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

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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_

Gonzaga’s NCAA tournament chances take a major blow in loss to No. 16 SMU

SMU guard Nic Moore (11) shoots over Gonzaga forward Kyle Wiltjer (33) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Jim Cowsert)
(AP Photo/Jim Cowsert)
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Nic Moore scored 18 of his 25 points in the second half and added 11 assists as No. 16 SMU knocked off Gonzaga in Moody Coliseum on Saturday night, 69-60.

The Zags got 20 points and 16 boards from Domantas Sabonis, but Kyle Wiltjer scored just four points and shot 2-for-17 from the floor.

It wasn’t pretty.

And it may have been the end of Gonzaga’s NCAA tournament hopes.

Entering Saturday, the Zags had an RPI in the mid-60s, enough to keep them in the bubble conversation but not enough to make them anything more than a team that will be projected to end up on the cut-line.

The issue is a complete lack of quality wins on their résumé. Gonzaga beat UConn in the Bahamas. That’s a borderline top 50 win. They beat Washington, another borderline top 50 win. Beyond that? They swept Pepperdine, beat Tennessee and own a win over Montana. None of those are top 100 wins, and that’s why the SMU game was such a big deal. The Mustangs are a top 25 team. This was a road game. This win was the kind of thing that the Zags could pin at the top of their profile.

But Wiltjer didn’t show up, the Zags had no answer for Moore and they’ll head back to Spokane needing, in all likelihood, to win the WCC’s automatic bid if they want to dance.

POSTERIZED: Cal’s Jaylen Brown has his dunk contest entry

California's Jaylen Brown lays up a shot against Oregon State in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
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Cal picked up a big win over Oregon State in Haas Pavilion on Saturday night, and the exclamation point was this emphatic dunk from Jaylen Brown: