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NBA'S BIG MONEY COULD LURE STARS FROM FINAL FOUR TEAMS

Will they stay or will they go?

That's what fans of Louisville, Illinois and national champion North Carolina can focus on this week now that the NCAA Tournament is over. All three teams would have a good chance for a repeat trip to the Final Four next season in Indianapolis if they can keep their teams intact.

But that's a big if as the lure of the NBA Draft looms large.

Looming even greater is the possibility of the NBA instituting an age minimum for potential draftees. The scuttlebutt here was that the minimum would probably be 20, and that would prompt an exodus of high school players and college freshmen to get in the draft this year so they could claim their riches without an extended wait.

If that happens, players who would be juniors and seniors in the 2005-06 season might be tempted to come back for one more year in college on the theory they will go much higher in the 2006 draft than this June.

Illinois guard Deron Williams, Louisville forward Francisco Garcia and North Carolina center Sean May all fit this category. For now at least, Williams is expected to enter the draft. May, the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, said after Monday night's victory over Illinois that he's mulling his options while Garcia talked of a return after the Cardinals' semifinal loss to Illinois.

May said he will take stock of his situation in the coming weeks with his father, former Indiana All-America and Final Four MOP Scott May. Thought to be solidly in favor of coming back for his senior year, Sean May could now be a lottery pick.

"It's going to be a tough decision," May said late Monday night following the Tar Heels' 75-70 win. "Other guys might be leaving so there's no way to know what's going to happen until it all plays out."

The Tar Heels can build next year around supremely talented freshman forward Marvin Williams. One problem: Even though he doesn't start, Williams' vast potential has him pegged as a top-five pick if he opts for the NBA.

Junior Rashad McCants is expected to make an announcement about his status later this week and probably has played his last game in Carolina blue. Point guard Raymond Felton also has a big decision coming up, but his strong play during the NCAAs, coupled with the fact that Carolina won the championship, might make him lean toward leaving.

"I don't know what's going to happen. I'm not thinking about it right now," Felton said. "I'm going to enjoy this moment and then talk to my family."

Naturally, Carolina coach Roy Williams wants his players to stay.

"Every player I've ever had -- everyone -- has told me basketball stops being fun once they leave college," Williams said. "I personally don't think there's anything wrong with wanting basketball to be fun and being a kid. Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison (former Kansas stars under Williams) tell me the first and 15th of the month are fun, but other than that, they don't enjoy the pros as much."

Illinois, meanwhile, loses four seniors, a list that topped by starting guard Luther Head and forward Roger Powell. The question marks are junior guards Deron Williams and Dee Brown.

Like May, Deron Williams' stock soared because of his performance in the NCAAs and he'll probably go for the draft. Brown, however, often did not live up to his pre-tourney billing as a national Player of the Year candidate. He'll likely attend predraft camps on his own to gauge his status. If he returns, he'll easily be a preseason All-American.

Louisville's Garcia had a miserable night against Illinois, scoring a season-low four points on 2-of-10 shooting. Illinois played a physical game on the perimeter against the 6-foot-7 Garcia and he might not be physically ready to withstand the rigors of NBA life.

But Garcia was expected to go pro to help his family escape the rigors of real life in the South Bronx, where his brother Hector was murdered in December 2003.

Louisville officials were so sure Garcia was leaving they honored him on Senior Night. After Saturday's game, however, coach Rick Pitino didn't sound so sure.

"If he's the 26th pick in the draft, I would recommend coming back," Pitino said. "If he's the 18th pick in the draft, I'd recommend going. . . . I told him to leave his options open. He's a brilliant basketball player. Trust me when I say he's going to be a great pro. But it may be in his best interest to stay if the (minimum age) rule comes in."

Pitino said Garcia is going to take out a loan so he can travel this spring to work out on his own for some NBA teams before making a decision.

"If you wait until next year and come back, the possibility -- and I'm sure Sean May is thinking the same way -- is that you're probably no worse than the eighth or ninth pick in the draft," Pitino said.

North Carolina has a strong incoming recruiting class while Illinois expects its incoming group will be augmented with players lured by the Illini's 37-2 season. Louisville is the biggest question mark because it's moving next season from Conference USA to the Big East. Michigan State, the other team in this year's Final Four, suffers heavy graduation losses and doesn't figure to be in the mix for Indianapolis.

Louisville will be a middle-of-the-road team in the Big East next season without Garcia. With him, it should push toward the top of the league.

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com