Can North Carolina steal Duke's thunder?

The college basketball season isn't far away. It’s time to start looking at the important questions that will shape the 2016-17 season.

In case you haven’t heard, Duke is going to be very good this season. Harry Giles’ knee surgery notwithstanding, the Blue Devils are loaded with talent, experience and a ridiculously gifted crop of freshmen. Their coach isn’t too bad, either.

And so, not surprisingly, as reporters and others make their annual preseason pilgrimage to Tobacco Road, they understandably will point their rental cars in the direction of Durham.

But what if the prognostications aren’t aimed in the right direction? What if there ought to be a Tobacco Road detour?

What if North Carolina, of all teams, steals Duke’s show?

It is not out of the question, not in the least. The Tar Heels won’t be considered the most likely challenger to Duke’s presumed victorious march to March Madness. Kentucky, Kansas and Villanova will be at the top of that list. But North Carolina is more than an outlier. It’s an interesting option, hovering dangerously on the edges, ready to pounce.

In any other year, frankly, folks would be quite taken with the Tar Heels. They return three starters in Joel Berry II, Kennedy Meeks and Justin Jackson, plus three significant contributors from a season ago in Nate Britt, Isaiah Hicks and Theo Pinson. North Carolina doesn’t have the eye-popping freshman talent of its archrival, but five-star Tony Bradley, guard Seventh Woods and wing player Brandon Robinson represent the 13th-best class in the nation, which isn’t too shabby.

North Carolina has issues, certainly. Paramount among them is replacing Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige. Johnson was the team’s leading scorer and rebounder last season; Paige, the most reliable assist man. Paige endured a season-long case of the yips, a scoring slump that removed him from national award consideration, but in a weird way, that may have helped the Heels.

Unable to rely on their senior for points, other players were required to fill the void. Berry tripled his scoring production, going from 4.2 points as a freshman to 12.8 as a sophomore, and Jackson, an enigma of a player, pushed up his numbers as well (12.2 points per game).

Scoring points, of course, is the easy part. Or at least easier. Replacing Johnson and Paige’s leadership serves as the real challenge for North Carolina. Johnson was more fiery than the cool and collected Paige, but the yin-and-yang dynamic served the Tar Heels and Roy Williams well. It’s up to someone else to take over now.

Presuming someone does -- odds are it will be Berry and Meeks -- while Pinson and Hicks grow comfortably into more expanded roles, the Tar Heels have every X and O to slide into Final Four consideration.

But the real reason North Carolina could challenge Duke’s supremacy has little to do with anything measurable or even visible on the basketball court. Look, selling North Carolina as an underdog is about as reasonable as pitching the New England Patriots or Alabama football in the same light. The Tar Heels have every possible advantage, just as the Blue Devils do.

There is, however, something to be said for an underdog mentality. Misjudged all of last season by critics who thought Carolina lacked the oomph or the fire to win consistently, the Heels circled the wagons, using the criticism to fuel a run to the ACC tournament title and a ride to the national championship game. In three ACC tourney games and their first five NCAA games last season, the Tar Heels beat their opponents by an average of 16.6 points per game, with a four-point win over Virginia in the ACC finale serving as the only time a team finished within single digits of Carolina.

Finally, in the national title game, the same team dogged for a lack of gumption and heart rebounded from a 10-point deficit in the second half to tie the game with 4.7 seconds left on Paige’s circus 3-point shot.

And then, of course, it was all negated by one flick of Kris Jenkins’ wrist, Villanova’s 3-point buzzer-beater negating Paige’s shot for the ages and handing the hardware off to the Wildcats.

Take that disappointment and mix it with a new season in which North Carolina’s vaunted rivals down the road are getting all of the love and attention, and you’ve got a talented, experienced, angry team out to avenge a crushing defeat with a chip on its shoulder.

That’s the recipe for a show stealer.