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A Triangle Equal to the Sum of Its Hoops

THE gentle hills of the Triangle region of North Carolina are spangled with the prim brick McMansions of migrant techies lured by opportunity and temperate weather almost any day is good for squeezing in 18 holes. Out on the wandering back roads, tall pines still cast thin shadows, turning a sunny-day drive into a sparkling strobe-light show. Just roll down the window to air out your soul. The Triangle, bounded by the cities of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, is an easy place to live and an even easier place to visit. Refill your sweet-tea glass and sit a while.

But at this time of year, an earlier immigrant from the North slices its pleasant homogeneity into three. The pulsating indoor game of college basketball takes over, dividing loyalties and generating friction. In the Triangle, even if you are not a fervent fan, you must share the deep regional certainty that basketball is really, really important.

The Triangle has three universities, and each of them Duke in Durham, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State in Raleigh has won at least one National Collegiate Athletic Association championship since 1982, when a skinny freshman named Michael Jordan helped the University of North Carolina win a national title. All are fine educational institutions that become even finer in Carolina when their basketball teams win. The women's basketball teams win a lot on Tobacco Road, too, though they don't pack in fans as the men's teams do. The women's teams at Duke and North Carolina, are No. 1 and 2, respectively, in the latest national poll.

March Madness starts around January on Tobacco Road, after these schools have completed the nonconference portions of their schedules think Psych 101 to dive into the Psych 322: Advanced Cognitive Development-level of Atlantic Coast Conference play. Students, fans and the area's legions of alumni dress in red (North Carolina State), royal blue (Duke) or sky blue (North Carolina) even when they are not at games.

You, too, are invited. Warning: Bring your wallet to feed to lurking scalpers or brace yourself to bid for tickets at an online warehouse like eBay before you arrive. (A pair of tickets to one of the two annual Duke-North Carolina games rituals of a deep rivalry can sell for well over $1,000.) Or skip the battle to get into the arena entirely and settle in with a domestic draft at one of the campus-area pubs at game time.

Each school has its places: Playmakers in Raleigh for North Carolina State, for example, or Satisfaction, a pizza joint in downtown Durham, for Duke. Four Corners near the North Carolina campus is named for the strategy made famous by Dean Smith, coach of the Tar Heels from 1961 to 1997 (record against Duke: 59 wins; 35 losses). We put the volume up for the Duke game, said the manager, Sara Givens-Thomas, so people can root against them.

The games themselves, particularly Duke vs. North Carolina, are passionate. The arenas seem pressure packed, as if the roofs would blow off at any moment. Students, many with their faces painted in school colors, stand for whole games and taunt, in colorful language, the opponents and the officials.

You feel like you're really close to the action, said Michelle Stansbury, a senior majoring in cultural anthropology at Duke.

Home-team players are revered. In the bookshops on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, which runs next to the sprawling, tree-lined University of North Carolina campus, you can pick up a literary best seller or a used economics text and then select from racks of jerseys screen-printed with 50 the number worn by Tyler Hansbrough, the sophomore star forward. (Asked how it felt to be such a celebrity, Mr. Hansbrough, who just turned 21, shrugged and said, That's pretty much true for anyone on the team.)

Eight miles to the northeast, on the manicured campus of Duke University, an incongruous tent city called Krzyzewskiville was functioning one day early this month as impromptu housing for aspirants waiting in line for the limited number of free student tickets, which aren't given out until game days. Mike Krzyzewski is Duke's basketball coach he is bowed to by Duke students as he walks onto the court, and some fans wear chef's hats and aprons, a play on the pronunciation of his name: shuh-SHEF-ski.

This line, for the game with North Carolina scheduled for Feb. 7, had formed on Jan. 2. Wearing a blue Duke ski cap and wrapped in a blanket, Ms. Stansbury sat in a lawn chair at the front of the line. She planned to switch off with friends and go to class and to Duke's other home basketball games the Duke student government has an elaborate list of rules for holding a place in line but she expected to ride it out. It's part of the Duke experience, she said cheerfully.

It is an exclusive experience because Cameron Indoor Stadium (named for Eddie Cameron, a former basketball coach and athletic director) holds only 9,314. Any suggestion of a new arena, however, is always quickly squashed. Cameron is practically a temple to basketball, paneled and cozy on the inside, Gothic and stately on the outside, in the same Duke-Gothic architectural style that finds its highest expression at the campus chapel. Cameron's immaculate corridors, lined with displays of photographs and old uniforms, function partly as a museum. People who come to Duke want to see the chapel and Cameron, said Mitch Moser, the associate athletic director who is in charge of Duke basketball tickets. And not necessarily in that order.

For the games, the atmosphere has been scrubbed to the basics. Cheerleaders dance to pep-band music. Ads are in the corners. The refreshment stand is a place to get a snack, not a meal. Josh McRoberts, a Duke sophomore forward, said, We know we play in a special place.

