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Harrison Barnes to Return to UNC; Heels Now the Prohibitive 2012 Title Favorite

Well, that settles it. Carolina now goes from Final Four contender and likely top-5 team to National Title favorite who will wear a target on their backs for much of the year. From the official UNC release:

North Carolina forward Harrison Barnes, the 2011 Atlantic Coast Conference Rookie of the Year, will return to the Tar Heels for his sophomore season.

“As an 18-year old, I’m in the early stages of my life journey,” Barnes says. “I’m honored and blessed for the chance to play in the NBA. And because of my family, teachers, passion, and work, I have the ultimate dream of one day playing and experiencing a fulfilling career in the NBA.

“Opportunities, both beneficial and life changing, can seem to make the next phase of my journey an easy decision. But I am a student-athlete at the University of North Carolina. I’m here to experience college life, grow as a person, receive a quality education, and be part of the greatest basketball family in college sports.

“The experiences I’ve enjoyed on and off the court will be invaluable. These experiences will help fuel my journey in the NBA and beyond.

Obviously, this is great news for the Tar Heels and a bit of a relief, if only because with the return of Perry Jones to Baylor, Jared Sullinger to Ohio State and a handful of other lottery picks spurning the draft, Barnes was more of a lock for the draft’s top 5 than ever. Outside of just Chapel Hill, it’s part of a bigger trend that will be good for basketball as a whole. After a few seasons of relative mediocrity, in 2011-12 the college basketball landscape looks to be as rich with talent as it’s been in years, and the 2012 NBA draft is shaping up to be absolutely loaded.

The only thing keeping me from unbridled joy at this point is the knowledge that rooting for a juggernaut isn’t quite the same experience as rooting for, say, a young overachieving team that wins the fan base over with its clutch play and team chemistry as it continues to grow throughout the year. If all the expectations that UNC has now set up for itself are actually met, and the year ends in a title, then we all breathe a giant sigh of relief and soak up the enjoyment of watching a truly great team fulfill it’s incredible potential. But it’s not particularly easy knowing that for next season, anything short of a championship will be considered a dissapointment for Carolina.