When it comes to the recent history of UNC basketball recruiting, it is safe to say that Roy Williams has brought a mixed bag of talent to campus since Harrison Barnes committed back in 2010. That is, however, only if you focus on high school player rankings and nothing else — UNC has managed to make it to two Final Fours, two national championship games, won the national title in 2017, and has won multiple ACC regular season and tournament titles. Rankings be damned, Roy Williams has been able to get things done despite the multiple outliers that have worked against his favor.
Fast forward to 2018 when Roy Williams has likely finished sending out offers to recruits for the 2019 class and has quite a bit of work left to do with offers for the 2020 class. This two-year period will be the most telling of what Roy Williams is actually able to do with not only all of his cards in the deck, but perhaps a couple of new cards as well. Coming off of a huge commitment from current player and projected top-5 NBA Draft pick Nassir Little, the Heels have all of the momentum on the recruiting trail that they could ask for.
Let’s take a look some of the changes that have taken place recently and how these changes very well could turn the tide for UNC going forward.
The NCAA Investigation
Perhaps nothing was as impactful to Roy Williams’ ability to recruit top-tiered recruits than the academic scandal that plagued the program for what felt like an eternity. The NCAA’s investigation was needlessly long, exhausting, damaging, and expensive. It’s safe to say that we do not need to review the details of what happened ever since the News and Observer released the Wainstein Report back in October of 2014 (and the details that preceded said date). Instead, let’s discuss the damage I mentioned earlier that other schools, as well as the media, were able to do to the program’s ability to recruit.
Negative recruiting is a tactic that is likely as old as the university itself. Sports create a highly-competitive environment both on and off the playing surfaces of each sport, and so it is no surprise that coaching staffs aren’t shy about telling players what they can do better than other schools, as well as what other schools fail to do altogether. In this particular case, the job was way too easy for the schools UNC competes against on the recruiting trail.
When the Wainstein Report released, everyone outside of the UNC bubble took it upon themselves to smear the basketball team as much as humanly possible. Yes, women’s basketball as well as football were being investigated as well, but we all know that the ultimate goal for ABCers was to take down the men’s basketball program. Roy Williams was never shy about the fact that other schools were using the investigation against his program, and it was working. Remember Brandon Ingram? Of course you do: he was the one recruit who was very upfront about the investigation impacting his decision to not attend UNC. In fact, one could argue that if it wasn’t for his honesty, there wouldn’t be definitive proof from an outsider’s perspective that the investigation was hurting the Tar Heels. We would have nothing to go off of other than Roy’s words and pure speculation. Knowing the truth doesn’t make it hurt less, but at least we were able to confirm that all of “the junk” was creating visible damage in the minds of recruits.
Now that all of that ugliness is behind us, the schools and the media no longer have an ax to swing with. What we should start seeing from UNC’s recruitment process is athletes being able to make unimpeded decisions about whether or not the program suits their needs. They want a OAD school? Tony Bradley and (most likely) Nassir Little say hello. Want an opportunity to be the man? The roster following the 2018-19 season will be depleted with the exits of Luke Maye, Kenny Williams, Cameron Johnson, and Nassir Little should he choose to enter the draft. Want a good education? Despite the insufferable taunting of ABCers, the University of North Carolina is still one of the top schools in the country. Want a winning program? The team just hung a banner last year. Everything is going Carolina’s way, and it’s their time to get recruiting back on track.
The Kentucky Problem
If you’re reading this thinking that Kentucky doesn’t have a problem, you are likely referring to the fact that year after year the Wildcats have managed to recruit top-10 talent. The problem is, year after year Kentucky has also set themselves up for depletion of senior leadership and created a situation where promises are no longer able to be kept. What promises are those, you ask? Promises of instant gratification.
John Calipari is an excellent seller, and that is nothing to hold against him. He’s done one of the most incredible jobs in college basketball of getting high school recruits to buy into everything that he attempting to sell them: he will get you to the NBA, you will get significant minutes, you will be in the running for a championship, and this will all happen as soon as possible. The championship statement might be more of an afterthought compared to the other details, as the Wildcats haven’t been able to hang a new banner in Rupp Arena since 2012. However, he’s managed to deliver on every other promise to a large number of players, and has had more than a few players get drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft.
