Is North Carolina on the Verge of a Recruiting Renaissance?

Posted by rtmsf on October 27th, 2017

For those of a certain age, college basketball recruiting was synonymous with the powder blue of North Carolina. When players stayed in school three, or even four, years, top-ranked classes led the Tar Heels to National Championships in 1982 and 1993 as well as multiple Final Four appearances. When those players grew up to become elite NBA names like Jordan, Worthy, Perkins, Stackhouse, Wallace, Carter and Jamison, a continuous feedback loop of talent attracting more talent was all but assured in Chapel Hill. When Dean Smith needed a new influx of All-Americans to replace the ones he was losing, you could rest assured that another top-flight recruiting class was on the way. That was then…

Sam Perkins, Michael Jordan and Dean Smith

Nowadays, Kentucky and Duke have taken over as the clear standard-bearers of recruiting in the one-and-done era. The two schools have combined to “win” the last six years of recruiting — three times each — with the appropriate hardware to show for it — a pair of National Championships and a handful of Final Fours. North Carolina, however, has largely been missing from those recruiting battles, as shown in the table below. Over the last 10 years — which, incidentally, still resulted in two NCAA titles (2009 and 2017) making their way to Franklin Street — the Tar Heels have only notched a pair of top-five recruiting classes. The most recent was the fifth-ranked 2012 class that included eventual All-Americans Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, and previous to that was the second-ranked 2009 class that most notably included John Henson and the Wear twins.

As Adam Zagoria described this week in Zagsblog, though, the Heels are trending as the early leader for the top class of 2018 with two five-star prospects already committed — Nassir Little and Coby White — and they are also in hot pursuit of several other elite recruits, including the dunking sensation Zion Williamson (#2 nationally), Romeo Langford (#5) and Simisola Shittu (#8). Something has clearly changed in the relative attractiveness of playing ball in Chapel Hill, and it’s no stretch to infer — as head coach Roy Williams has made reference to numerous times over the past half-decade — that the shadow of the NCAA’s long investigation into academic fraud at the school led to active negative recruiting against his program (the recruitment of former Duke star Brandon Ingram representing but one example).

On the court, of course, North Carolina has still mostly been North Carolina. Two National Championships and three Final Four appearances in the last decade have certainly validated the recruiting (and coaching) that Williams has done there, national rankings be damned. But it calls into question whether the year-to-year roster disruption that the NBA’s one-and-done rule has had on programs like Kentucky, Duke, Arizona and UCLA — to name the most prominent beneficiaries — is something that Williams will be comfortable with. It’s not like he hasn’t had one-and-dones before — Marvin Williams, Brandan Wright and Tony Bradley are his Carolina trio — but none of those players were transcendent types nor were any in the same class. Williams over his career has proven to be a very capable team builder and talent developer, but those improvements typically come year to year. There are always exceptions to the rule, but can Williams work his magic with players like Little, White and (perhaps) Williamson, Langford and/or Shittu in the same way that his coaching nemeses John Calipari did with Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague, or Mike Kryzyzewski with Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow? The conventional wisdom says it’s smart to bet on anybody who can coach up elite talent, but Williams likes to wear his frustration on his sleeve, and a re-entry into this kind of recruiting has evaded him since he was a significantly younger man. How he handles the inherent roster turnover will be a fascinating case study in the ongoing saga of the one-and-done era.

It’s unlikely that the twin powers of Duke and Kentucky are going anywhere on the recruiting trail soon — the Blue Devils, as an aside, already have two top-six prospects locked up in next year’s class — but it appears that there’s a new kid on the block near the top of the recruiting standings, and he looks an awful lot like another kid that used to hang out in these parts some years ago.

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One response to “Is North Carolina on the Verge of a Recruiting Renaissance?”

  1. Ron says:

    This website seems to like to take subtle swipes at Roy Williams. In fairness, it’s indicative of the CBball media as a whole. I can’t quite figure it out. I think the media pegs Roy as a disingenuous “aw shucks” Southerner and they don’t like that it might be genuine – he might not be a slick conniving media-savvy coach.

    Roy wears his emotions on his sleeve. ALL of them – not just “frustration” as this article points out. That includes loyalty and an emotion some would call “affection.”

    My prediction is Roy will go after OAD players who have close-knit, family circles and demonstrably high character (guys like Romeo Langford, for instance). Young men who have the maturity to handle his frustrated blow-ups in exchange for his loyalty and fatherly affection.

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