CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina coach Roy Williams learned at around 9 a.m. Friday via a phone call from Larry Drew Sr. that junior point guard Larry Drew II was leaving school immediately, and transferring. Freshman Kendall Marshall read the news on Facebook. Junior Tyler Zeller? Text message.
Im disappointed in the fact hes leaving, a still stunned-looking Williams said during an afternoon news conference. Thats the biggest disappointment. Everybody has different feelings and different ideas.
Then he paused.
Thats probably best to leave it at that.
The decision by Drew who was playing his best basketball of the season after being replaced in the starting lineup four games ago is shocking because of the timing. No. 23 UNC is in the midst of a four-game winning streak while playing its toughest ACC stretch of the season. (The Tar Heels face Florida State at home on Sunday, then go on the road to play fifth-ranked Duke and Clemson next week.)
The junior was coming off a nine-assist, one-turnover game in a blowout at Boston College on Tuesday, earning him significant praise by his coach.
And Drew seemingly gained nothing by leaving now; as per NCAA transfer rules, he has to sit out two semesters if he leaves for another Division I-A school meaning he wouldnt be eligible to play again until the 2012-13 season. So he could just as easily waited until the end of the season to move.
But he didnt. And it hurts the team, in more ways than one.
He has been through it all with us and he is our teammate, Zeller said. But he left us kind of a little stranded.
Drews father, head coach of the NBAs Atlanta Hawks, said Friday night that his son made the decision with the support of his family. He also said it wasnt a playing-time issue. "This was a decision that was made long before this season even started to be perfectly honest, Drew, Sr. said. We'd been contemplating it for awhile. Sometimes things come to a point where a decision has to be made. It had gotten to that point."
But apparently at UNC, no one saw it coming.
Marshall, who took over the starting point guard job on January 18, said Drews demeanor didnt change after the switch: After Clemson, he said, You know, I could care less about if Im starting or not, as long as were winning. Whoevers playing well will be in the game.
And after Tuesdays victory, Drew seemed pleased, crediting his teammates for his improved play (19 assists, 4 turnovers as a reserve): Honestly, I think Harrison [Barnes] is making it a lot easier on my behalf, Drew said. Guys are just so focused on him and then John [Henson] on the inside, the bigs have been playing excellent. That just makes my job so much easier.
Asked about UNCs 6-1 ACC record, which has the Tar Heels tied atop the conference standings, Drew said: Were right where we deserve to be, I feel like. And right where we ought to be. And weve got to take it one game, and practice, at a time. Just try to prepare, and keep moving forward.
But now, the Tar Heels will have to move forward without him.
Drew practiced with the team Thursday night, and Zeller said he had been told by junior Justin Watts Drews roommate that Watts had no idea that Drew was leaving.
Williams said that during the Friday morning conversation with Drews father, it was clear that the player would not change his mind about the decision.
Basically there was no arbitrating, there was no trying to see f [we could] rectify anything, Williams said. That was the decision that was made, and he thought it was in Larrys best interest.
In a prepared statement released by the school, Drew II said that he enjoyed his time in North Carolina and appreciated the support of everyone involved in the program: Over the last three years weve accomplished a lot as a team and those experiences will help me not only on the court, but off the court as well. Id like to thank the coaching staff for giving me the opportunity to play at one of the nations top colleges in UNC, and my teammates for their support as well. It is unfortunate my career didnt meet expectations in Chapel Hill, however, I do look forward to continuing my collegiate and athletic career in the near future.
Drew Sr. said his son issued the statement, although he was the one who talked to Williams. I thought it was important that we do it in a very tasteful manner. He added: "There's no hard feelings. Not on my end, and said his son would play his final eligibility somewhere but he does not yet know where.
On his twitter account, LarryAngeles, Drew posted Friday morning: they say dont ask permission just ask forgiveness, you know? .. so .. forgive me
Drew is the fourth Californian to transfer under Williams tenure, joining Alex Stepheson (in 2008) and twin forwards David and Travis Wear (last May). The point guard was a lightning rod for fans last year during a difficult 20-17 season in which UNC failed to make the NCAA tournament. After last season, Williams said, he had conversations with the Drews, especially when transfer rumors heated. But last May, Drew insisted on multiple occasions that he wasnt looking to leave Carolina, even issuing a statement to again confirm that I am not transferring anywhere.
But fans again grew frustrated with the ballhandler this season, and started calling for a change at point guard well before Williams ultimately made one. Drew averaged 8.5 points and 6.0 assists last season, and 4.4 points and 3.9 assists this year.
Hes got to be unhappy or he wouldnt have left, said Williams, who wouldnt share the specific points that he discussed with Drews father. Thats pretty easy to figure out. Like I said, it was a surprise and a big disappointment because Larrys been important to us.
Without Drew, who was splitting minutes with Marshall, the Tar Heels are left with only one true ballhandler.
Williams said he had not yet figured out his new rotation. However, sophomore Dexter Strickland the starting shooting guard this season, who struggled in the backup point guard role last year will have to spell Marshall. He could move to a reserve role, which would push sophomore Leslie McDonald or freshman Kendall Marshall into the starting rotation at shooting guard. Or Strickland could stay the starter, with Williams changing up the minutes so that Strickland could also spell Marshall.
And the pressure will be on Marshall to play more minutes, and play them well.
Im going to have to step up and obviously play a bigger role, Marshall said. Im guessing, probably, more minutes, and Dexter will have to play some more minutes also. But mainly, just doing the things that Ive been doing taking care of the ball, playing lock-down defense, and just doing it more minutes in a game.
Marshall said that to his knowledge, no Tar Heel had heard directly from Drew as of about 2:30 p.m., when a team meeting was planned. And while Marshall said he doesnt think Drew intentionally set out to hurt the team, his first priority isnt to try to track him down.
My main concern is just focusing on people we have in the locker room, Marshall said. My initial thought was, Im not going to sit here and lie to myself and say it doesnt hurt. Hes a part of our team. But at the end of the day, this is who we have 15 of us. Weve just got to learn to get it done.
Correspondent Matt Winkeljohn contributed to this story.