Well, I can't say I saw that one coming.
A couple weeks after losing his starting point guard spot to freshman Kendall Marshall, North Carolina junior Larry Drew II has decided to take his ball and go home. The news was first reported by ESPN.com's Pat Forde, and UNC made it official this afternoon with this rather wordy statement from coach Roy Williams:
"This morning I spoke to Larry Drew Sr. and he informed me that it was in Larry II's best interest to leave North Carolina at this time," says Williams. "Personally I hate this for Larry and our team because he was such an important part of our team and he has continued to improve and played well in recent games. He was our defensive award winner in two of our last four games and has handled the ball really well in our four-game win streak.
"But I understand that families and players have to make their own decisions as to what is best for them at a particular time in their lives. He contributed a great deal to our program in his two and a half years here, including being a part of a national championship team. I regret that Larry and his family feel this is the right thing to do, but again, each individual has to do what they think is best. He will be successful wherever he chooses to go. I appreciate what he gave to our University and basketball program in his time here."
Reading between the carefully worded press release lines is always a fool's task, but it's safe to say Roy doesn't seem very happy about the Drew family's decision. Drew II released his own statement alongside Williams', but he gave no specific reason for his departure. (The closest he got was saying it was "unfortunate my career didn't meet expectations in Chapel Hill ... ")
I'm loathe to play the speculation game, but in this case, it's not exactly a leap of the imagination to assume Williams' recent decision to insert Marshall into Drew's spot in the starting lineup had something to do with Drew's departure. Drew II entered this year with plenty of starting experience under his belt, and losing that role to a freshman no doubt stung.
But you can't blame Williams for making the switch. Marshall has been by far the more effective player this season; he's a much better shooter, a better passer and a more intuitive floor-spacer, and his intelligent leadership has led to a much more effective Tar Heels offense in general. Marshall facilitates for his teammates -- guys like Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller -- in ways that Drew II never did. UNC's suddenly effective offensive play is no coincidence.
For his part, Drew seemed to have settled into a nice role as a defensive stopper; he's played as well in recent games as he has at any point during his disappointing UNC career.
Still, the timing of the decision, even when taken next to Williams' recent lineup change, is a bit strange. Midseason transfers aren't rare, but midseason transfers in February -- especially at North Carolina, and especially on teams tied for the ACC conference lead -- are. Why not wait until after the season is finished to make this decision? Why not try to settle into your new role? If Drew sees himself as a starter, surely he could swallow that pride for a few more months? And if that's not the issue, then what is?
Whether Drew's departure affects UNC's suddenly realistic chances of competing for the ACC title remains to be seen. Again, there's a reason he was benched; Drew was the least efficient offensive player on Carolina's team, and his play frequently contributed to UNC's frequently stagnant offense. Maybe this is addition by subtraction. But it's just as possible North Carolina will miss Drew's defensive contributions, even in a spot role off the bench.
Here's another interesting factoid about the decision, one that might or might not have any long-term implications: It continues the recent exodus of California recruits from North Carolina. As ESPN Research's Jonathan McDonald just passed along, Drew II is the fourth California recruit to transfer away from UNC in recent years, and the fifth (and maybe sixth, depending on how you'd characterize Deon Thompson's career) to underwhelm in Chapel Hill. To wit:
Compare that to Williams's career at Kansas, which included California-bred recruits like Paul Pierce, Drew Gooden and Jacque Vaughn. This is probably just coincidence, but it is notable all the same. For whatever reason, Williams just hasn't had the same success mining Cali talent to UNC as he did at KU.
Factoids aside, whatever the reasons for Drew's decision, there's no question this comes at an awkward time. Just when this team had seemed to figure it out, it loses one of its rotation members to a February transfer. That's not something most teams will be dealing with this spring. Beyond the on-court stuff -- how Williams fills out his rotation and spreads Drew's minutes, for example -- how Williams handles this will play a major role in whether this UNC team remains the ascendant, suddenly impressive entity we've seen in recent weeks, or whether the Tar Heels take a step back at exactly the wrong time.
I'd wager on the former. This team should be fine. At the very least, though, this uncertainty comes at the worst of times.