John Clay

Early returns put UNC ahead

The first Tuesday in November is when the wild, wacky and, oh yes, historic political season finally grinds to a halt.

A stressed-out nation hits the power button on the remote control, listens for the click on the ol' high-def, and gauges the early returns of the presidential race.

In college basketball, however, it's the early returns on the first Monday after Father's Day that start to shape the not-too-distant hoops season.

That's the day underclassmen who have declared for the June 26 NBA Draft can yank their names from the eligibility list.

Judging by this year's returns, we have a clear winner.

Ten minutes before Monday's 5 p.m. deadline, North Carolina reaped a reward of significant returns.

Ultra-quick point guard Ty Lawson took his name out of the draft. Smooth shooting guard Wayne Ellington pulled his name out of the draft. Valuable sixth-man Danny Green pulled his name out of the draft and pledged his allegiance to Chapel Hill.

Add that trio to senior returnees Tyler “Psycho-T” Hansbrough and starting swingman Marcus Ginyard and, as the Sporting News' Mike DeCourcy points out, the Tar Heels return 92 percent of the scoring from last year's 36-3 team that reached the Final Four.

(Compare that to UK, which returns just 41.2 percent of its scoring.)

Not that we should hand the NCAA title over to the Heels just yet.

The return of the rapidly-improving 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet figures to make UConn a prime national contender. Despite the losses of Derrick Rose and ChrisDouglas-Roberts, Memphis returns a deep roster helped by the recent addition of point guard Roburt Sallie, an ex-Nebraska signee who canceled a recruiting visit to UK this week and committed to John Calipari's Tigers.

UCLA lost Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, but the Bruins picked up heralded 6-10 center J'Mison Morgan, an LSU signee who bolted Baton Rouge once Trent Johnson was hired as the Tigers' coach.

Then there's Louisville, which hated to lose one center (David Padgett) but was not so torn up about dumping another (Derrick Caracter, who was hanging out in the winners' circle at Churchill Downs after Curlin won the Stephen Foster on Saturday).

Better news in the 'Ville is that after threatening otherwise, Earl Clark kept his name out of the draft and will be back to join senior Terrence Williams and freshman Samardo Samuels on the Louisville front line.

Other teams deserve attention. With a healthy Mike Cook, Pittsburgh will be good. Notre Dame is on the rise. Purdue's youth movement, which won the Big 10 last year, is another year wiser. Don't count out Duke, no matter how much you would like to.

In the SEC, Florida welcomes an influx of freshmen big men to join last year's baby Gators. By convincing Tyler Smith to stay, and Oklahoma transfer Bobby Maze and ex-Arizona signee Emmanuel Negedu to hop on board with signee Scotty Hopson Bruce Pearl figures to keep things rocking at Tennessee. Richard Hendrix is leaving Alabama, but the Tide got good news when point guard Ronald Steele promised to return.

Still, when the balls start bouncing in October, all eyes will be on Chapel Hill. Hansbrough is the reigning Player of the Year, and after reaching the Final Four, he wants his title. With Memphis' Rose and Texas' D.J. Augustin at the next level, Lawson may be the game's best point guard. Ellington has another season to polish his jumper.

And, thanks to this year's draft assessments, UNC's returnees know they need a standout season to put themselves in better position next spring.

We may be four months from the start of basketball practice, but thanks to the early returns, we already know the favorite.