The students kick-start the zaniness by jumping up and down, and it does not take long for their elders to join in. Midway through the first half of a game against Temple in early January, students pointed to the upper seats and chanted, Crazy towel guy! A middle-aged man wearing a chef's hat stood and to raucous cheers spun a white towel over his head.

There's more energy here than anywhere in the country, Scott Eren, a sophomore political science major from Durham, said through deep-blue lips. In addition to blue face paint, he wore devil's horns.

One night later, three sophomores Brian Everhart, Alec Brinn and Steve McQuaid were painted a lighter shade of blue at the Dean E. Smith Center, a k a the Dean Dome, in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels, No. 4 in the latest men's rankings, were beating the University of Pennsylvania, but Duke, 10th in the poll, was not far from the students' minds. Duke's uppity, said Mr. McQuaid, who wore a belt with Go Heels banner that lighted up like a theater marquee. They don't know anything about basketball. They're all from New Jersey, anyway.

Another dedicated fan, turning his head from the action only when approached for handshakes, was John Edwards, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, who sat with his wife, Elizabeth, whom he met at the University of North Carolina School of Law, and their two youngest children.

IF a Duke game is like a symphony, a North Carolina game is improvisational jazz. The Dean Dome seats a far bigger crowd than does Cameron 21,750 and has a show-biz ambience, with giant video screens and N.B.A.-like pregame music. Its current version of a basketball museum is a sports memorabilia room on the second floor, but an athletic center that's being built next door will have a basketball museum on the first floor.

North Carolina State's palatial 19,000-seat arena northwest of Raleigh has the look of a professional arena, with suites and well-padded red seats. Because the Wolfpack has not been as successful recently in basketball as its two neighbors, a game at North Carolina State, which is not among the top 25 teams this season, is usually easier to get into than one at Chapel Hill or Durham unless the University of North Carolina or Duke is the opponent. Those games are packed to the rafters. State is placing its hopes on a new coach, Sidney Lowe, who was the point guard on its last national championship team, in 1983.

All three Triangle towns have a life outside basketball, even in winter. Raleigh, the state capital, offers big-city amenities museums and galleries, the defending Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes and live music at the Hideaway BBQ and the Lincoln Theater. Durham has the Bulls, the minor-league baseball team made famous in the film Bull Durham, and a collection of lemurs at Duke. Chapel Hill draws high-end shoppers to A Southern Season, a huge luxury food emporium.

For a pregame restaurant meal, the Triangle offers choices, from the elegant Fearrington House's classic French cooking outside Chapel Hill to steaks in a Raleigh-area shopping center at a place called Jimmy V's. It's named for who else? the late Jimmy Valvano, the coach who led State to that national championship in 1983.

In North Carolina, the Tobacco Road to the Final Four

THE best way in and out of North Carolina's Triangle area is through the Raleigh-Durham airport, off Interstate 40 between the two cities. You will know this is basketball country because the airport has an Atlantic Coast Conference souvenir store and there is the Carolina Varsity Bar and Grill.

Information on Triangle basketball is at the universities' sports Web sites: www.goduke.com; www.gopack.com; and www.tarheelblue.com.

Franklin Street in Chapel Hill is the main thoroughfare for the North Carolina campus. Four Corners (919-968-3809) is at 175 East Franklin Street. Sit at the lunch counter at Sutton's Drug Store (159 East Franklin Street, 919-942-5161), which has been open since 1923, and try the Tar Heel turkey club for $5.29.

Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, the main drag next to the North Carolina State campus, offers slightly funkier choices. The medium better described as enormous Italian subs ($6.99) at Sub Conscious (3209 Hillsborough Street, 919-833-3495) are on fresh rolls. Playmakers (919-743-5544) is at 3801 Hillsborough Street. In Durham, Satisfaction (919-682-7397) is at 905 West Main Street.

Hideaway BBQ (2210 Capital Boulevard, Raleigh; 919-828-5226) features country music. The Lincoln Theater (126 East Cabarrus Street, Raleigh; 919-821-4111) offers a variety of music.

At the Fearrington House (2000 Fearrington Village Center, Pittsboro; 919-542-2121), a three-course French meal is $65. At Jimmy V's Steakhouse & Tavern (MacGregor Village, Cary; 919-380-8210) the 36-ounce porterhouse is $46.

The Duke Lemur Center (919-489-3364; www.lemur.duke.edu), which gives refuge to a wide variety of endangered lemurs, lorises and bushbabies, has tours by appointment.

The Triangle is an excellent place to play golf year-round. The University of North Carolina's Finley Golf Course (919-962-2349) off Route 54 in Chapel Hill was redesigned by Tom Fazio in 1999. Tee times are accepted up to a week in advance. Greens fees are $45 to $77.

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