier that they would go to the locker room with an L.

North Carolina survived a scare against N.C. State on Sunday. The Wolfpack closed the margin to one point before the Tar Heels enjoyed a late run to prevail.

There have been other good challenges to Carolina, like the College of Charleston game. But the Heels have been impressive in answering those challenges this season.

Doherty has done a great job exciting this team, especially since the arrival of the two football stars, Ronald Curry and Julius Peppers. They have become a factor and the Heels haven't lost since they joined the team. Curry has added stability while handling the basketball. He's also a defensive stopper on the perimeter.

The keys to the game aren't difficult to figure. Will Duke be able to negate North Carolina's great size inside? Kris Lang and Brendan Haywood, along with Peppers and Jason Capel, provide matchup problems. Lang and Haywood will be tough on the low blocks. Both are so effective on the interior.

Will Duke be able to negate North Carolina's great size inside? Will North Carolina be able to negate Duke's lethal perimeter game?

Haywood can dominate a game, as he did against Wake Forest. Coming off two of his poorest performances in a Carolina uniform, Haywood was a major factor with 24 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots, including the winning hoop.

Another question to be answered is: Will Duke point guard Jason Williams be able to do his thing against Curry? That's another aspect to watch. Curry has made big plays all season long.

Will North Carolina be able to negate the lethal three-point shooting and perimeter game of Duke? The Blue Devils will attack defensively, trying to force turnovers with their pressure. That leads to offensive opportunities off transition situations. Handling pressure and getting the ball into the interior are two challenges for Doherty's squad.

I can't wait for this matchup, baby! Will the fans down on Franklin Street have something to celebrate? These are two C-L-A-S-S programs. There are class players and class coaches, featured in a big-time environment.

North Carolina vs. Duke, a special meeting. It is the premier matchup in the sport. It should be fun to watch.

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