But the Tar Heels backed up the bookies, not to mention the standings at the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference, with an impressive second half that led to an 89-78 victory over the Blue Devils.
The victory not only means that the Tar Heels should become the No. 1 team in the country for the second time this season -- the sixth consecutive week with a new No. 1 when the polls are announced Monday -- but it also created a three-way tie for first place in the ACC among North Carolina, Duke and Virginia.
"Duke is probably in the driver's seat," said North Carolina coach Dean Smith, alluding to the fact that the Blue Devils will play host to the Tar Heels in the traditional regular-season finale March 5 in Durham. "But at least we're back in it now."
After trying to shoot it out in the first half with the nation's best shooting team, North Carolina (18-3, 6-2) used its superior size inside to build a 15-point lead in the second half. Duke (15-2, 6-2) went from hot in the first half (64 percent) to cold (35.1 percent) and never got closer than six late in the game.
"We did a good job in the first half on their inside players," said Duke forward Grant Hill. "But in the second half [Eric] Montross showed why he's a first-team All-American, Rasheed Wallace showed why he's all-rookie. They're so many of them, I can't remember. I was impressed."
The Tar Heels were quite impressive, playing perhaps their best half of the season that included a 30-10 run that turned a 43-38 deficit into a 68-53 lead with a little under nine minutes left. The Blue Devils got within 75-69 with 2:29 left, but could get no closer.
The victory was the 11th straight at home without a defeat for North Carolina, its fifth straight overall since losing to the Cavaliers in Charlottesville. The defeat broke a five-game win streak for Duke, its first road defeat in six games this season.
"I thought our defense was very sharp at the beginning of the second half, which was the turning point for us," said Smith, whose Tar Heels held Duke to only two baskets in 20 possessions during one stretch in the second half. "But our backcourt did a marvelous job. They had assists, they handled the ball, they didn't turn it over."
The team's three guards combined for 35 points, 16 assists and only two turnovers. Senior guard Derrick Phelps continued his recent surge, finishing with a team-high 18 points on 6-for-9 shooting, six assists and no turnovers in a textbook-perfect 35 minutes.
While their guards kept the Tar Heels in the game in the first half -- they trailed by 40-38, even though Duke had made 16 of 25 shots -- it was the trio of 7-footers who helped North Carolina take over the game in the second half.
After a sluggish start, Montross finished with 16 points and eight rebounds. Wallace came off the bench to score 14 points, while 7-foot senior forward Kevin Salvadori had nine points, five rebounds and three blocked shots. They reduced Cherokee Parks (eight points, five rebounds) to a spectator for most of the second half.
"We expected them to take up some space because they are bigger than we are," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. "We didn't knock it down and we needed to keep them down. They had an amazing streak against us."
The streak actually started midway through the first half. Aftermissing seven of its first eight shots and spotting the Blue Devils an early lead, North Carolina caught fire. It hit 17 of its last 25 shots before halftime, and its first seven in the second half. Duke made only four of its first 26 shots after halftime.
It turned a close and well-played first half -- one that produced nine lead changes and seven in one breathtaking nine-minute stretch -- into a rout.
Only a spurt by Hill, who scored 16 of his game-high 20 points in the second half, brought the Blue Devils within spitting distance.
"Our kids came back," said Krzyzewski. "We played really well in the first half and got beat by an outstanding team. Our shooting let down in the second half. They just played better than we did."
Just as the bookies said.