CHAPEL HILL -- Asked if he was surprised by what happened Friday morning, North Carolina freshman forward Harrison Barnes said, "Well, I walked outside and it was raining so ... "
Barnes' attempt to play dumb aside, the drizzly weather that was at that moment drenching the Dean E. Smith Center wasn't the only storm cloud suddenly hovering over the North Carolina basketball program. The decision of recently demoted junior point guard Larry Drew II to transfer -- some would say quit -- caught everyone in the program, most notably UNC head coach Roy Williams, completely off-guard. It also opens up a series of questions about the timing of the move and the relationship Drew and his family have had with the Carolina program that would be an unwelcome distraction for UNC.
The most significant impact, however, is that it threatens to derail the Tar Heels' turnaround that had seen them rebound from a 4-3 start to go 12-2 since. At 6-1 in the ACC, the Tar Heels are tied with No. 5 Duke in the loss column. They've also reappeared in the AP Top 25 after a 10-week absence and are coming off their most complete performance of the season, a 106-74 domination at Boston College last Tuesday.
Williams said he found out about the move Friday morning in a 9 a.m. phone call with Drew's father, Larry, the head coach of the NBA's Atlanta Hawks. "I was shocked," Williams said. When asked if it was the most blindsided he'd ever been by a player's decision, Williams could only grit his teeth and mutter, "Mm-hmm."
He probably shouldn't have been quite so surprised. Throughout a trying sophomore season in 2010 in which the defending national champion Tar Heels lost 17 times and wound up in the NIT, Drew had to constantly deny rumors that he was considering a transfer. UNC coaches must not have been fully convinced, as they reportedly made contact with at least one Class of 2011 point guard after the season and went so far as to release a statement saying Drew would, in fact, be a Tar Heel in 2010-11, a rare step for a player not considering a jump to the NBA.
On Friday, Drew senior told The Associated Press, "This was a decision that was made long before actually this season even started, to be perfectly honest. We've been contemplating this for awhile and sometimes things come to a point where a decision has to be made and we felt it got to that point."
That strange logic aside -- it's hard to imagine coach Drew would be similarly accepting of a key player of the Hawks walking away at midseason -- the timing is surely part of the reason why Williams on Friday called Drew's transfer "hurtful." But even if he gets past the poor etiquette displayed by Drew and his family, Williams will be hurting a lot worse if he can't make sure this distraction extends no further than Friday's practice. Williams now faces his team's most difficult stretch with just one true point guard.
That point guard, Kendall Marshall, is a freshman who has ably directed the Tar Heels' attack since taking the reins January 16 against Clemson, the first of the four straight wins Carolina carries into Sunday's game with Florida State. Marshall's natural point guard skills and his knack for finding the right player have drawn plaudits from no less an authority than Barnes, whose sudden emergence into looking like the All-America everyone expected him to be occurred almost the exact time Marshall became his point guard.
"Having Kendall out there makes everyone's life a lot easier," Barnes had said after notching a career-high for the second straight game, with 26 points, in Carolina's rout of Boston College. "Me and [fellow freshman Reggie Bullock] are shooters so we know Kendall will know where to find us. It allows everyone to play to their abilities."
Beyond Marshall, though, is where the domino effect of Drew's departure will be felt the most. Williams said the likely solution would be that Dexter Strickland, who has started every game this season as the two guard, would reprise his role as the backup point guard from a year ago. Not only does that make Carolina a weaker ball-handling team -- Strickland has a career 1.3:1 A/TO ratio compared to Drew's 1.86:1 -- it could cause Williams to leave his best perimeter defender (Strickland) on the bench to start games. For a Carolina team that has made getting off to slow starts an ugly habit this year (falling behind 31-15 to Virginia Tech, 10-2 to Georgia Tech and 28-14 to Miami in ACC play alone) and had plenty of difficulty shutting down opposing backcourts, that is an ominous sign.
Equally concerning is the way the news of Drew's departure got out. Tar Heel junior Tyler Zeller, a classmate of Drew's, found out via text message. Marshall found out on Facebook. Even Justin Watts, Drew's roommate, wasn't even aware Drew was leaving. When Williams was asked if he was disappointed to not hear the news from Drew II but rather from Drew I, he said, "I'm disappointed in the fact that he's leaving, that's the biggest disappointment. Everybody has different feelings and different ideas, but" -- here Williams took a long pause before saying -- "That's probably best to leave it there."
