For all the hand-wringing about North Carolina's non-league losses to UNLV and Kentucky, its 33-point meltdown at Florida State or its late collapse against Duke, the Tar Heels find themselves in an enviable spot at the conclusion of the regular season.
They're in prime position to snag one of the final No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament if they win the ACC tournament next weekend.
That was merely one of the outcomes of North Carolina's 88-70 demolition of rival Duke on Saturday in Durham. The Tar Heels also secured an outright ACC regular season title and avenged their loss in Chapel Hill last month when Austin Rivers culminated a frenetic late comeback with a buzzer-beating three.
Although North Carolina hasn't looked as formidable as expected for long stretches of the season, the Tar Heels have dominated the latter half of ACC play in a manner befitting the near-unanimous preseason national title favorite. They've reeled off seven straight wins, all of them by nine or more points besides a 54-51 victory at Virginia.
What made Saturday night's game so one-sided was Duke's inability to slow down the tempo, to stop the Tar Heels or keep them off the offensive glass.
Point guard Kendall Marshall had 20 points and 10 assists, Tyler Zeller had 19 points and 10 rebounds and three other Tar Heels also scored in double figures. North Carolina shot 54.5 percent, out-rebounded Duke 45-28 and built a 24-point halftime lead, the largest halftime deficit the Devils have ever faced at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Duke has shown a penchant for spirited comebacks all season, but this was too deep a hole even for one of the nation's most dangerous three-point shooting teams. When the Devils trimmed the deficit to 11 and the crowd got behind them, North Carolina showed poise in steadying itself and repelling the comeback bid.
The one-sided loss confirmed the consensus opinion about Duke. The perimeter-reliant Blue Devils are Final Four caliber when their outside shots are falling, but their defensive shortcomings both in the paint and stopping the dribble come back to haunt them when they're not scoring at an efficient pace.
Both the Blue Devils and Tar Heels are both alive in the chase for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, though North Carolina is now in better position. Kentucky and Syracuse have all but secured two of the four No. 1 seeds, but the Tar Heels and Blue Devils join Kansas, Michigan State and perhaps Missouri in contention for the other two.
If North Carolina adds the ACC tournament title to its regular season crown, it's hard not to see that being enough to edge out their competition. Then for all the talk about North Carolina's toughness, heart and ability to impose its will on a game, the Tar Heels would be exactly where we expected them to be.
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