Hairston may possess the most long-term potential

From a program perspective, the 2012-13 Tar Heels won’t earn any nooks at the prestigious UNC basketball museum. These guys failed to win any titles, regular or postseason, and they went 1-3 versus rivals Duke and N.C. State — including a pair of blowout defeats.

Despite second-half improvement after Roy Williams moved sophomore P.J. Hairston into the starting lineup, the Heels’ realistic Sweet 16 hopes ended when the tournament selection committee deemed them a No. 8 seed that would face nemesis — and top-seeded — Kansas in the round of 32. That game unfolded about the way everyone expected, with the Jayhawks storming past the smaller Heels and denying them an advance to the tournament’s second weekend.

Most programs would be thrilled to compile a 25-11 record, but from the beginning UNC fans discussed the 2012-13 campaign as a bridge season. The previous two Carolina clubs won the ACC regular season crown and made the Elite Eight on both occasions — and they may have advanced further last spring were it for not injuries — and the subsequent talent exodus doused any national championship hopes for this year.

But don’t assume next season will prove markedly better. Yes, the Tar Heels stand to make substantial gains if everyone returns, and they’ll become even more formidable if they can sign No. 1 recruit Andrew Wiggins. At this moment, however, three Tar Heels are weighing NBA decisions — Hairston, junior Reggie Bullock and sophomore James Michael McAdoo — and Wiggins appears unlikely.

Fans have expressed skepticism toward the idea that a relatively average club could produce draft drama, and Roy Williams himself spoke in those terms on his radio program this week.

“We were an eight-seed,” Williams said. “We finished third in the league. We had 11 losses. The NBA usually likes to find those guys that come off teams who win 30 games and go to the Final Four. Our guys understand that, and that’s not saying anything negative.”

And yet, none of the three can be considered a lock to return. Hairston became the team’s most potent scorer, leading the team in scoring average (14.6 points per game) despite playing far fewer minutes than McAdoo or Bullock.

He’s an explosive three-point shooter with easy NBA range, but he doesn’t handle the ball particularly well and clearly didn’t earn his coach’s trust sufficiently to gain the starting nod before the season’s midway point. Most draft sites regard him as a late first or second round pick if he declares this spring.

Bullock’s decision carries the least risk. He should be close to obtaining a diploma, and his stock likely won’t fluctuate much whether he exits now or next year. He reportedly has a growing family to support and thus may feel that now is the time, and if he leaves he slots in the late first round.

By far, McAdoo faces the most peril. He could have become a first round pick last season, and he returned this year hoping to play his way into the high lottery. But he struggled with his shooting, converting only 45 percent from the field (Tyler Zeller shot 55 percent last season) and producing a woeful 5-for-19 versus Kansas.

Thus, he may have played his way down to the late first round and could enhance his stock with a stronger junior year. On the other hand, he may expose himself further and permanently damage his professional stature. He’ll take on significant risk no matter what he decides.

You don’t have to be a college hoops writer to assess the team’s prospects if all three go pro, or any two of the three along with a miss on Wiggins. And the best case scenario, with four returning starters — the three NBA deciders and point guard Marcus Paige — and Wiggins, could produce the program’s first Final Four since 2009.

Players have until April 28 to make themselves eligible for the draft, so fans will get to enjoy the suspense for a full month.

In sum, I think fans will recall this year’s Carolina squad as average. The Heels didn’t embarrass the program but also didn’t advance its accomplishments, and next few weeks will shape 2013-14 expectations either above or, frighteningly, below those attached to this season’s.