Just how universal is the Duke versus UNC rivalry? EA Sports cites that classic college match-up as one of the inspirations for its new videogame franchise.

Local athletes have been on the covers of recent college basketball videogames, including UNC’s Raymond Felton on “March Madness 2006” and Duke’s J.J. Redick on “2K Sports College Hoops 2K7.” But UNC and, in particular, the Duke-UNC rivalry, has been a major inspiration of the game makers of "NCAA Basketball 09" at Electronic Arts’ Vancouver Studio. Sean O’Brien, producer of "NCAA Basketball 09," saw a Duke versus Carolina game a couple years ago, and that event confirmed that UNC was his school.

"I grew up watching them play," said O’Brien. "A guy who works at EA Sports went to Carolina. We did a tour and went behind the scenes and met a bunch of people, and I saw Duke play at Carolina and it really reinforced why I work on this title and why I’m so impassioned about the sport of college basketball and how important rivalries are. How the kids on the floor compete in a different way and really step up in a rivalry game – all of those things you’ll see in our game and it’s there because I’m a big believer in these things."

And when it comes to who’s on top this year in college hoops, O’Brien picks UNC to go all the way to another national championship.

"With all of the guys returning from last year, Carolina is the team to beat," said O’Brien. "All of the coaches have said there’s Carolina, and then there’s everyone else. UCLA will be interesting because they lost some key guys, including Kevin (Love), but they have some young guys that can step up.

“Duke should be pretty good,” he added. “The question mark with Duke is who’s going to step up to make them elite. Kansas will have a tough year because they lost so many guys last year. Other than Carolina, there will be a battle to find out who the other three spots in the Final Four are. The Big East, Pac 10, and ACC are all strong this year."

With March Madness just around the corner on March 19, EA Sports has created an exclusive downloadable edition of its best-selling videogame for Xbox 360 called “NCAA Basketball 09: March Madness Edition.” Available Wednesday on Xbox Live Marketplace for $15, the game will initially feature teams from last year’s tournament, and then beginning on March 18, will feature the just-announced official 65 Selection Sunday brackets and accurate teams with updated ratings. This will allow hoops fans to guide their alma maters to Ford Field in Detroit before, or after, the actual Final Four occurs on April 6.

“We really wanted to make our game available to a wider selection of fans that are drawn to college basketball by the passion, excitement and drama that surrounds March Madness,” said Connor Dougan, producer for NCAA Basketball 09: March Madness Edition. “Fans will be able to experience the tournament, feel the adrenaline rush that comes with a single loss elimination tournament and write their own history.”

Both the retail version of the game and the new downloadable game feature all Division I coaches in-game for the first time as a result of a deal with the National Association of Basketball Coaches. They’ll offer advice to gamers throughout the course of a game.

Videogames are a major part of college athletes’ free time. UCLA’s coach has said Kevin Love and his teammates couldn’t wait to get back after a game to play videogames. They’d even set up videogame tournaments on last year’s March Madness 08. (This year marks the first time the college basketball franchise has been re-named NCAA Basketball 09, as EA Sports is now the exclusive maker of college hoops and college football games.)

"What we’re hearing from the coaches is that style of play is a coaching thing," said O’Brien. "When Coach Ben Howland first got here, the team didn’t have his type of guys. Once he started recruiting guys for his style of play, he became more successful. We allow you to go in and do that in the game. It’s an appealing element for Dynasty mode."

In Dynasty mode, players can actually edit the coach, putting themselves in the suit and tie for the first time. There’s also a whole new angle on recruiting and how gamers can funnel through players. The new game has improved the user interface so that gamers can now look at just the Top 50 recruit rather than sorting through 5,000 virtual players.

Another new feature in NCAA Basketball 09 is the role a virtual team’s tempo plays in the game and throughout the season.

"The game tempo with a team like UCLA is going to be to grind it out and run when you can," said Love. "But with a team like Tennessee or Memphis, it’s going to be run it up and down all the time. The tempo’s going to be important this year in the game."

NCAA Basketball 09 has a tie-in with EASportsWorld.com for more community building amongst college hoops fans.

"We have a Rival Challenge, which reinforces the collegiate rivalry," said O’Brien. "I happen to be a Carolina guy. So I live in Vancouver and I can go online and find out who’s playing with Duke and take them on."

Through a partnership with The Weather Channel, college basketball now gets the same real-time weather that NCAA Football 08 introduced last year. If you pick UNC, the game will replicate what the real weather is like in North Carolina at the time you’re playing the game.

"It reminds me what it’s like if you happened to go to school in Ann Arbor Michigan versus living in Los Angeles," said O’Brien.