The North Carolina-Duke game Wednesday night was as big as it gets in regular-season college basketball, and ESPN was all-in, promoting it heavily beforehand and deploying a small army of on-air personnel to cover it.

Then the game lived up to its billing, with Duke winning a thriller, 92-90 in overtime, at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

There was one element noticeably missing, though: Dick Vitale.

After 35 years as the face of the network's college basketball coverage in general and its Duke-North Carolina coverage in particular, Vitale was not in the gym.

Jay Bilas solely handled game analysis alongside play-by-play man Dan Shulman.

While Vitale, 75, was careful not to criticize his employer for the decision, he also did not hide his disappointment.

On Monday, he said to the Raleigh News and Observer, "I told them that I cannot lie when a writer asks me what's my feeling not doing the game. I said I have to be honest. And my honest reply to you is, obviously, I'm a loyal, team player. I will go where my bosses tell me to go.

"But in my heart I will absolutely miss being a part of North Carolina-Duke."

On Wednesday, he took to Twitter. Before the game, he posted this to his approximately 691,000 followers: "It has been an honor to be part of every UNC-DUKE game on ESPN-35 yr streak ends-Can't hide it I will mill miss it."

Then, during the game, this: "I must admit I am eating my heart out not being part of this gr8 rivalry / guess U might say I got addicted to it!"

Then this, in a tweet that referenced me: "@sportswatch It breaks my heart Neil but ESPN is family to me -so proud to still be calling big games but I loved being part of UNC - Duke."

All the above were heavily re-tweeted by Vitale's followers.

ESPN did not respond to the posts, but it did issue a statement before the game, which read: "Dick Vitale is an integral part of our college basketball coverage, calling high-profile games throughout the season and bringing his incredible Hall of Fame presence and passion to the sport."

The network announced in October a contract extension with Vitale through 2016-17. That was around the same time it became known Vitale no longer would be the analyst for ESPN's Saturday night games.

That assignment went to Bilas, 51, along with North Carolina-Duke, scheduling decisions that were made months ago.

What does it all mean? Clearly, that ESPN has begun to institute a succession plan for a post-Vitale world, and has tabbed Bilas as its star of the present and near future.

There are some similarities to this situation and the network's college football play-by-play role, in which this past season Chris Fowler, 52, succeeded Brent Musburger, who is two weeks older than Vitale.

But that decision did not stir passions quite like Vitale's has, in part because Musburger is less associated with ESPN than Vitale is, in part because of Vitale's famously passionate personality.

As the network indicated, Vitale is not going anywhere anytime soon.

But it appears he no longer is going to Durham when the Tar Heels are in town.