Wednesday, February 19, 2014
The Death of the Middle Class Rivalry
There is a divide growing within this country. Where once existed a thriving class between the elite and the ordinary gasps a shrinking middle ground.
What happened to college basketball's middle class rivalry?
Duke and Maryland met for the last scheduled time Saturday in an entertaining if otherwise unremarkable game. (To be fair, the two teams could still easily meet in the ACC tournament and much less easily meet in the NCAA tournament.) The Blue Devils fought off a late Terp scare to defeat the game-but-less-heralded visitors. It was just like many previous chapters in the series.
The shadow of recency may shuffle our memories, but there was a time last decade when Duke and Maryland played some of each season's best games. But unlike Duke/Carolina, college basketball's polite ruling elite of rivalries, Duke/Maryland seemed to come armed with an edge of working-class nasty.
The series peaked in 2001 when the squads played four times, including Duke's improbable comebacks from 10 down with 55 seconds to go in College Park and 22 down in the Final Four. Maryland earned some momentum the next year by winning the national championship, and the two sides played to a virtual stalemate for the better part of the decade, including several Terrapin victories in vaunted Cameron Indoor Stadium.
But this particular history is not the point. There are countless Duke/Marylands in the rivalry history books whose existence couldn't survive the caustic assault of time.
As the recent wave of conference realignment has shown, there are very few college sports rivalries with the gravity to survive on their own merit. In fact, I will argue there are only two: Duke/Carolina and Louisville/Kentucky, the latter of which is an all-business, non-conference contract.
The college basketball landscape is fully post-apocalyptic. The two great leagues of my lifetime changed overnight as if some great earthquake rewrote geography. The Big East is in two pieces, one of which is going to crown Creighton's Doug McDermott as its player of the year, while the other includes road trips to Houston and SMU. Meanwhile, Syracuse's undefeated ACC record includes wins over Notre Dame and Pitt.
Many basketball dogs have been wagged into submission by their football-money tails.
Look, I am hardly a change-fearing heel digger. Change often brings growth and improvement, and to that end, I'm sure some new rivalries-of-the-moment will emerge in these shuffled deck conferences.
But all of this feels so temporary. The players of quality are gone within five months of their introduction. Conferences are being reconstituted en masse. At this point, the college basketball regular season is little more than a training camp for some kind of post-AAU/pre-NBA purgatory showcase.
One of my favorite "rivalries" in sports is really no rivalry at all. Like Duke/Maryland, UNC/Clemson pits a legendary ACC program against one of the "rest." But the similarity ends there, as the Terps earned Duke's 2000s attention by winning on Tobacco Road, while Clemson, in 57 tries, has never won in Chapel Hill.
The context of these matchups adds untold richness to sports. Every game has its own context that creates narrative starting points like the blind bets in poker. For the North Carolina players, every home date against Clemson must bring pressure and anxiety, as that group tries like mad to avoid being responsible for ending the streak. On the other bench, each year the Clemson players have an opportunity, no matter what else has gone on that season, to earn a place in history. That history settles into layers of context that we can excavate and appreciate like a geologist.
Realistically, Maryland had little choice when presented with the opportunity to jump to the Big Ten next year. By all accounts its athletic department was broke, and more people will watch the Terps' football team get dump-trucked in Columbus and Ann Arbor than in Tallahassee and Clemson.
But let's take caution. What might have been the best matchup in college basketball 12 years ago won't exist going forward, and there really wasn't much debate. The real power in college sports belongs to an elite few, and they aren't doing business on the hardwood.