Countdown to the Carrier Classic: The Odd Rivalry Between the Tar Heels and SpartansPosted by KCarpenter on November 11th, 2011
For two teams that aren’t near each other, play in different conferences, and don’t have some sort of natural relationship to one another, it’s not an exaggeration to say that North Carolina and Michigan State have an intense and storied rivalry. It’s a rivalry that started out with an absolute bang.
In 1957, Michigan State had a breakthrough year with it’s first share of the Big Ten title and a run in the NCAA Tournament that took the Spartans to the Final Four. There, in the semifinals, the Spartans took on the undefeated Tar Heels in a triple overtime thriller that resulted in UNC eking out a 74-70 win. This led to a championship clash with an also-undefeated Wilt Chamberlain-led Kansas team that somehow also resulted in another triple overtime slugfest and a 54-53 North Carolina victory for Frank McGuire’s team. It was North Carolina’s first national championship. In a consolation game, Michigan State would go on to play the two-time defending champions, San Francisco, which was making its first Final Four run without the great Bill Russell. With all the big names, undefeated teams, and pair of triple overtime games, it was undoubtedly one of the best Final Fours in history. It was also only the beginning of the Spartans’ rivalry with the Tar Heels.
Since that first fateful meeting in the 1957 Final Four, it seemed like these two teams were destined for postseason clashes. On five separate occasions, the two have squared off in the NCAA Tournament, and, unfortunately, for the Spartans, each game served as a bitter reminder of ’57. What the ’98 and ’07 clashes lacked, the ’05 and ’09 matches made up for in terms of stakes and drama. The ’05 game was another Final Four bout that was chock full of exciting moments, while the ’09 championship tilt was a remarkable rematch between two teams that had played each other at Ford Field once already that season. Of course, the rematch turned out to be nearly identical to the regular season game and quickly turned into a UNC rout.
While North Carolina has held the clear edge in postseason play against Michigan State, the rivalry has not been entirely one-sided. Overall, the record between the teams is 10-3 in favor of North Carolina, but Michigan State has had the edge in the ACC /Big Ten Challenge, going 2-1 against UNC in the inter-conference event. Just as the Tar Heels beat the Spartans en route to their ’57, ’05, and ’09 championships, MSU defeated Carolina in the same season that they won the 2000 championship. It’s odd to have non-conference foes square off so many times at such a high level, but for over fifty years these two squads have sent some of their best teams at each other for epic clashes.
The last time these two met was in late 2009 in what was intended as a rematch of the title game that had taken place earlier that year. Somehow, North Carolina managed to pull out a victory despite the relatively inexperienced roster that remained after the NBA and graduation claimed the core of the ’09 championship team. In fact, this victory would go on to be one of the highlights of a season that was otherwise marked by disappointment and disaster as North Carolina would struggle in conference play and miss making the NCAA Tournament, while that same Michigan State team would once again make the Final Four before falling to Butler.
Today, however, it’s an almost entirely new set of characters. Sure Justin Watts and Tyler Zeller will be there again for North Carolina and Draymond Green and Derrick Nix will be there again for Michigan State, but the teams have moved on since that span of three games within one calendar year. Now is a time for a renewal of one of the odder, more historic rivalries in college basketball. They’ve certainly got the venue for it.