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June 27, 2012
Two teams that almost surely would have met for the national championship were it not for an unfortunate injury will reveal to the nation on Thursday at 7 p.m. just how talented they were.
Kentucky's team remained healthy and won the national championship. Now center Anthony Davis will cap off the run by going first overall in the 2012 National Basketball Association draft.
Carolina's Harrison Barnes is predicted to be the next player from the two schools to be selected, perhaps as quickly as number four overall.
"Well, I have no record right now," Barnes said, "so things are pretty relaxed and there's no expectation. I'm trying to really just enjoy myself. I've worked very hard to get to this point, and I'm just trying to enjoy every moment."
In all, the two schools are expected to have four players each go in the first round, which is an astounding percentage out of the total 30 first-round picks.
By night's end, the Tar Heels will have sent Barnes, Tyler Zeller, Kendall Marshall and John Henson to their new careers as professional basketball players.
Meanwhile, in this day and age of drive-by college careers draft night is bitter-sweet for college basketball fans. This is especially true for schools such as Kentucky and Carolina.
This year Kentucky fans will be able to rejoice a little more in their players' individual successes because those kids delivered the school's eighth NCAA title.
On the other hand, hearing Marshall's name called will be harder for Tar Heel fans. One would hope people can be happy for Marshall. But just as with parents and their children, it will be tough for UNC fans to let go.
"It's a great day for three youngsters who are taking another step toward their ultimate goal of playing professional basketball," Coach Roy Williams said of his three underclassmen. "On a very small stage, it's a sad day for me because I won't get to coach them again. All Tar Heel fans will miss them greatly as well."
Marshall is one of the most popular players to wear a Carolina uniform. He helped to recruit players to the school from the moment he committed to Williams as a high school sophomore. He has always professed his sincere love for the program and the school.
He became the single-most important player in turning the program back to its normal level of success after the Tar Heels failed to make the NCAA Tournament in 2010, when point guard Larry Drew proved to be a bust.
Marshall's importance to the success of the team grew right until the moment he was knocked to the floor on a hard foul (one might argue a cheap shot) against Creighton in the NCAA Tournament, breaking Marshall's hand and Tar Heel fans' hearts.
Carolina had learned its lessons on what it would take as a team to make it to the final game, but doing so without the engine that ran the show until that point proved to be too much.
Thursday will be a special night for all four players, each for their own reasons. Barnes is going high in the draft after taking the chance of two years in college, so he will be rewarded for that.
Zeller is a completely different basketball player than the one who arrived on campus in the summer of 2008. He leaves as the reigning ACC player of the year, far stronger and just as fast when it comes to running the court. The improvement he made as a rebounder was astounding, really.
He has other talents that perhaps were not utilized at UNC because his presence was needed near the basket.
"I didn't shoot a lot at Carolina, but I think I can shoot the ball much better than I've ever shown," Zeller said.
Then there is Henson.
The young man who always seems to smile grew from a gangly freshman who made people wonder what Williams had seen in him to being one of the finest basketball players in the nation. His baseline jump shot never got enough credit. It has a touch as sweet as anyone's.
With his wingspan there is no reason he should not continue to develop that shot and use it to become a consistent scorer in the NBA.
Barnes, Zeller and Henson plan to be in New York for the draft. Marshall is opting not to attend.