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March 29, 2012

Business of basketball

There may never be another team with the depth of talent the 2009 national champion Tar Heels possessed.

A team with so many National Basketball Association quality players is just too hard to hold together today. The fact that it happened at Carolina in '09 is a fluke, really.

Tyler Hansbrough was unique in that he returned for a senior season after being the consensus national player of the year his junior year. Had Ty Lawson not gotten caught drinking and driving he would not have returned.

Wayne Ellington could just as easily have left as return for his junior season.

Danny Green was not going to be a first-round pick, so it made sense for him to come back. But if you watch NBA games or the highlights on ESPN today, you can see Green playing in the league now and doing a fine job.

The result of keeping those kids, no matter how it occurred, turned into the best collegiate team in 30 years or more. There simply was no second-best team that season.

Fast-forward to this year.

Having Harrison Barnes and John Henson return for the 2012 season rather than leave a year ago is as close as anyone is going to come to holding that much talent together for the amount of time Coach Roy Williams had this group.

And had Kendall Marshall not broken his wrist in the second game of the NCAA Tournament, I still believe this team would be playing for the title on Monday night.

Instead the Tar Heels lost in the round of eight for the second consecutive season. Now Barnes, Henson and Marshall have all decided to enter this summer's NBA draft.

Williams just has to hope James Michael McAdoo doesn't decide to go for the payday, too.

Had Marshall and Henson decided to return to school next season, the 2013 Tar Heels may well have been as dominant as the '09 group. The problem is Henson did stay three years so asking him to remain for a fourth would have been a reach.

Marshall, on the other hand, turned out to be the one none of us expected to leave back in October, but given how fast he has developed, it's easy to see why he is going.

On the day he declared for the draft, Marshall won the Bob Cousy Award as the nation's top point guard. He clearly deserved the honor.

It's great to see, too, for one because so many people quit on him before he even arrived at Carolina. The rankings so many people worship dropped him to as low as the sixth-ranked point guard in the country before he landed on campus.

Even many Carolina fans were fretting whether he could play at this level.

There will be fans now trying to find reasons why he should not be entering this year's draft, defense being the most obvious slight.

Nonetheless, his decision is similar to Sean May's when he chose to go after being the best player in the country the last two months of his junior season, the year he was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four for the national champion Tar Heels.

May's marketability was never going to be better. The same is probably true for Marshall. His game had reached a whole new level by season's end, with his scoring ability blossoming.

As Williams said, if Marshall's offense continues to develop at that rate, he could be almost illegal.

The other factor is that whatever Barnes, Henson and Marshall accomplish as professionals, whether they become star players or journeymen, really doesn't matter at this moment. NBA general managers are standing out there with their collective checkbooks ready to make all three rich, richer with their first contracts than most of us will ever realize in our lifetimes.

Then if they do play well enough to get that coveted second contract, their wealth will grow beyond my imagination, if not yours.

This is where fan complaints break down, too. Most of the people who gripe about these guys turning pro would argue until they are out of breath they are good, solid American capitalists.

If that is the case, then there is no argument against these guys leaving to earn a living. With the exception of future social workers, ministers and public school teachers, few people attend college without hopes of a bright monetary future, even if it is not their sole purpose.

The Carolina basketball program will continue without these guys, and the Tar Heels will win, especially as long as UNC is fortunate enough to have Williams.

His eye for talent is second to none, his ability to recruit ranks the same, and all the numbers by which we measure successful coaches -- winning percentage, overall victories, conference titles and national championships -- place Williams in an elite club of collegiate basketball coaches to ever hold the position.

What makes him even more impressive is how he continues to maintain an elite team each year in an environment of drive-by players.

As for the three who are leaving UNC early this year, how can anyone who claims to care about Carolina do anything but wish those three the best. They, along with senior Tyler Zeller, were foundation on which Williams built his last two elite teams.

These guys all earned your thanks.


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