CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina was a preseason No. 1 stocked with experience and potential NBA talent that cruised through the regular season showing only flashes of the dominant form everyone had expected.
The fourth-ranked Tar Heels have gotten everyone's attention again.
North Carolina clinched the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season championship by overwhelming Duke in its famously hostile arena. The question now is whether that weekend performance was just one game or the start of something more for the Tar Heels heading into this week's ACC tournament in Atlanta.
"In the beginning of the year, we kind of just expected it to happen," senior 7-footer Tyler Zeller said Monday. "We expected, not necessarily to be where we were last year, but we knew how good we could be and we weren't making the necessary steps to completely get there."
North Carolina (27-4, 14-2 ACC) sure didn't look like a title favorite when it lost by 33 at Florida State in January. Nor when the Tar Heels blew a 10-point lead in the final 2½ minutes to lose at home to the Blue Devils on a last-second 3-pointer.
But they haven't lost since. Six of their seven wins have come by at least nine points, with a 54-51 win at then-ranked Virginia on Feb. 25 as the only close call.
In Saturday's 88-70 win at Duke, the Tar Heels — playing with an anger that had burned since the first meeting — jumped ahead 22-5, led 48-24 at halftime and pushed the margin to 26 points early in the second half in a situation rarely seen at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The trick for coach Roy Williams is to get a team with potential NBA first-round draft picks in Zeller, Harrison Barnes and John Henson to play with that same edge every game, regardless of the opponent.
"There were a lot of things that had both teams possibly playing at a really high level," Williams said of the Duke win. "It's hard to simulate all those things because you can't make up stuff. But the big-time teams give that kind of effort mentally and physically and more consistently than the other teams.
"But again, I can't complain about too many things. We can always nitpick. ... My team's had a pretty doggone good year."
Still, there's no denying that difference from a demeanor that ranged somewhere between boredom and indifference during a series of early lopsided wins.
Before UNC's win at Cameron, the toughness from a late-season run to last year's ACC regular-season title and an NCAA regional final only resurfaced in big games like the one-point loss at Kentucky in December or during much of the second half of the 85-84 loss to Duke on Feb. 8.
At times, it was almost as though the Tar Heels wanted to just fast forward through the regular season to March. And here they are, positioned to claim a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament with a good showing in Atlanta.
Williams said his team didn't have a good practice Monday morning to start the week, though he admitted it was "human nature" after the emotional win in Durham.
"We were lacking energy," sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall said. "On one hand you can say it was expected, but at the same time, we're striving for bigger goals. That's not the first step we want to get out to going into these next three games."
The players certainly got a lesson in the importance of refocusing after a big win at this time last year. They followed a win against Duke that secured the regular-season crown with a flat performance in the ACC tournament. They had to rally from 19 down in the second half to beat Miami in the quarterfinals, then from 14 down to beat Clemson in overtime in the semifinals.
By the time they faced the Blue Devils in the championship game, the Tar Heels — Marshall, in particular — had nothing left and lost by 17.
And even that pales in comparison to the Florida State debacle. The number "33" from that loss is still written on a board in the UNC locker room, a humbling reminder of the worst-case scenario if the Tar Heels don't play to their potential.
"I think you have to be able to pick up your focus, your concentration, your effort, just your play in general," Zeller said. "You lose, you're done. And for me, that's the end of my college career."