North Carolina’s underclassmen decided they wouldn’t put off their goal of playing in the NBA any longer.
The school said Thursday that Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Kendall Marshall will enter the draft, ending a two-year run in which the Tar Heels made deep NCAA tournament runs only to fall a game short of the Final Four each time.
The school didn’t state whether the three planned to hire an agent in its release announcing the departures, though it appears they’re in the draft to stay.
“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 in a statement. “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.”
Henson was a freshman during Williams’ worst season as a head coach in 2010. Barnes arrived a year later as the nation’s No. 1 recruit, though it wasn’t until Marshall took over at point guard midway through that season that the Tar Heels took off.
UNC lost to Kentucky in a regional final that year, but Barnes, Henson and rising senior Tyler Zeller put off entering the draft for another shot at a championship despite being likely first-round picks.
The Tar Heels (32-6) were the preseason No. 1 and won the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season championship for a second straight year, but they fell in the NCAA regional final again amid a dizzying run of injuries — including wrist injuries to both Henson and Marshall.
“I wish we’d have been able to bring our fans a national championship, but it wasn’t meant to be,” Henson said in a statement. “I am proud of what we accomplished, especially the last two years.”
Both Barnes and Henson said in their statements they planned to continue working to complete their undergraduate degrees.
Barnes, a 6-foot-8 sophomore, averaged about 17 points to lead the team. Henson, a 6-11 junior, averaged about 14 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks, and was a two-time ACC defensive player of the year. Both were all-ACC first-team picks.
Marshall, a 6-4 sophomore, won the Cousy Award presented to the nation’s top college point guard earlier Thursday and set the ACC’s single-season assists record. Throw in the graduating Zeller, a 7-footer who was ACC player of the year, and those four starters accounted for 66 percent of the team’s scoring and 59 percent of its rebounding.
While Barnes and Henson have been considered bigger NBA prospects, Marshall’s departure could be the biggest loss considering how he flawlessly ran Williams’ fast-paced offense. The pass-first point guard also upped his scoring late in the year and reached double-figures in his last six games to improve his draft prospects.
“It’s been the greatest two years of my life,” Marshall said in a statement. “I have always put the team before myself and I am extremely proud of what we’ve accomplished. My lifelong dream has been to play basketball at the highest level possible and I feel now is my greatest opportunity to fulfill this goal.”
His value was never more apparent than when he missed the Tar Heels’ last two games after breaking his right wrist.
The Tar Heels barely beat 13th-seeded Ohio in overtime despite a season-high 24 turnovers — the program’s most in an NCAA game in 24 years — in the round of 16. They didn’t manage a field goal in the last 5 1/2 minutes and were outscored 12-0 to close the 80-67 loss to Kansas in Sunday’s regional final.
As for Barnes, he entered each year as a preseason all-American, but for the most part, he never quite lived up to the lofty expectations.
Armed with a polished all-around game but no clear go-to move, he overcame a slow start to his freshman year with some clutch late-game shooting and a 40-point showing against Clemson in the ACC tournament. He seemed more prepared to handle the expectations as a sophomore, but was dominant only in stretches and faded badly late in the year.
Barnes averaged 14 points on 36 percent shooting in the last 10 games. He shot a combined 8-for-30 overall and 2-for-14 from 3-point range in his final two games without Marshall.
The departures mean Reggie Bullock will be the leading returning scorer at about nine points per game for what will likely be a guard-heavy lineup. Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald are both expected back from knee injuries along with P.J. Hairston, who struggled with his outside shot through his freshman year.
Ronnie McAdoo, the father of freshman forward James Michael McAdoo, said his son plans to return to school but will review his NBA options with the family this weekend.
North Carolina also has a recruiting class that includes likely Marshall successor Marcus Paige, a McDonald’s All-American from Marion, Iowa.