North Carolina finally may have to relinquish its title.

Heading into the home stretch of the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball race, Duke looms the smart bet to win the championship for the first time since 1966.

Tar Heels' demise will begin today as 20th-ranked Duke hosts struggling Maryland and 17th-ranked Virginia travels to No. 11 North Carolina, which is crippled by the loss of key frontliners Mike O'Koren, Rich Yonaker and Geff Crompton.

A Carolina loss and a Duke victory would tie the schools for first place at 7-3, each with two games remaining. The Blue Devils host Clemson and Carolina travels to N.C. State before Duke and the Tar Heels clash in what premises to be a rumble of a finale.

State is still in the title chase with a 5-4 mark and games left at Clemson tonight, at home against Carolina and at Wake Forest.

Virginia, at 5-5, has only Carolina and Maryland left while Wake, 5-5, plays at Maryland and takes on N.C. State at home.

There are six reasons why Duke emerges as the favorite. They are O'Koren, Yonaker, Crompton, Jim Spanarkel, Gene Banks and Mike Gminski.

O'Koren will miss today's game and is doubtful for the State contest because of a sprained ankle. Yonaker, a solid center, is out for the season after knee surgery. Crompton has been declared ineligible until the ACC tournament for playing in four recreational league games in December, 1976.

As for the other reasons - Duke's Spanarkel, Banks and Gminski - they are more than healthy. Maryland assistant coach Joe Harrington said yesterday. "The first time I saw Duke I said those three guys could start on any team in the ACC, probably on any team in the country."

Spanarkel is lethal from the free-throw line and is the second-leading scorer in the conference. Gminiski is intimidating on defense, a shot blocker and a rebounder who gets easy baskets for himself on the offensive boards and serves off defensive rebounds to Banks on the fast break.

Helping Duke tonight will be the usual group of Devilish fans sitting behind Maryland's bench, doing the usual bizarre things. Last week against State they threw underwear on the court, ribbing State players Tony Warren and Kendal Pinder about an incident in which they allegedly changed price tags on some undergarments while shopping.

Tonight Duke fans reportedly plan to wear skin caps in honor of balding Coach Lefty Driesell and dunce caps in honor of the four Maryland players who were on academic probation last fall.

It is unknown if the aching Al King, or the slumping Billy Bryant, or the inconsistent Earnest Graham will start at small forward for the Terps.