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With Duke looming, North Carolina can show it’s still elite

Feb 8, 2012, 9:01 AM EDT

source: AP

If Harrison Barnes is feeling alright, North Carolina has to be feeling pretty good, too.

The 6-8 sophomore forward, who told the News & Observer that it felt “like somebody shot me in the ankle” after reinjuring himself in the second half against Maryland, will be ready to go when the No. 5 Tar Heels match up with No. 10 Duke on Wednesday night.

With Barnes in the lineup, despite the questions that may continue to linger, North Carolina is an elite team.

Critics point out the 33-point loss at the hands of Florida State, the fact that the Tar Heels have, since, only played ACC bottom feeders, questions about defensive toughness, and the loss of guard Dexter Strickland.

All valid concerns, but remember, North Carolina scores the most points of any team in the country, is the best rebounding team, and will start four players who will be drafted in the first round of the 2012 NBA Draft.

This side of Kentucky, no other team can come close to that embarrassment of riches.

North Carolina is 20-3, with two of those losses coming to UNLV and the aforementioned Kentucky. With Tyler Zeller and John Henson, paired with Barnes and all orchestrated by point guard Kendall Marshall, it is difficult not to look at that lineup and trust it down the stretch in March.

Group the Tar Heels together with Kentucky, Ohio State, Syracuse, and Missouri and it may round out the group of elite teams in the country.

Granted, with Strickland out for the season, Reggie Bullock has had to step in, but he has stopped the bleeding rather effectively. The main problem is twofold: Bullock’s move to the starting lineup stretches out the already-underproductive bench and takes out the Tar Heels’ best perimeter defender.

After a string of games against Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, and Maryland, the North Carolina has its chance to make a statement against Duke.

And everything should run through Harrison Barnes.

Expect him to shine against the Blue Devils because there is no one to check him one-on-one. Tied atop the ACC with Florida State, the Tar Heels should look to Barnes early and often to stay that way.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_

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