The Dagger - NCAAB

Had forward Harrison Barnes opted to forgo his final three years of college and enter the NBA draft, North Carolina still would have possessed enough talent to be considered a Final Four contender.

Now that the highly touted freshman has decided to return for his sophomore season, the Tar Heels will almost certainly begin next season as national title favorites.

Barnes, a potential top-five pick, revealed his choice in a Monday morning release from the school. It's a surprising decision because he'd cemented his stock with a strong second half of his freshman season and because next year's draft class will likely be considerably stronger than this year's.

"I look forward to meeting the challenging journey in the NBA, but my decision on November 13, 2009, still holds true," Barnes said. "I'm focused on being a student-athlete. And my decision is to continue this part of my journey at the University of North Carolina.

"As a team, we're preparing for a special season. My off-season plans are to diligently work on honing my basketball skills in all areas with one team-goal in mind -- to bring the 2012 national championship home to UNC."

Barnes' decision to return to North Carolina makes him the third potential top-five pick this spring to pass up NBA riches and return to school. Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and Baylor's Perry Jones previously announced they'll be back, decisions that should make for a particularly talent-rich college basketball season next year.

No program has benefited more from such decisions this year than North Carolina, which also will have junior center Tyler Zeller and sophomore forward John Henson back even though both likely would have been selected in the first round this June. The combination of those three and heralded incoming freshman James McAdoo gives North Carolina maybe the nation's best frontcourt next season.

North Carolina's backcourt is not quite as potent, but Kendall Marshall appeared to shore up the Tar Heels' issues at point guard last year after taking over the job from Larry Drew II in January. Either combo guard Dexter Strickland or sharp shooter Reggie Bullock would be the likely candidates to start at shooting guard.

The centerpiece for North Carolina will still be Barnes, who rebounded from a slow start to his freshman season to blossom during the final two months of the season after Marshall became the starting point guard. Displaying improved shot selection, he averaged 21 points per game during the Tar Heels' NCAA tournament run to the Elite Eight.

The only way North Carolina might have some competition for the preseason No. 1 spot would be if Kentucky returned freshmen stars Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones in addition to adding a star-studded incoming class.

Knight and Jones have six days to announce their intentions. If they opt to follow in Barnes' footsteps and chase a national championship, then let the debate begin.

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