Tar Heels contender for title

? The ACC has another national-title contender, and it isn’t the defending national champions.

Duke still has a shot, even after the Blue Devils couldn’t keep up with North Carolina on Saturday, but the Tar Heels showed just how far they have come — from last season, from a lackluster stretch to open this season and from last month’s loss to Duke in Durham.

Throw out a baffling loss to Georgia Tech, and the Tar Heels have spent two months getting better and better, culminating in an authoritative 81-67 win over Duke. The team that lost in the third-place game in Puerto Rico finished atop the ACC — and has just as much of a chance to make a postseason run as Duke.

Barring the extremely unexpected next week in Greensboro, the Blue Devils will have the higher NCAA seed, based on a more impressive overall resume, but there may not be anyone playing any better than the Tar Heels right now. There certainly is not in the ACC.

If the Tar Heels’ growth needed underlining, consider a Senior Night ceremony oddly devoid of signature moments to recognize, without a single four-year scholarship senior on the roster — and would-be honoree Will Graves playing in Japan.

This very young team has come a very long way, with Harrison Barnes shaking off those early growing pains to become as clutch a player as there is in the ACC, John Henson flourishing in the post and Kendall Marshall taking over, period.

If there was one instant where the balance of power shifted Saturday, it was Marshall spinning past Tyler Thornton for a lay-in, a moment of such individual brilliance that it instantly earned a spot in all those sepia-toned montages of Great Plays in the History of the Rivalry.

Marshall gave North Carolina a chance to win in the first meeting and he did more than that Saturday night, with 15 points, 11 assists and two turnovers. While Larry Drew II is busy planning to celebrate his 21st birthday Monday with Jamie Foxx, Marshall carried the Tar Heels to the top of the ACC in the wake of his departure.

“I think they’re really good,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I said that after we beat them in Cameron. I told you, I think they’re as good a team as we’ve played. That hasn’t changed for me. You have to play really well in order to get some stops against them.”

Duke, meanwhile, had all its weaknesses exposed: A soft middle, especially with both Plumlees in foul trouble; a lack of depth, personified by Ryan Kelly’s struggles at both ends of the court; and Kyrie Irving watching from the bench in jeans and a sweatshirt, a reminder of what might have been if he’d stayed healthy.

As Duke’s loss to Georgetown last year proves, these are not necessarily fatal faults. The Blue Devils looked eminently beatable that night last January and went 18-1 the rest of the way to win the ACC and NCAA tournaments. And they still have the best player in the ACC in Nolan Smith.

But on this night in March, the Tar Heels demonstrated like they had not only closed the gap on Duke but the rest of the country as well. The Tar Heels showed Saturday they’re every bit the equal of the Blue Devils, with the same shot to win it all as the Blue Devils, this year or last.