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How UNC Basketball Got Here: The Recruiting Trail

Early departures, the NCAA, and recruiting strategy

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Much has been made of UNC’s roster this season. After losing four starters from last year’s team, the squad has been a work in progress. A lack of overall talent and experience has UNC’s postseason hopes hanging by a thread.

Ultimately, some of that blame has shifted to UNC’s recruiting efforts the past few years. It’s a valid argument, but how is that possible? I dove into the past four recruiting classes and came up away with three answers: early departures (covered yesterday), the NCAA investigation (duh), and overall recruiting strategy.

Before we dive in, let me set the stage. Here’s a year-by-year breakdown of the past four recruiting classes. They include departures, arrivals with their RSCI rankings, and a quick recap of how that class performed or is performing.

Departures: Brice Johnson, Marcus Paige, Joel James
Arrivals: Tony Bradley (#30), Seventh Woods (#44), Brandon Robinson (#66)

Tony Bradley’s commitment salvaged this class and kept UNC in the national spotlight. At the time, this was also seen as a solid-if-not-spectacular class. Bradley was expected to be around at least two years, and Seventh Woods was a top-50 point guard.

Departures: Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks, Stilman White, Nate Britt, Justin Jackson*, Tony Bradley*
Arrivals: Jalek Felton (#30), Brandon Huffman (#144), Garrison Brooks (#146), Andrew Platek (#186), Sterling Manley (#222), Cam Johnson (GT)

Four starters from a national title team departed, but only three of them were expected. Two other scholarship contributors also graduated. Bradley’s decision left an unexpected opening deep into the spring, which was saved by Garrison Brooks after decommitting from Mississippi State and Cam Johnson transferring from Pittsburgh.

Departures: Joel Berry, Theo Pinson, Jalek Felton (suspended)
Arrivals: Nassir Little (#4), Coby White (#21), Leaky Black (#63)

The recruiting “woes” from the previous year seemingly behind the program, the Heels land two McDonald’s All-Americans. Little was always expected to be a surefire OAD, but White’s status was truly up in the air until midway through the season. Felton’s suspension and withdrawal helped make that possible.

Departures: Luke Maye, Kenny Williams, Cam Johnson, Coby White*, Nassir Little*, Seventh Woods*
Arrivals: Cole Anthony (#3), Armando Bacot (#18), Anthony Harris (#66). Jeremiah Francis (#127), Christian Keeling (GT), Justin Pierce (GT)

Six of the top seven players from an ACC regular season title team and #1 seed left Chapel Hill. Two of them, Woods and White, were unexpected at the beginning of last season. That left holes to fill late in the process and had ripple effects.

Early Departures

We won’t be too repetitive here, but we will show how early departures can influence recruiting. Yesterday, Al examined how early departures had impacted UNC’s roster in previous years, going back to 2016-2017. Some of those losses were expected (Nassir Little, Justin Jackson). Others were a surprise (Bradley, Woods). All of them impacted future season’s rosters and inevitably altered UNC’s recruiting.

For example, in a perfect world Tony Bradley, Seventh Woods, Jalek Felton, Nassir Little, and Coby White would all have eligibility on this year’s team.


That roster was never a realistic expectation, but their draft declarations and transfer decisions often left voids that were treated with a band-aid that finally ripped off this year.

What if Bradley stays, Cam doesn’t come to Chapel Hill, and the staff eventually turns that into what would now be a four or five-star sophomore?

What if Jalek Felton stayed through his junior year? Or at least through his sophomore year, sharing the spotlight with Coby and delaying White’s notoriety?

What if Coby doesn’t have that success? Despite public statements otherwise, does Cole Anthony really come to UNC? Or does UNC have more success with recruits that complement White?

How does this team react if a senior Seventh Woods is running the point and Leaky Black can spend more time on the wing? Maybe Harris and Francis aren’t forced into action so early. Maybe Harris or Christian Keeling never even step foot in Chapel Hill.

I get it. “What if” games are pointless, but it is undeniable any number of other outcomes could have mitigated this season’s problems. As such, the Heels have relied on graduate transfers, multi-year projects, and late-cycle decommits with surprising regularity. Even their 13th scholarship has rotated between walk-ons for the past five years because UNC cannot fill their total allotment — and they have tried.

Bradley, Woods, Felton, and White were all second-semester decisions that saw UNC chasing recruits and taking commitments past the national title game. Johnson, Brooks, Keeling, Pierce, Anthony Harris, and Cole Anthony all committed in April, May, or June. That’s a harsh reality when you enter the one-and-done game and your last three McDonald’s All-Americans leave after their freshman year.

