Freshmen lead the way, Heels take ACC

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The torch was passed with 17½ minutes to play in the Dean Dome Saturday night.

Correction: The torch was forcibly taken.

North Carolina's halftime lead over hated rival and defending national champion Duke had dwindled from 12 to five, and the Blue Devils had the ball. Nervous minds in the crowd of 21,750 flashed back a month to the game in Cameron Indoor Stadium, when the Tar Heels led by 14 at the half and were steamrolled thereafter in a Duke comeback victory.

Kyle Singler, the preseason national player of the year in many precincts, took a pass and squared up on the perimeter. The senior was in position to make another key play in a career full of them.

That's when Carolina freshman Harrison Barnes took the ball. And the torch.

He swiped them from Singler, drove down and laid the ball in. Duke never got as close as five points again, and Carolina maintained control on the way to a resounding 81-67 victory.

The play was symbolic of the startling role reversal these teams have made in the last two months.

The Blue Devils, persevering through what looks like a season-ending injury to freshman point guard Kyrie Irving, have wobbled just enough to lose their grip on the Atlantic Coast Conference. And along came the surging young Heels to take it from them, winning the league title outright.

Specifically, along came the surging Carolina triumvirate of Barnes, fellow freshman Kendall Marshall and sophomore John Henson. Their rise has roughly coincided with the sagging production of Singler.

If those trends continue, North Carolina will have a deeper run in this final month of the season than Duke.

Barnes' layup was part of his team-high 18 points. During Carolina's seven-game winning streak since that come-from-ahead loss in Durham, he's averaged 17 points and become the team's most versatile scoring threat, instead of just a volume shooter.

"Harrison started taking what the defense was giving him," Marshall said.

Henson racked up 10 points and 12 rebounds against the Devils. That was his ninth straight double-double, something no Tar Heel had done since Mitch Kupchak in 1976 -- not Tyler Hansbrough, not Sean May, not Rasheed Wallace or Sam Perkins or James Worthy.

"John started becoming a terror inside," Marshall said.

And what can you say about Marshall himself? He had 15 points and 11 assists in this game, spending most of the first half driving the ball down Duke's throat in transition. His ability to push the pace was vital in Carolina scoring 51 first-half points, a total no Duke opponent had reached in the last two seasons.

"He's not the most athletic player in the world," said UNC coach Roy Williams. "But from the shoulders up, it's hard to imagine anyone can think it better than he can."

The simultaneous flourishing of Williams' young triumvirate, coalescing around junior big man Tyler Zeller, has transformed this team from a 7-4 question mark to a 24-6 exclamation point.

"We've matured a lot going through the losses this team has had," Marshall said.

On the flip side is Singler, whose decision to return to Duke for his senior year was a big reason the Blue Devils were the prohibitive national favorites to start the season. But sidekick Nolan Smith has taken over the team, and Singler's play has tailed off noticeably on the offensive end in the last month.

From the first Carolina game through this one, Singler has made just 35 percent of his shots. From 3-point range, the career 37 percent shooter has hit just 16 percent in that time. In the two games against the Heels, he was 6-for-31 overall and 1-for-11 beyond the arc.

"He's just not shot well in this last month," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "Look, I've gone to really good places with my best players … having confidence in these guys, and I'll continue to do that. He's been part of 120 wins."

And he'll be part of more. But if Duke is going to win nine more games -- or, most importantly, the six that could follow the ACC tournament -- Singler's shooting stroke must reappear.

Don't bet against him, and don't bet against Duke. As Krzyzewski peevishly pointed out Saturday night, his team is 27-4 despite losing a great player in early December. Two losses in the Devils' last three games -- on the road, in charged atmospheres -- don't taint that.

More than damaging Duke, this game validates North Carolina as a viable national championship contender. Most bracketologists have the Heels maxing out as a No. 2 seed, but what if they win the ACC tourney and beat Duke again along the way? Why can't they be in the picture for a No. 1?

Of course, even suggesting such a thing after the past year around here is fairly preposterous. Last March, Carolina was shuffling off to the NIT after a horrible season. Then it was hemorrhaging players: twins David and Travis Wear unexpectedly transferred last spring; Will Graves was dismissed from the team in October; and in early February point guard Larry Drew II suddenly transferred as well.

"The last 10 months haven't been very easy a lot of times, but that crowd in the locker room has been fantastic," Williams said. " ... The whole program is bigger than any individual and those kids have bought into that."

The player who has truly made Carolina greater than the sum of its parts is Marshall.

Despite his precocious passing ability, Williams brought him off the bench most of the season and he shared the position with Drew. But once Marshall moved into the starting lineup Jan. 18 -- and then his minutes mushroomed after Drew left -- his creativity flowed like an electrical current through the Heels. They're 12-1 since then.

"That's a lot of pressure for a young man to go from 19 minutes a game to 36 minutes, but he relished it," Williams said. "Everybody supported him and everyone loved the way he stepped up and loves to play with him. He's the kind of point guard who does make people better because he gets them the ball where they can shoot and score."

Carolina shot and scored with impressive ease Saturday night in dethroning Duke. It's a young team just figuring out how good it really can be.

"Our potential," Marshall said, "is through the roof."

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.