Let me get this out of the way.
I went to UNC, graduated in 2010 and apart from family, friends and the game of baseball, there is little I love more than the North Carolina Tar Heels.
This year's team was special to watch as they leaped hurdle after hurdle. They were too young, too inexperienced, too weak in the half court, too banged up, too shaky from the outside and eventually they just scored less points than Kentucky in 40 minutes.
It was one of the more heartbreaking ends to a season—in any sport—that I have experienced as a fan.
Yet I'm convinced—call me crazy, call me a homer—that every single scholarship player on this year's team will be wearing Carolina blue next year. Here's why.
The three possible NBA-ers stand to benefit from another year in school.
John Henson is immensely talented, and I have a feeling his stock will jump when scouts look at his game film (he's currently rated 14th by ESPN's Chad Ford) and take his rubber man measurements.
However, one can't help but see how his offensive game evolved this year and wonder what another year in college will do for him. He will continue to fill out his pencil-thin frame and improve his post moves, which currently consist of a rushed baby hook and a drop-step spin move that relies almost exclusively on length to finish.
Furthermore, while fans saw a glimpse of his jump-shooting late in the season, they miss his range, which extends beyond the three-point line in practice. Another year of free throw repetitions and shooting drills, and he may finally display the offensive game that had him listed as an offensive-minded 6'10" small forward coming out of high school in Tampa, Fla.
Couple that with the National Defensive Player of the Year award that he will be a favorite for next year, and his stock could rise substantially.
Meanwhile, Harrison Barnes has vaulted to the third spot on Chad Ford's board, but still could benefit from another year in college.
He continues to fall in love with his jumper when he can easily beat less physical defenders to the rim. He attempted less than 3.5 free throws a game this season, and as silky as his jumper is, the easiest points in basketball are found at the stripe. Like all freshmen, Barnes could also use work on his defense, especially against the quicker small forwards in college basketball.
It is unlikely Tyler Zeller's stock will rise much, but he is a mere one year from acquiring his business administration degree, which was much of the reason he chose to attend UNC in the first place. His girlfriend also attends Carolina, and as consistent as his offensive game has been, it is unlikely his stock will fall. To an Academic All-American like Zeller, there is more to a college career than absolutely maximizing one's stock in the NBA Draft.
Another less appealing topic is the potential for a lockout in the NBA.
It's possible—not likely, but possible—that a Collective Bargaining Agreement may not be reached this offseason and part or all of next year's NBA season could be cancelled. By entering the draft, players like Barnes, Henson and Zeller would risk a season of inactivity.
Alternatively, they could return to college life and play basketball with some of their best friends.
This team can win the championship next year.
If Kentucky shoots its season average from the three-point line (40 percent) and attempts 22 three's (how many they shot Sunday), they would make approximately nine 3's rather than 12 (their total made Sunday), netting them nine less total points (they beat UNC by seven).
In other words, UNC could be the national title favorite right now instead of Kentucky.
But all bias-laden hypothetical's aside, this team can win the title next year. Depending on who stays and who goes on the national scale, they could even be the favorite, as crazy as that would have sounded three months ago.
The story is different if any of the early-entry candidates leaves.
Barnes became a lethal scorer late in the season, especially during crunch time. Zeller is the Heels' most consistent offensive weapon, especially if he continues to add strength to demand the ball even deeper on the block. And Henson is quite simply the most game-altering defensive player in the country.
Couple the trio with a full season of starting PG Kendall Marshall, a smarter and healthier Dexter Strickland, an injury-free and more confident bench, a pair of dynamic freshmen by all accounts ready to contribute immediately and—scared yet, Duke?
Put simply, if the trio returns, few teams have the talent, chemistry or roster depth to compare with UNC.
Possible NBA lockout, or a chance for a redemption season? Which would you choose?
For anyone who watched UNC gel this year, from the Georgia Tech low to the Duke high, it was a magical transformation. Even Roy Williams has called this team the most rewarding he's had the opportunity to coach, and he's choosing from a long list.
As amazing as the 2010-11 Heels were to watch, imagine being a member of the team—their feeling is that much stronger.
The thing is, you don't have to imagine much with these Heels.
Henson's smile after a precise Marshall lob says it all. Harrison Barnes' silent nod after another perfect down screen says it all. The team-wide locker room response to the age-old question, "Can Kendall dunk?" says it all. The starters' response when Blue Steel enters the game says it all.
These guys love playing college basketball, and even more, they love playing it together. It is plain as day, even to an outsider like myself.
Selfishly, I hope we get to see another year of development from Zeller, Henson and Barnes.
Objectively, I am confident we will.