The future may never be more clouded for the North Carolina Tar Heels.
Will national player of the year Antawn Jamison and second-team All-American Vince Carter leave early for the NBA?Will Ademola Okulaja return to his native Germany and embark on a pro career?
"I'm not going to try to beg them to stay or anything, they have to do what's good for them," North Carolina point guard Ed Cota said of the trio. "Hopefully, they'll come back next year, but if not we have a great group of guys here and we'll be back to the Final Four again."
A third straight trip to the Final Four is highly unlikely for the Tar Heels if those three junior starters leave for the pros, coupled with the departure of seniors Shammond Williams and Makhtar Ndiaye.
Top-ranked North Carolina (34-4), a veteran team that didn't use much of its bench, believes they wasted a prime opportunity to win it all this year, falling to Utah 65-59 Saturday night with the team's worst shooting game of the season.
"To me, the worst thing is when I finally got to sleep was to wake up the next morning, it hurts," coach Bill Guthridge said Sunday before the team headed home from the Final Four without the top prize for the third time since 1995.
"But I told the team they should really hold their heads high. As time goes by (the season) will mean more to us. I've said a lot of times the last few weeks there are a lot of great teams that had great years but when we put so much emphasis on the tournament it takes away from teams having good years," he said.
The Tar Heels won their first 17 games after Guthridge took over for all-time Division I victory leader Dean Smith in early October, then won their second straight Atlantic Coast Conference crown in early March before gaining their record 24th straight NCAA tournament berth.
Guthridge won more games than any first-year coach and led the program to its 14th Final Four with a group he said he would go to war with.
"Oh yeah, they've been great," Guthridge said. "They were a special group - they would have been special even if I wasn't the head coach. They worked so hard in the spring, summer and fall and then the change was made we were all disappointed, but the next day they were fired up and ready to go. They have been that way all the time."
The team tied a school record for wins . Jamison, Williams and Cota each set single-season marks: Jamison for rebounds with 389, Williams for free-throw accuracy at 91.1 percent from the foul line and Cota for assists with 274.
But all the records seem hollow now. Most of the Tar Heels said the season would be a failure before heading to San Antonio if they didn't capture the NCAA title.
"I don't think it's a failure for the freshmen on this team and the guys who didn't play much, but for me I feel it's a failure," Cota said. "I had one goal and my goal was to win the national championship. It's a letdown."
Guthridge said he and Smith would sit down with Jamison, Carter and Okulaja within the next few weeks to talk about their futures.
"I don't think it will be an immediate decision," Guthridge said Sunday. "I think it will be a month or so before anything comes down."