There will be those in the national media who will use the mass departures as an opportunity to rain on Carolina's championship parade, and inevitably there will be those closer to home who will vent their disappointment at this set of decisions.
I'm not having any of it. This is a good day, a day that reflects well on Carolina basketball, a day in which three great players are taking the chance to fulfill their dreams.
Here are three (with McCants four) young men who are about to enter the elite of their profession, a place only a very small percentage of Division I basketball players ever reach, a place only a minuscule percentage of kids who've ever picked up a basketball and dreamed reach. To put yourself in position to be an NBA first-round draft pick is a massive achievement, and when people you like and care about succeed (in anything) at such a high level, the appropriate response is to be happy for them and proud of them.
In the case of the three juniors, it may be worth recalling, first, that few expected Felton, McCants, and May to all be in school as long as three years when the trumpeted trio arrived in Chapel Hill in 2002; Carolina fans are lucky and blessed that they each stayed this long. It would be extremely difficult to argue that there are compelling basketball reasons for any of those players to return to Chapel Hill next year. Here are three guys who've each made massive improvements as players, have grown enormously as people, have achieved just about all the individual and team goals you could dream up, and will leave campus within shouting distance of their college degrees. There is simply no reasonable ground on which any of those decisions can be questioned by outsiders.
The case of Marvin Williams is perhaps slightly different, in that one could make a coherent argument that he has still has room to grow as a player within the college game, and might benefit from spending a year as "the man" on a young team. That would have been fun to see, but that option has to be weighed against the reality that right now Williams has a chance to be a top 3 pick and to secure his financial future for life. While the pros and cons of Marvin's decision are perhaps not quite as clear cut as for the departing juniors, it would take a massive act of denial or blindness to fail to see that Williams has excellent reason to make the choice he did.
Carolina basketball has long insisted that in the offseason, when facing life choices such as these, players are to be encouraged to do what is best for themselves and their families. That is what has happened these past two weeks, and it should be seen as a proud moment when a program is able to put so many players in position to fulfill their dreams, and has the maturity to send the departed players on their way with a whole-hearted blessing that contains not a whiff of resentment, guilt-tripping, or whining about the implications of what these departures will mean for next season's team.
This is not, of course, to say that there is no sadness or wistfulness associated with today's news. It is proper and appropriate that Carolina fans will miss seeing each of these players suit up for the Tar Heels, and no doubt Tar Heel fans will fantasize for years about what might have been had things worked out differently.
But it just doesn't make much sense that there should be any resentment or bitterness over four players who are eminently qualified for the NBA, and who just three short weeks ago provided Carolina supporters with the greatest thrill you can get as a sports fan, deciding to do what's best for themselves. On the contrary, I hope Carolina fans will be profoundly grateful to each of these players, first for coming to Chapel Hill to start with, and second for the effort they've put in and drama they've provided, culminating in a national championship. If you cheered madly, jumped up and down, and lost your mind for a few minutes back on April 4th when the Tar Heels won the title, you have reason to be grateful for and appreciative toward this set of players (and their teammates), a fact most Carolina fans already recognize.
As for the consequences of these decisions on the basketball program in Chapel Hill?
Don't worry, be happy . . . unless of course your name is Roy Williams or you're a member of his staff.
There is no question that this possibly unprecedented mass departure represents a challenge of the highest magnitude for Williams and his able assistants. The first order of business is to see whether there are ways to augment the already impressive incoming class, especially in the frontcourt. Once that is done and the fall arrives, there will be the unique challenge of coaching what probably will be one of the most inexperienced teams in the history of high-major college basketball.
It's a pretty safe bet that Carolina is not going to be a contender for any championships next year. If that seems tough to swallow, consider that it is happening for the very same reason that the Tar Heels were able to capture the NCAA title (possessing a large group of talented players who all ripened to fruition together). I expect next year's team to play hard, try to learn what it means to play together and play smart, and to improve visibly over the course of the season. Hopefully that will be good enough to secure Roy Williams' team its accustomed berth in the NCAA Tournament. Whether it will or not, I don't think anyone can reasonably guess at the moment.
But while Carolina may be a little and perhaps even a lot down next year, there can be little doubt that before long what can be legitimately called the best coaching staff in America will have the Tar Heels back among the elite. This is so certain to happen that it's not even worth worrying about. There may be some questions about exactly "how" and "how fast," but there is no question of "if" in play here.
In the meantime, go ahead and buy as much championship paraphernalia as you think you need to cushion the emotional blow of losing four cherished players and to help confront the reality that there is not going to be another championship run for a little while.
Be prepared to tune in with pride on draft night in June when as many as five Tar Heels walk up the podium to shake hands with David Stern.
And be prepared to cheer like all-get-out for the young, inexperienced team that will represent the University of North Carolina next season, knowing that if we've learned anything from the last four years, it's that players who struggle and at times look like ugly ducklings early in their careers can with the proper guidance mature into beautiful swans capable of winning the whole thing.
Rashad McCants, Raymond Felton, Sean May and Marvin Williams, bless them all, won't be back; but Carolina basketball will.
Thad Williamson is author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many, available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org/bookstore.html. For an archive of some of Thad's best articles over the past decade, head to the Thad Williamson Archive. You can email Thad at thwilliamson(nospam)@earthlink.net