CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — North Carolina has regrouped after its stunning season-long slide, withstood a line of player defections and overcome the slower-than-expected start of freshman star Harrison Barnes.
The No. 13 Tar Heels are now a win away from doing something that didn't seem likely before the year: chasing down reigning national champion Duke to win the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season championship.
"I don't know if I'd use the word 'surprised,'" coach Roy Williams said Friday, the day before the fourth-ranked Blue Devils travel to Chapel Hill in the latest installment of the fierce rivalry. "I'm very proud of it, but you can't be surprised if you never think in those terms. I told these guys, I started saying five or six weeks ago, that we have big-time dreams and big-time goals that are very realistic, and I really believe that."
North Carolina (23-6, 13-2 ACC) have won 16 of 18 games since losing to Texas on a last-second shot in December. That run includes six straight since losing last month at Cameron Indoor Stadium, where the Blue Devils (27-3, 13-2) overcame a 16-point deficit in the first half before holding on for a 79-73 victory.
The winner this time gets the top seed in next week's ACC tournament in Greensboro.
The Tar Heels look nothing like the team that bumbled its way to 17 losses last season in Williams' worst as a head coach. They also are a long way from the team looked lost in November losses to Minnesota, Vanderbilt and Illinois. Or the one that turned in a clunker in Atlanta and lost by 20 to a Georgia Tech team that has just four league wins.
Along the way, Barnes — who became the first freshman voted Associated Press preseason All-American since voting began before the 1986-87 season — struggled with his shot early as he adjusted to the college game.
But this group has played defense well enough to keep its Hall of Fame coach happy all season and has been tough enough to win six games by three or fewer points. That includes wins at Miami in January and Florida State on Wednesday night in which Barnes hit last-second 3-pointers as part of his own second-half surge.
"We want to win," freshman point guard Kendall Marshall said. "We have that will to win. We want to win badly. I think that's kind of what's eating at our insides, how people keep telling us with all these obstacles that we can't do it. It means that much to us. Nobody wanted to go through what we went through last year, and we just want to come out on top."
That's not to say everything has been smooth in Chapel Hill since the end of last year. Williams was caught by surprise when twin big men David and Travis Wear decided to transfer in May. Then he dismissed fifth-year senior Will Graves — the team's top 3-point shooting threat who averaged about 10 points last year — for breaking team rules about a week before the start of preseason practice in October.
Then, in February, junior point guard Larry Drew II walked out on his team with no warning just days before the trip to Cameron.
This week, the Tar Heels learned that freshman reserve Reggie Bullock would miss the rest of the season with a knee injury. But Williams said his team won't try to change its style to compensate for its lack of healthy bodies.
"To me, they have as talented a team as there is in the country," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "The key thing always when you lose a guy is who you lose. Not that all of them aren't important, they're all important, but some are a little bit more important."
The Tar Heels are also confident. After this week's win against the Seminoles, sophomore Dexter Strickland even went as far to say he believed the Tar Heels — down to just eight scholarship players — would end their three-game losing streak to the Blue Devils on Saturday night.
"It makes the rivalry what it is when players are very confident," said Duke senior Nolan Smith, who had a career-high 34 points in the first meeting. "He has reason to be. The team they saw here in the first half is probably who they think we are as a team. That's not the case. We're the team that was playing in the second half — that played together offensively, made shots and got offensive rebounds.
"But when I hear those comments, when people are very confident they are going to win, we just take them in and say, 'All right. Let's play.'"
Regardless, Barnes said the Tar Heels know they have to come out with the same intensity they did in Cameron, then finish the job this time around.
"The bodies have gotten less and less as the year goes on," Barnes said. "We just have to continue to play. We know we're still a very capable team of being able to beat them, and we just have to go out and just do that."