Kentucky continued the trend of stacked recruiting classes for 2018, as their class is ranked the 2nd best in the nation. EJ Montgomery, Ashton Hagans, Keldon Johnson and Immanuel Quickley are all top-25 players that have a decent shot of becoming the newest notches on Calipari’s OAD belt. The issue, however, is the same issue that we just might see with Duke this year: there is only one ball, and there are only 40 minutes per game. The dangers of stacking this much potential and promising this many kids that you can get them to the NBA is likely to cause rifts between teammates and staff at some point. Remember what Duke did to Wendell Carter Jr.? His mom certainly does, and she has been extremely vocal about it ever since he joined the Chicago Bulls.
The concept of there not being enough of one basketball to go around is one that is a very real issue for a coach that has little to no veteran leadership. How much senior leadership does Kentucky have? They have one junior, one senior, and one grad student, one of which is the coach’s son. With such a lack of upperclassmen, there’s no doubt that the younger guys all feel like they are the man in their own regards, and because of that not everybody is going to be happy. This is where UNC comes in.
The one thing that Roy Williams is excellent at is not making any promises to any of the kids that he recruits. The one thing that Roy is very good at promising is that players can have whatever they want as long as they earn it, and that is something that has been hard for some recruits to stomach in the year of our Lord 2018. Instant gratification is all of the rage, and Kentucky has provided that to a large amount of players. However, this season will be telling for any kids looking at Kentucky as a potential destination, and it could be that they start to see that Calipari’s system just doesn’t work for everybody. This isn’t even factoring in the fact that players want to win championships, and the Wildcats haven’t been able to get back to the national championship in six years despite having that amazing one-loss team back in 2015. Things are changing, and Calipari’s magic can’t last forever. I’m sure Big Blue Nation thinks that I am reaching here, but we can talk again next summer.
Jeff Capel’s Exodus
For many years Duke has been a thorn in UNC’s side on the recruiting trail. One of the best things about the rivalry has been competing for the same recruits, but things have gotten away from the Heels thanks to the NCAA investigation. Now that the investigation is over, it should at least be a fair fight when it comes to the top prospects in the country. However, Pitt stealing Jeff Capel from Duke may have caused a rift that the Blue Devils were not expecting.
Capel has been an extremely important part of Duke’s program for quite some time now. In fact, his role became even more important the past couple of years when Coach K had to miss games due to health issues. The most valuable tool in his bag, however, is his ability to recruit. Time and time again Capel has helped Coach K get some of the best players in the country, and to be quite honest, I don’t think Duke fans appreciated what he was able to do as much as they should have. It is very common for any Duke fan to tell UNC fans that they get the best players because of the following reasons:
1.) Coach K coached the USA Basketball team and got to work with the best players in the world.
2.) Coach K is the best coach in college basketball, and it’s a no-brainer that players would pick Duke over UNC.
3.) Duke players have way more NBA success than UNC players.
4.) Duke players go to class.
While some of these reasons aren’t wrong, all of these reasons detract from Capel’s ability to recruit his butt off only to have Coach K take all of the credit. I mean, where would Roy Williams be without Steve Robinson and Hubert Davis? As great of a coach as he is, no coach can do it all on their own. If Steve Robinson walked out of the door next week, UNC would feel the impact instantly not only because of his ability to recognize talent, but his ability to connect with players.
Duke’s recruiting is now being handled by Chris Carrawell, and he will undoubtedly be chasing the shadow of Capel until he can prove that he is able to do comparable things on the recruiting trail. Coach K definitely will do his own share of work, there is no doubt about that, but this variable might be enough to impact the decisions of recruits like 2019’s Wendell Moore. Roy Williams and his staff can capitalize on Coach K missing one of his most important pieces going forward, and it will be very interesting to see if they can turn the tables on the pesky Blue Devils.