The Dagger - NCAAB

Once North Carolina finished dismantling Florida State 89-69 on Sunday in its first game since point guard Larry Drew's abrupt departure, sophomore Dexter Strickland had this to say about the state of the Tar Heels.

"Our team chemistry is at an all-time high now," Strickland told the Fayetteville Observer.

Those nine words from Strickland tell us a lot about the Tar Heels.

1. They believe they're better without Drew, the oft-criticized point guard who quit the team after losing his starting job even though Carolina was in the midst of its best stretch in two years. 2. Their confidence is sky high after a fifth straight win since last month's season-changing 20-point loss at Georgia Tech. 3. They're entering Wednesday's matchup at ACC favorite Duke convinced they're capable of winning.

North Carolina's transformation from underachiever to conference title contender can largely be attributed to the maturation of two freshmen: Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall.

Barnes remained poised in the face of criticism during an unexpectedly slow start in which he shot below 40 percent, struggled to get to the rim and consistently settled for contested jump shots. The 6-foot-8 forward is beginning to show signs of living up to his billing as the first-ever freshman to earn preseason All-American honors, averaging 22.7 points and 7.3 rebounds in his past three games.

Then there's Marshall, the lone true point guard on North Carolina's roster now that Drew is gone.

Marshall's lack of lateral quickness makes him a defensive liability against quicker guards, but there's no denying that the Tar Heels look smoother on offense with him on the floor instead of Drew. He played a brilliant 36 minutes against the Seminoles, scoring nine points on 3 of 4 shooting and helping the Tar Heels' other four starters get at least 15 points apiece by dishing out 16 assists against arguably the ACC's best defensive team.

The victory over the Seminoles kept North Carolina tied in the loss column with Duke and 1.5 games ahead of any other team in the ACC standings. The Tar Heels have now defeated Florida State, Clemson, Boston College and Virginia Tech, though they still have a pair with Duke and rematches against the Tigers, Seminoles and Eagles left on the schedule.

For the opening month of the ACC season, the biggest question facing the league was whether anyone would emerge as a worthy challenger to Duke.

North Carolina has now clearly established itself as the ACC's second best team. We'll find out Wednesday if the Tar Heels are also capable of eclipsing the Blue Devils in the pecking order.   

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