Final Four Snaps College Basketball Back to Reality

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The Associated Press Top 25 preseason poll had Kansas ranked third, Villanova fourth, Duke ninth and North Carolina 19th — the Blue Devils ranked so low only because of their youth. The Tar Heels were not rated higher because their coach, Hubert Davis, was new to the profession.

Duke starts five McDonald’s all-Americans and brings in another off the bench. North Carolina is talented enough that Walker Kessler, a third-team all-American at Auburn this season, left Chapel Hill because he could barely get off the bench.

It is little wonder that Duke and North Carolina, a rivalry with such a rich historical vein, is the main event of the national semifinals. The two programs, whose arenas are less than 11 miles apart along Tobacco Road, will be playing for the 257th time, but the first in an N.C.A.A. tournament.

North Carolina already ruined the Cameron Indoor Stadium farewell to Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who is retiring after this season, his 42nd at the school. Now, the Tar Heels can torment the Blue Devils and their coach again, denying him a sixth national championship.

That game, on the final day of the regular season, was a pivotal point for both teams. North Carolina got off the tournament bubble with the victory and has looked almost unbeatable for stretches of the tournament. The Tar Heels blew out Marquette and blitzed Baylor, winning in overtime after surviving what would have been an ignominious collapse. Caleb Love’s scorching second half carried North Carolina past U.C.L.A. And against St. Peters, the Tar Heels dominated.

For Duke, the home defeat was a reckoning. Gradually in this tournament, the Blue Devils have found a mettle they had rarely shown during the regular season, rallying late to beat Michigan State and Texas Tech, and fending off an Arkansas charge.

“No matter what you do as a coach, they have to show that level of character, and in this tournament it’s really lifted them,” Krzyzewski said on Saturday night, adding, “I loved them before, but now I respect them so much.”