College Basketball: UNC should be loaded next season

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 18, 2008

By Caulton Tudor
Raleigh News & Observer
It’s an old story in the sense that one party’s despair can be another’s delight.
For North Carolina basketball fans on Monday, the delightful idea of a national championship chase was brought squarely into focus when Tar Heels veterans Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green had to postpone for at least one season their hopes of landing berths on NBA rosters.
The three perimeter performers ó junior guards Lawson and Ellington, and senior wingman Green ó announced that they would return to school for the 2008-09 season, thereby making Carolina the heaviest possible favorite to unseat defending national champion Kansas.
Carolina’s trio waited until the final minutes on Monday before making their notions known, and then not in person but through the school’s sports information department. Underclassmen had until 5 p.m. (Eastern) to either withdraw from the NBA Draft pool or lose their college eligibility. North Carolina’s guys didn’t make it official until about 4:50 p.m.
At that point, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams called it “a long and exhaustive process of gathering information” and said that he was “pleased” the players went through the offseason workouts. Williams also said that all eventually would be NBA players.
Don’t bet heavily on that observation, though.
All three had little choice except to seek safe campus harbor during a perfect storm of available talent to the pro teams. In other words, they weren’t that good.
Only Lawson, a much-injured point guard, was ever remotely seen as a decent NBA first-round candidate. Ellington, an under-sized wing guard, was generally touted as a contender for the second round in the June 26 draft. Green, a sixth man, was sized up from the start as a marginal free-agent hopeful who would likely have to spend a good deal of time in the minor leagues, and/or Europe, before getting legitimate consideration for an NBA roster.
But while there’s not a Chris Paul or Kobe Bryant in the Tar Heels lot, there’s every chance all three will improve their status for the 2009 NBA Draft.
Whether they upgrade their pro stock or not, it leaves UNC with talent aplenty to make a strong go at the ’09 college title, which will be decided April 6 in Detroit. Before that, the Heels should be good enough to open the NCAA Tournament in Greensboro on March 19 and 21 in first- and second-round games. The four regional championships will be staged in Boston (East), Memphis (South), Indianapolis (Midwest) and Phoenix (West).
Other than Connecticut, and perhaps Purdue or maybe even Duke, it’s difficult to pinpoint strong challengers to Carolina’s likely supremacy. The three returnees from Monday, plus senior forwards Tyler Hansbrough and Marcus Ginyard and junior Deon Thompson will give Williams’ team a huge national edge in talent and experience. It is basically the same group that keyed Carolina to a 36-3 record, the ACC championship and a Final Four appearance in 2008.
On paper, Carolina hasn’t had such a glaring edge over the rest of the field since 1984. That team, however, came up short, losing to Indiana in its second game of the NCAA Tournament.
The college game has changed beyond recognition since 1984. That Carolina team had Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, Kenny Smith and Brad Daugherty. The ’09 Heels will not have that many future pro stars. There may not be even one evolving NBA standout, but no team in the nation will begin with anywhere near the same collegiate punch.
They may not win it all. But they should.