First things first: Roy Williams has still been absurdly successful compared to the field, and even his elite contemporaries, in the years between 2013 and now. He holds a .751 winning percentage, took two trips to the NCAA Championship and another to the Sweet 16, won the ACC Tournament once and the ACC regular season twice, and only underperformed NCAA Tournament seed once. And recruiting-wise, he’s been fine. The 2014 class, of course, was legitimately great, and only made greater by the fact that UNC got a combined 11 seasons out of the three players in it. Tony Bradley was an elite recruit. UNC finished outside the top 20 once between 2013 and 2018 in recruiting rankings, and the one class that didn’t was the class that included Luke Maye and Kenny Williams. It’s safe to say they’ve outplayed that ranking.
But even with all this success, it’s clear to see that he hasn’t quite been at the level he was operating at before the NCAA investigation cast a shadow over nearly everything UNC athletics-related. A .751 winning percentage is great (it would rank just outside the top 25 for coaches’ career winning percentage), but it pales in comparison to Roy Williams’ .788 all-time record and his .771 UNC record. Most of his classes were top-20, but just one (the 2014 class) cracked the top 10. Additionally, Willliams recruited just two five-star big men to Chapel Hill, an area that should be his specialty. His record against Duke has been mediocre, he’s even lost more games to NCSU since 2013 (3) than he had in his career before that (1). And it’s fair to say that this is in large part because of the investigation, both in how it affected recruiting and the personal toll it took on the man to have his mentor’s and his program’s integrity questioned. For a man who values integrity above anything else, it’s not hard to see this weighing on him.
That’s over now. This year will be the first full year that Williams has nothing to worry about, and it’s already evident that the near future is going to be different. Starting with the regular season last year, Williams went 2-1 against Duke and their #1-ranked recruiting class (and 3 first-round draft picks), en route to a tie for 3rd in the ACC and an ACC Tournament Championship appearance. The Heels had an unfortunate early exit in the NCAA Tournament, but the energy around the team was already changing with the impending arrivals of Coby White and Nassir Little, the latter of whom would raise his stock all the way to #2 in his class just a couple of months after the end of the college basketball season. Williams had a spring to his step that hadn’t been present the past few seasons. For him, coaching didn’t look like the chore it once had; it looked once again like he was doing what he most loved to do. The results didn’t show it in the end, but Coach Roy looked like he had new life.
Where we’re really seeing Roy Williams’ comeback, though, and with tangible results, is on the recruiting trail. Nassir Little committed to UNC just before the conclusion of the NCAA scandal, picking the Heels over, among other schools, Duke and Arizona. After it was made clear that UNC was free from the cloud that had been hanging over the program, though, was when Williams really went to work. He offered Day’Ron Sharpe, who committed almost immediately despite telling other schools’ press that he was taking his recruiting slowly. And in the 2019 class, nobody has been working harder at the highest level of recruiting than Williams. This is clear across the board, exemplified by such actions as flying from Vegas to Kansas during a Vegas event to watch Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, being the most consistent watcher of Cole Anthony during the evaluation periods, making numerous trips to visit and/or watch Matthew Hurt, the list goes on. The tireless effort into securing the top talent into the country is on full display once again, and it’s paying dividends. Look no further than Williams’ most recent commit, Armando Bacot, who chose UNC over Duke because of Williams’ relentless pursuit, per Bacot:
“Coach (Williams) would always visit me and he kept his word -- he said he would be the coach that talked to (and watched) me the most, and in high school and AAU he did that, so that made a huge difference,”
From last winter to now, Williams made sure he was never far from the front of Bacot’s mind. During his sophomore and junior years, Bacot unofficially visited Chapel Hill 7 times, 3 of those coming in 2018. Williams made the trip to Richmond 4 times between last December and Bacot’s commitment. Tar Heel Insider’s Clint Jackson notes that “Roy Williams won this one with his classic, genuine approach.” Any notion that the recruiting game has passed Williams’ style by, that kids these days don’t appreciate an older-fashioned approach, has been proven demonstrably false. UNC is in very favorable position with nearly every recruit Williams and his staff are prioritizing, and this is the first year in some time where that’s been the case.
Having come out on the other side of a grueling ordeal mostly unscathed, Williams is just as effective as he’s ever been on the recruiting trail, and it’s a fair bet he’s going to be the same way on the sidelines once the season starts. Despite his having won a third championship in 2017, I fear that opposing fans have forgotten exactly how dominant Roy Williams was from 2004 to 2012. My money says they’re about to be reminded rather rudely, and I can’t wait to see it. Watch out, world, and go Heels.