Will Barnes' return ignite 'special season'?

With the return and experience of Tyler Zeller (44), Harrison Barnes (40) and John Henson, will the North Carolina Tar Heels be preseason favorites? Peyton Williams/Getty Images

The nadir came three minutes into the game on a miserable January night in Atlanta. His Tar Heels trailing 8-2, Roy Williams went for a hockey line change, subbing his five starters in favor of five guys off the bench. The wholesale change signaled not just the coach’s disgust with his team’s play, but the state of North Carolina basketball.

And the Heels were in a state.

A year after the ignominy of an NIT bid, UNC was about to drop to a pedestrian 12-5 after what would be an embarrassing 20-point loss to Georgia Tech. Folks everywhere (present company included) wondered what was wrong with the Heels and questioned if this collection of players, like the previous year’s crew, lacked the gumption to come together as a team.

Aside maybe from preteen puppy love, there is nothing quite so fickle as the fate of a college basketball team.

With the announcement on Monday that Harrison Barnes will return to Chapel Hill for his sophomore season, the team left on the scrap heap less than three months ago will likely catapult to the top of many preseason rankings*.

(*That is, unless Kentucky’s DeAndre Liggins, Doron Lamb, Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight elect to remain and combine forces with John Calipari’s heralded freshman class. Then we’ve got ourselves a fun voting dilemma).

What separates the Heels (for now at least) from the pack is they possess the rare one-two punch in the college game -- experience and talent. Barnes’ decision comes in the wake of the announcement that Tyler Zeller and John Henson too will return to campus. That means UNC will have one senior, three juniors and three sophomores on its roster next season, a combination old enough to quality for AARP benefits in this day and age.

Mix in a freshman class rated fourth best by ESPNU Recruiting and Williams will enter 2011-12 with a Tinkertoy set to build with.

The irony here is delicious. It is Barnes’ decision to reject a first-round spot in the NBA draft that moves the meter on the Tar Heels’ potential from good to national championship contender. Yet back when things were seemingly coming undone, it was Barnes feeling the heat.

A freshman so highly regarded he made history by becoming the first rookie named to the preseason All-America team, Barnes was viewed in January as the personification of what ailed the Heels. Early in the season, people said he's too passive, he's lacking the fire in his belly. He averaged a decent -- but not All-America worthy -- 11.7 points following that Georgia Tech game.

But what Barnes & Co. proved is what is so often forgotten in this world of instant gratification -- a little patience goes a long way. Thanks to the NBA’s age limit, this game has become a game of young men, of players who, despite their dissected and bisected skills and ballyhooed talent, are still just a couple of months removed from fretting over who to take to prom.

Most need either the comforting cocoon of upperclassmen to shield them as they find their way, or that lost commodity of time to figure it out themselves.

After the debacle at Georgia Tech, North Carolina would win 17 of its remaining 20 games, claiming the ACC regular-season title and rolling to the Elite Eight.

Naysayers will point out -- accurately -- that the Tar Heels were ranked eighth in the preseason a year ago and had to tumble their way out of the top 25 before working their way back to finish at No. 7.

The burden of success and the spotlight of expectation are not easy to tote around but if Barnes’ announcement is any indication, the Heels now have both the talent and the wisdom to handle both.

“As a team we’re preparing for a special season,’’ Barnes said in his statement. “My offseason 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.’’