Kentucky's Terrence Jones (3) tries to drive to the basket on Tennessee's Tobias Harris during the first half of their NCAA college basketball game in Lexington, Ky., Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2011. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)
All those popping noises you may have heard in the distance Wednesday morning weren’t the last remnants of yesterday’s storms, but rather the uncorking of champagne bottles around the University of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill campus.
After all, it was about that time that the University of Kentucky released a statement that rising sophomores Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones — as well as senior-to-be DeAndre Liggins — will all test the NBA Draft waters.
Not hire an agent, mind you, but test their worth in the upcoming draft, which grows weaker by the minute due to the threat of a prolonged NBA lockout.
Not that UNC hadn’t become the favorite to dethrone defending champ Connecticut before that announcement. As soon as rising sophomore Harrison Barnes announced earlier this week that he would rather attempt to help lead the Tar Heels to the top of college basketball rather than become the top overall pick in the June draft, the Baby Blues became everyone’s blue ribbon favorites.
And that’s when it briefly looked as if UK would still be able to blend its four returning Final Four starters with the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class.
But if Jones, Knight and Liggins all turn pro, there will be only Final Four starter Darius Miller and super sub Doron Lamb to join that quartet, and good as that group might be, they wouldn’t be much better than last year’s UK model, which went 2-6 on the road in an average SEC before jelling late.
With UNC welcoming back its top six scorers — plus fab freshmen James McAdoo and P.J. Hairston — no one’s going to beat them this year with only a six-pack of talent.
In fact, this just might become a better UNC team than coach Roy Williams’ 2005 national champs or his 2009 winners.
They’ll almost assuredly be more athletic, and good as those teams were across the board, there was no single player as potentially dominating as Barnes, who has both the outrageous talent and flair for the dramatic not seen in Chapel Hill since that Jordan guy in 1982.
You could even view next year’s Tar Heels as the perfect college team, blessed with too much inside size and skill to take on man-to-man thanks to Barnes, 7-footer Tyler Zeller and 6-10 shot blocker John Henson.
So you’d zone, right? Yeah, and let Barnes or Hairston — who can swish them from 30 feet out — light you up outside.
And don’t even think about running with them. That’s Roy Boy’s bread and butter, especially with point guard Kendall Marshall throwing some of the prettiest fastbreak passes the college game’s seen since Magic Johnson guided Michigan State to the 1979 NCAA title over Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores.
Not that Kentucky couldn’t still challenge them if Jones, Knight and Liggins all stay. In fact, December’s regular-season meeting between the two in Rupp Arena could still become the highest rated regular-season game of the year.
John Calipari’s teams tend to play more suffocating defense than the Tar Heels and good as UNC might be on the perimeter, a UK team with Knight, Lamb and Miller firing from over the rainbow would arguably be more lethal, or don’t Baby Blue loyalist remember Big Blue knocking down 12 3-pointers in last month’s East Regional final win?
And from a talent standpoint, the UK trio needs to return. Knight could use more muscle, better passing skills and improved defense. At some point, Jones must learn to go to his right, be more consistent on the foul line (he was 0-5 in the Final Four loss to UConn) and score inside more consistently against bigs. As for Liggins, there’s no part of his offensive game that couldn’t use a coat of polish.
But it’s the lure of NBA money that may be tough for the Cats to ignore, even with the threat of a lockout. The return to college by Barnes, Zeller, Henson and Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger means Knight and Jones could find themselves safely inside the top 10 rather than hovering on the fringe of the lottery. And though Liggins remains a doubtful first-rounder under any scenario, the 23-year-old will probably fall further down the draft board a year from now, if only because the 2012 draft figures to be the strongest in years.
So go ahead and pencil in UK’s draft testers as draft choices come June. Then fill out North Carolina’s run through the 2012 NCAA Tournament bracket in permanent ink. The Tar Heels won former coach Dean Smith both of his national championships inside New Orleans’ Superdome. Expect Roy Boy to win his third under the same roof, quite possibly as the sport’s first undefeated champ since Indiana in 1976.
Unless, of course, UK’s trio of testers all become draft dodgers. Then we just might have a clash of titans capable of creating the best college basketball season in decades.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...