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March 28, 2011

UNC could be monster in 2012

Right or wrong, the game of college basketball is woven so tightly within the culture in the state of North Carolina that no matter how much the team achieves, anything short of a national title requires a period of mourning.

Carolina's coaches, players and fans eat, sleep and dream this game.

But if there was ever a year to cast aside "would've," "could've" and "should've," this was it.

The team did. The Tar Heels went out and played.

They started virtually from scratch. The lineup at the end of the season consisted of two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior who had never played a full season because of injuries.

The Tar Heels opened 4-3 in November 2010, and one could almost hear the fan base groan in fear of another NIT appearance.

Coach Roy Williams just kept telling us the team would improve as the season progressed -- and did it ever. From the start of the ACC schedule until that final night at the Smith Center against Duke, no team in the league improved more than the Tar Heels.

As their run in the NCAA tournament showed, they were able to regain the mental focus that slipped at the ACC Tournament and continue their improvement.

Kentucky ended the season for the Tar Heels in the round of eight, one game shy of the Final Four. That is a million miles from the postseason NIT and the feeling of failure and humiliation some of the coaches and players surely felt a year ago.

When the season started at 4-3, I dare say there is not a Carolina fan anywhere on the globe that would not have taken a first-place finish and a trip to the round of eight and 29 victories at the end.

If you really watched the team, though, not just the basketball and whether it went into the bucket, you would have seen something truly special: a team that overcame personnel losses and errors of youth to draw together as tightly as any group since the 2006 group that had such an amazing season.

Harrison Barnes likes Kendall Marshall so much, every time he looks at him it seems Barnes cannot help but smile. The whole team cared for one another and appeared to play for one another.

Dexter Strickland sometimes received unfair criticism, but this young man has a competitive spirit that will rival anyone on this team or any other, for that matter.

"I couldn't be more proud of my team than I am," Williams said after the loss to Kentucky. "I wouldn't trade my kids for anybody. It's been an unbelievable ride, and they've been an unbelievable group of kids.

"They really made coaching fun. We've had some adversity, and they just kept together and kept coming back, just like they did today. And it was a wonderful, wonderful time for us."

Now for the multimillion dollar question: Who will stay and will anyone leave for the National Basketball Association paycheck.

Had the team gotten to the Final Four, or even won the national championship, there probably would have been several key losses.

Coming up just short may be the hidden benefit in all of this because these kids can see just how good they will be with everyone but Justin Knox returning and two of the finest incoming freshmen in the country joining the team.

Every player will be better. Barnes would have an outstanding chance to be national player of the year and have his jersey parked on the front row next to No. 50.

John Henson and Tyler Zeller could make themselves a few more million dollars in their initial contracts, as could Barnes, by getting better before entering the draft and riding a wave of national publicity in next season's NCAA tournament.

The coming days will be tense ones as the big three decide what they are going to do. If they return, they will have the most dominant team in college basketball since, well, since the 2008-2009 Carolina national championship team that destroyed the competition in the NCAA Tournament.

The coaches and fans have to hope that somewhere in their hearts, these kids want more than the inevitable paycheck they will eventually get.

They have to want to leave a legacy in a program filled great former players and teams. Their talent and experience will give them edge against probably any team in the country.


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