The conversation between the two head coaches, according to Williams, lacked both brevity and negotiation. "We had a long discussion, most of which should be kept private, and basically there was no arbitrating, there was no trying to see if we could rectify anything. That was the decision that was made and he thought it was in Larry's best interest."
The harsh truth for both Drews is that it isn't. He's already burned his junior year of eligibility, which means not only does he have just one left, the earliest he can play a college basketball game at a Division I school again -- unless he graduates this year and transfers to another school offering a degree program not offered by UNC -- is November of 2012. If his desire is to follow in his father's footsteps and play in the NBA, that's an awfully long layoff for a player who wasn't exactly making pro scouts drool to begin with. Further, it's hard to imagine many programs flocking to a player who has just exhibited such curious decision-making off the court and was frequently underwhelming on the court, even when surrounded by the NBA talent that has populated the Carolina roster in Drew's tenure.
Drew's shortcomings as a player have been hotly discussed among Tar Heel fans. And while he was never a dynamic playmaker in the mold of his electrifying Tar Heel point guard predecessors Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson, both of whom directed Carolina to a national title, Drew was never as terrible as his critics complained. In 53 games as a starter, he mixed in occasional flashes of brilliance that spoke to his bloodlines as the son of an NBA point guard. As a freshman he provided steady, if unspectacular, relief for an injured Lawson during Carolina's march to the title. As a sophomore he led the ACC in total assists and was fifth in A/TO ratio. And though his offensive numbers were down significantly this season -- his per-40 minute averages dropped from 11.8 points and 8.3 assists per game to 7.8 and 6.8 -- Williams went out of his way throughout this season to repeatedly praise Drew's defense, even pointing out in the press release announcing Drew's departure that he had won Carolina's defensive player of the game award four times.
The most common criticisms of Drew's play have been his questionable decision-making, careless turnovers, inability to keep Carolina's preferred high-octane offense humming at peak speed and a jump shot that, statistically at least, had badly regressed from a season ago, falling from 35 percent as a 3-point shooter to just under 21 percent this year. Though it may be unfair to lump Carolina's offensive struggles entirely at Drew's feet, the fact remains that with Drew as the starter the Tar Heels never once cracked 80 points in a 19 ACC games, yet they've done so twice already in the four games Marshall has started.
Still, there is no question that Drew was playing much better since the change. His 19 assists and four turnovers since coming off the bench (in just four fewer minutes than he was playing as the starter) represented the best four-game stretch of his career. The Great Point Guard Debate of 2011 that consumed Internet message boards and local talk radio in the Triangle had been settled with Marshall's insertion into the lineup, and with Drew performing better than ever it seemed Carolina was peaking just as the Heels approach their toughest stretch of the season.
After hosting Florida State, which ranks third in the ACC behind Carolina and Duke, the Tar Heels travel to Duke next Wednesday and then play at Clemson. If the Heels survived that gauntlet, they would have had a legitimate chance at not only cementing a return to the NCAA Tournament after last year's hiccup earlier than expected but also building a resume that would let them go there with a high enough seed to inflict some damage on the bracket. Those hopes may not have been dashed entirely, but they've surely caused a midcourse correction that will almost certainly lead to the type of bumpy moments Tar Heels' fans hoped were finally behind them.
"It's disturbing just because it is the middle of the season, especially a week before Duke," Zeller told reporters. "It makes it difficult. We've got three big games coming up, so it's tough to be able to prepare like that, but we've just got to prepare with what we've got."
That preparation had already begun with Friday afternoon's practice. The bouncing of balls, the squeak of Nikes and the sound of laughter could be heard filling the cavernous Dean Dome only minutes after Williams concluded his press conference and held a private team meeting. It was a sign that life at the Smith Center would go on, and perhaps by the time the Heels play their next home game after this weekend, February 15 against Wake Forest, the building will have had some cosmetic adjustments made, as well. A carpeted hallway that extends from one end of the Smith Center to the other and is held behind locked doors for the players is called the Varsity Hallway. There, in a photo collage prominently displayed beside one of the locked doors, is a picture of Larry Drew II in his Carolina uniform. The challenge now for the Tar Heels is that they complete their return to prominence even if the man who once hoped to lead them there will never walk through those doors in his uniform again.