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April 6, 2011

Gold standard

Two of the most gifted and productive players from the 2011 NCAA Tournament announced on Wednesday that they are returning to play another season at North Carolina.

John Henson and Tyler Zeller improved from the start of this past season until it ended against Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament's round of eight.

The decision to forego a National Basketball Association payday is a sign of maturity and courage from these two young men. They broke free from a basketball culture that pushes players out of school early.

For so many, their sense of worth is tied to how quickly they toss college aside for professional ball.

Their decisions will certainly fuel Carolina fans' excitement throughout the summer and into October and the beginning of practice.

Their return will also insure Carolina against the possibility that Harrison Barnes may yet turn pro. Coach Roy Williams said he is still gathering information for Barnes and the decision should come next week sometime.

Wednesday's announcement ensures Williams' team will be a national contender, no matter what Barnes decides. James McAdoo and P.J. Hairston's performances at the McDonald's All-America game solidified their status as elite members within this national freshman class.

Their presence, with or without Barnes, adds quality depth to a lineup that should regain its full-throttle approach to offense. There is no reason this team should not average 90 or more points a game.

This past season Zeller made an enormous leap forward. Down the stretch, he played far more physically and aggressively than at any point in his career.

Another summer of physical and mental growth should help Zeller evolve into a truly dominant player. He had already proven he could run the floor with any big man in college basketball, far better than most. He also sinks his free throws and is equally adept at making steals as he is at blocking shots.

He has a little history on his side. Carolina's 1993 and 2005 national championship teams each had a dominant post player from Indiana on the roster. Zeller will have a chance to make it three.

The work for next season begins now. Point guard Kendall Marshall has the summer months to connect with Zeller on a more intimate level, consistently getting the big man the ball where it makes him the most efficient scorer he can be.

In the last year, Henson improved more than anyone on the team. The evolution of Henson began during the final stages of his freshman year, when he moved from the wing to playing power forward.

Henson performed with a newfound passion and desire to excel, both as an individual and as a contributing force to help Carolina win games.

After this announcement, most people realize the Tar Heels will have a powerful team. The next step will be to learn if the most important piece of this puzzle will be here.

Williams has said all along that Barnes is unique. We will find out how unique as he faces this difficult decision. If he turns pro, no one should fault him. He will go quickly in the draft and make incredible sums of money.

Nonetheless, if he is as different as he appears to be, and as much as Williams insists, then leaving a legacy behind will count for a great deal.

Does he want to be remembered for a nice freshman year, or does he want to create a lasting impression within a program filled with the finest college basketball has had to offer through the years.

While no one should blame him if he decides to leave, the fact remains that becoming a one-and-done player will simply mix him in with all the rest of the basketball mercenaries. Ultimately, he will not be unique. He will, in fact, be just another talented one-and-done player chasing great riches.

But if he wants No. 40 to hang alongside No. 50 on the front row of the honored jerseys at the Smith Center, he must return to school and make a quantum leap forward as a ballplayer.

He needs to improve his endurance, as he seemed to tire easily this season. His ball-handling skills will need to grow dramatically. He can only become the player he wants to be in the NBA if he cultivates this aspect of his game.

He must increase his upper-body strength and then use it with improved ball-handling to drive powerfully to the bucket. Barnes is already money on the free-throw line.

He just does not visit often enough.

More than any of these physical skills, however, he will have to start by proving he is willing to travel his own path and not be just another product of the basketball culture.

Barnes needs to defer his huge payday by a year, develop a work ethic equal to Hansbrough's and then suck the marrow from the bones of this game to leave a true legacy.

The decision he faces is difficult, but it is also transparent: chose immediate gratification or prove he is unique by taking the road less traveled.

Eddy Landreth has covered collegiate sports since 1987. He worked for the Durham Herald-Sun, the Winston-Salem Journal and the Charlotte Observer. He was also the editor and project manager for the ACC's 50th anniversary book: "Golden Glory: the First 50 Years of the ACC."


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