With its archrival in a tailspin, North Carolina has re-staked its claim as the premier basketball program on Tobacco Road. A spot atop the national polls may soon follow.
The second-ranked Tar Heels will likely regain the No. 1 position if they get past improving Virginia Tech on Sunday and earn an 11th consecutive win.
Ranked No. 1 in the season's first two AP polls, the Tar Heels slid to ninth following a 71-67 upset loss at Northern Iowa on Nov. 21, but have steadily climbed since their other setback, a last-second defeat at Texas on Dec. 12. North Carolina (17-2, 6-0 ACC) has posted nine double-digit victories during its streak behind Division I's second-highest scoring offense at 86.2 points per game.
The Tar Heels haven't been in peak form of late, however. After shooting 50 percent or better in each of their previous five games, they've connected at a 38.1 percent clip in home wins over North Carolina State and Wake Forest. They've hit just 22.9 percent of their 3-point attempts over their last five following a 3 of 18 effort in Wednesday's 83-68 victory over the Demon Deacons.
"Everybody shows up to my weekly press conference and talks about what a great shooting team we are," coach Roy Williams said. "Remember, don't ask me that question any more."
Off to its best start in the ACC since beginning 11-0 in 2000-01, North Carolina keeps on winning despite Marcus Paige's prolonged offensive slump. The senior guard has totaled eight points over a three-game stretch in which he's 3 of 25 from the field and 1 of 17 beyond the arc.
''As long as we win, I'm fine,'' said Paige, held to two points on 1 of 8 shooting by Wake Forest. ''I'll be ready when I'm needed to make shots. (Wednesday), we didn't need me to make very many shots. We just played better than them, so I'm not too worried about it."
While Paige continues to struggle, Brice Johnson bounced back from last Saturday's six-point effort against North Carolina State with 27 on Wednesday. The senior had 15 in a first half in which the Tar Heels forced 12 of their 19 turnovers to build a 46-30 lead.
North Carolina shot just 26.5 percent in the second half, though, and may need a more consistent effort to take down a Virginia Tech team that already owns one home win over a top-five opponent this season, having edged then-No. 4 Virginia 70-68 on Jan. 4.
The Hokies (12-7, 4-2) have already doubled their two-win total in conference play in coach Buzz Williams' 2014-15 debut, and nearly had a fifth when Seth Allen's 3-point try at the buzzer rimmed out in Wednesday's 83-81 loss at Notre Dame.
''We showed great maturity (Wednesday),'' Williams said. ''It's easily the best game we've played on the road since we've been (at Virginia Tech).''
The Hokies are averaging 85.0 points in winning two of three since an 82-58 loss at now-struggling Duke on Jan. 9, their lone ACC game that hasn't been decided by two points or less or in overtime.
Virginia Tech is 3-0 at home in league games but has lost 20 of 21 to ranked opponents. The Hokies have dropped five straight and 10 of 11 to North Carolina, which outrebounded them 49-22 in a 68-53 win in Chapel Hill last January.
The Hokies' last win over the Tar Heels was a 74-70 victory in Blacksburg on Feb. 4, 2010.