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June 28, 2011
Summer of sun
The 2009 North Carolina team showed what a combination of experience and talent can accomplish in today's watered-down college basketball.
That team steamrolled the competition on the way to the title, exposing the rest of the field for all its weaknesses. This team has the potential to do the same, particularly given the relative soft underbelly of the last two tournaments.
"I've had five or six team that I thought, if they get lucky," Coach Roy Williams said, "if things go well, that they have a chance to win a national championship. That is the same kind of thing I think with this team."
The irony is that UNC is the school with the tradition of sending its greatest players off to the National Basketball Association early with the blessings of its coach, sometimes even at the urging of its coach.
Dean Smith practically pushed Michael Jordan out the door after his junior season.
"I told Mrs. Jordan, 'He can still come back and get his degree,'" Smith often said when spoke of the moment.
Can you really imagine any other coach in the country even suggesting, particularly at that time, a player such as Jordan should leave early for the pros?
Williams may not push his guys out the door, but he holds it open. He gives them all the information he can before they make the decision to stay or return and he also gives his blessing. Williams understands how much money is involved and he knows the dream of practically every kid he recruits is to play in the NBA.
Yet in 2009, Williams had the closet thing we will probably see again to the old senior-oriented teams of years gone by, and it showed. The 2005 team was different only because it was entering new territory as a Carolina team resurrecting tradition.
The members of 2009 had been to the 2008 Final Four.
Those kids swam against the stream by returning to school and rewarded themselves with memories they will carry for life.
"You're really, really lucky if you have great leadership on the team, if those guys understand what the possibilities are," Williams said. "With Raymond Felton, Sean May and that group [in 2005], they really understood that.
"With Tyler Hansbrough, Marcus [Ginyard], Bobby [Frasor], Ty [Lawson], Wayne [Ellington] and Danny [Green], all those guys understood what their possibilities were. In the off-season, they prepared that way."
The team returning this fall will not be as experienced as either of those, but it may be every bit as talented. In Harrison Barnes, it has a truly rare individual. There are not many players with Barnes' talent and potential who would come back for a second year of college.
He did, however, and because he is coming back, along with John Henson and Tyler Zeller, two more players who could have been drafted in the first round, Carolina is once again going to have a monster of a team.
"There was one point I thought we were going to lose all three," Williams said. "There was one point, I thought we were going to get all three back and everything in between. I was not surprised by John and Z because of the conversations I had with them. I had gotten the impression that was the way they were leaning.
"Harrison is a great poker player," Williams said, "or could be. I really went back and forth on what I thought he would do."
Barnes certainly did not return to lose.
"Just think about the Kentucky loss [in the round of eight]," Barnes said. "With so much at stake, I think they had more of an edge than we did. When we lost that game, our season ended.
"Just having that chip on your shoulder, just knowing if you don't come out with the right edge, your season can be ended like that, I think that is going to keep us on our edge all year."
About the only hurdle one can envision stopping this club is injury, and after what everyone saw with all the injuries in 2008, '09 and '10, that possibility is very real.
Nonetheless, there is no reason to be pessimistic as the heat of the summer increases. Now is the time to relish in what is to come and the fact that those big three did return to school.
"If I'm advising the Carolina people," Williams said, "I'm saying, 'Look forward to it; enjoy every day; enjoy every game. And if some good things keep happing at the end of the year, enjoy it even more."