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“We are disappointed the players’ choices have denied them the opportunity to compete alongside their teammates and represent the University of North Carolina,” coach Butch Davis said in a statement. “Our coaches and players have a tremendous challenge this weekend, and despite these circumstances, our team will be excited to face LSU.”

It’s unclear how many games Quinn, McAdoo, Burney, Brown, Little and Austin will miss. The announcement is a massive blow for a program that entered Davis’ fourth season in position to contend for an Atlantic Coast Conference championship.

The optimism had been building since January, when Austin, Little, Burney, Sturdivant, Carter and Williams all announced they would return to school for their senior seasons instead of entering the NFL draft.

Little is the team’s top receiver, while the rest of that group joined Quinn _ a junior widely considered to be a high first-round pick _ on a defense that returned nine starters from a unit that ranked among the nation’s best last season.

Davis had suspended Austin indefinitely for violating team rules Wednesday.

“We are still working with the NCAA staff to resolve these eligibility issues,” athletic director Dick Baddour said in a statement. “The NCAA is focusing on each of their situations on a case-by-case basis. Together we are working to determine their status in as thorough and fair a process as is possible.”

There have been similar agent-related NCAA investigations at Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, with links to a South Beach party attended by players from several schools earlier this year. The Gamecocks have suspended tight end Weslye Saunders for violating unrelated team rules while Crimson Tide defensive end Marcell Dareus has been declared ineligible for two games for accepting nearly $2,000 in improper benefits during two Miami trips.

North Carolina is one of 42 states and the federal government that has laws governing contact between sports agents and amateur college athletes. The state requires agents to register and prohibits them from offering gifts before a contract is signed. Violations can lead to criminal or civil penalties.

In July, Marshall’s office sent a letter to the more than 100 agents registered with the state notifying them of the investigation and instructing them not to destroy records. She said then that her office can’t punish athletes, but planned to talk to them about their conduct and interaction with agents.