North Carolina is a National Championship contender … in 2012

I’ve grown so accustomed to college basketball’s one-and-done culture that now it’s startling to see an NCAA team with as much veteran poise as Duke. The current landscape has also trained me to stop looking at a team like North Carolina and making predictions for next year.

In the Blue Devils’ latest win over their blood rivals this week, the defending national champions were down 14 at halftime as Carolina was beating Duke at their own game in their own gym. Most teams would have folded, but senior guard Nolan Smith — who should run away with ACC Player of the Year — led the second-half charge on his way to 34 points and a career-defining performance. But the first thing about Duke’s comeback win that stuck out was that I knew it was going to happen. When Smith hit a three-pointer that cut UNC’s lead to 10 with 19 minutes remaining, I knew they were going to win the game. And I think the Cameron Indoor crowd and a lot of Tar Heels fans felt it, too. That’s a scary element to have in your team’s favor on any level of basketball.

When will North Carolina reach that level again? When will they be the team that you cannot count out of any game? With a couple of key moves this summer — or non-moves, more like it — it should be next season.

Despite Wednesday’s loss and the fact that UNC (17-6) has dropped from Top-10 in the preseason to 20th in the latest Associated Press poll, there is a lot to like about this Carolina squad.

Big men John Henson (14 pts, 12 rebs) and Tyler Zeller (24 pts, 13 rebs) were dominant for stretches against Duke. Small forward Harrison Barnes showed flashes of his Lottery-pick potential, and point guard Kendall Marshall (9 pts, 6 asts) was quietly spectacular in a Jason Kidd kind of way. All four of those players are underclassmen — Barnes and Marshall are freshmen — plus UNC has sophomores Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland and freshman Reggie Bullock making contributions.

If this core group sticks together, along with adding 2011 McDonald’s high school All-Americans James McAdoo (PF) and P.J. Hairston (SG), the Tar Heels will seriously contend for a national championship next season.

Zeller (14.5 ppg, 7.2 rpg) will be a senior, and with Henson (11.2 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 2.9 bpg) and McAdoo will form one of the most talented and productive frontcourt rotations in the country. Barnes (13.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg), Bullock, McDonald and Hairston are a quartet of athletic scorers on the wing. And Marshall and Strickland can be a solid change-of-pace tandem at point guard. This team will be tall, athletic, offensively talented, and will have some more experience. They will be dangerous.

Of course it’s risky to envision the 2012 Final Four when the 2011 NBA Draft hasn’t happened yet. Barnes, Henson and Zeller could all go pro this summer, leaving Roy Williams with another rebuilding job. But if the coach can convince those guys to stay in Chapel Hill, he will be in good position to bring UNC its third national championship since 2005. In the Carolina tradition of Tar Heels alumni returning to campus for summer pickup games, hopefully some of the ’09 squad will make an appearance. The core of that team — Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Tyler Hansbrough — all bypassed a chance to go to the NBA to come back and win a national championship. Their message to this year’s Tar Heels: Stay in school, and you’ll do something more memorable than you will do fighting for playing time on the Cleveland Cavaliers.

This probably isn’t their year, but if North Carolina brings back its 2011 core, they will be right in the national title mix in 2012.