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National Columnist

UNC in for a long 2012-13 season?

ST. LOUIS -- Brace yourself, North Carolina fans. It could get ugly next season -- well, ugly being relative. No matter what happens in the next few weeks with the UNC underclassmen who could turn pro, next season still would be pretty for some places. A place like Clemson or Miami or, um, Wake Forest.

But next season doesn't look like it'll be a typically gorgeous North Carolina season, especially if all hell breaks loose among its current underclassmen.

Four of North Carolina's regular starting five this season, plus its first reserve off the bench, are projected as first-round draft picks in the 2012 NBA Draft. That doesn't mean they'll all go -- who knows what these guys will do? -- but it means there's a chance. Even a pretty good chance.

So it's like I said: Brace yourself, UNC fans.

Brace yourself for the obvious departure of senior center Tyler Zeller, who carried the Tar Heels to the Elite Eight by averaging 15 points, 12.3 rebounds and 3.3 blocks in four NCAA tournament games.

Brace yourself for the likely departures of junior John Henson and sophomore Harrison Barnes, both of whom turned down a likely spot in the 2011 NBA draft lottery and would again be putting off millions of dollars to return to school, knowing that a Kendall Marshall-like accident could befall them.

Speaking of Marshall, UNC fans ... brace yourself for his departure, too. He would be the best point guard in this year's admittedly PG-weak draft class, and he just saw how precarious the amateur life can be when he suffered a broken wrist in the Round of 32 against Creighton. Does he turn pro? My guess: yes.

UNC fans also should consider the possibility that James Michael McAdoo makes like former ACC freshmen Corey Maggette (Duke) and Marvin Williams (UNC), players who didn't start but had such potential that they turned pro anyway -- and were lottery picks. That's McAdoo, according to several mock drafts: a lottery pick. Does he turn pro? My guess: no.

But still, brace yourselves for that possibility, UNC fans. Because three or four of this team's most talented players -- and maybe all five -- will be in the NBA next season. And the incoming recruiting class is good, not great.

Which is what the 2012-13 season could be for a North Carolina: good, not great.

Hell, even NCAA tournament revelation Stilman White is gone. He said this weekend that he'll leave after the semester ends for a two-year Mormon mission, which could leave the Tar Heels' 2012-13 starting lineup looking like this:

PG: Freshman Marcus Paige (the team's only McDonald's All-America signee) or Dexter Strickland, back from a torn ACL.

SG: Reggie Bullock.

SF: P.J. Hairston, Strickland or Leslie McDonald, also back from a torn ACL.

PF: Freshman Brice Johnson

C: James Michael McAdoo

Not a bad lineup. Would definitely win more than it loses, and conceivably could contend for an NCAA tournament berth. That's not typically the bar at North Carolina, but next season might not be typical.

Brace yourself, UNC fans. Or dismiss this whole idea outright.

Pretty sure I know which one you'll pick.
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