Extracurricular Events

Whether it was the NCAA investigation or the Adidas pay-for-play scandal, North Carolina was clearly battling more demons than just rival head coaches for players. The NCAA investigation was reopened in July of 2014 — a few months after the heralded recruiting class of Joel Berry, Theo Pinson, and Justin Jackson committed to UNC.

In the 2015-2017 classes, UNC didn’t sign a recruit ranked higher than #30. During this time, UNC received three notice of allegations between May of 2015 and December of 2016. Tony Bradley was the only McDonald’s All-American to show faith in Roy and North Carolina. Brandon Ingram, the #4 overall player in the 2015 class according to the RSCI, even said the scandal scared him away from UNC. (Note: Coby White, among others, did commit in this timeframe, but he was not as highly regarded until later in his high school career).

Since the NCAA backed down on October 13th, 2017 and announced UNC did not commit any infractions, the Heels’ fortunes have magically changed. In 2018 and 2019 they signed six top-100 players. Four of those ranked in the RSCI top-25 and were named McDonald’s All-Americans.

Meanwhile, schools that are now feeling the effects of the Adidas scandal and potential fall out from that are struggling to maintain their usual recruiting prowess. Kansas, Louisville, and Arizona have all seen inconsistent recruits results heading into this spring signing period, especially compared to pre-2018 levels. Weird.

Recruiting Strategies

Despite everything mentioned above, North Carolina’s recruiting strategies have also played a role in recruiting struggles. Whether it was Adidas, one-and-done philosophies, or the NCAA investigation, the recruiting landscape shifted while North Carolina was just trying to stand up without falling over.

Roy’s methods involve slow, methodical vetting. He is often the last the offer an elite prospect a scholarship. At a minimum, he waits until he or his staff can conduct multiple evaluations and/or conversations with the player or the player’s support network. It’s a method that has worked, is working, and will work again.

However, the past few years that strategy has needed some tweaking. With more professional options than every before, an increased emphasis on getting to the NBA as soon as possible, and teenage phenoms marketing themselves before they even get to college, there are different challenges to navigate. Even the one-and-done cycle that fans clamored for and that Roy insisted he was trying to execute has proven frustrating.

North Carolina had to adjust.

Sean May, UNC’s Director of Operations and 2005 NCAA Final Four MOP, discussed some of this with Jones Angell and Adam Lucas last October. Social media improvements have been noticeable and a welcome addition. The ACC Network’s All-Access with UNC Basketball was a bold move for a protective program. Finding places on the staff for former players, like May and Kendall Marshall can’t be understated. Letting freshmen speak to the media before the first game was a culture shock for longtime fans. The changes, though, go deeper than a conversation held on an official UNC platform and improved Twitter graphics.

There have been times when the staff may have pursued a player for too long after it was clear the player was not interested. In 2019 specifically, an unwillingness (from the outside, looking in) to cast a wide net into the proverbial recruiting sea hurt the Heels. Their list of offers can be found here at 247 Sports. Of the 20 offers listed, only five players outside the 247 Sports Composite top-35 were offered. Only two of those were offered before November 4, 2018 — Jeremiah Francis and Josh Nickelberry. Zeke Nnaji was offered on November 4, 2018. Justin McKoy and Anthony Harris were offered after the season.

In 2018, the staff handed out 10 offers. Nine of those were ranked in the top-12. Just three of those were outside the top-25. Long time in-state commit, Leaky Black was on of those three. A consistent emphasis on non-”elite” talent was missing, leading to boom-or-bust classes.

Compare that to the 2020 class, where the coaching staff handed out 18 offers before the 2019 summer ended. Four of those 18 offers were to players currently outside the top-35 . Those numbers almost equal the entire 2019 class. The results?

Five commitments currently ranked #14, #16, #21, #46, and #58 by 247 Sports. Every current open scholarship for next season has a replacement. North Carolina has a top-3 class.

There were multiple factors involved in that success. A new summer recruiting calendar influenced evaluations. Recent NBA success by Coby White helped changed false narratives about UNC’s system. Known losses helped the staff formulate a strategy. However, the staff clearly adapted after a few years of frustrating results.

What Does It Mean?

It’s pretty simple. The coaching staff hasn’t lost a step or forgotten how to recruit. The game hasn’t passed them by. Early departures, outside influences, and strategic miscues all contributed to recruiting woes. The lack of depth and stability in the program is what manifests on the court. The result is a bunch of talented players who are now playing out of position, in uncomfortable roles, or are being asked to play outside their capabilities.

The good news is help is on the way. The bad news is, unless Cole Anthony’s knee heals quickly, that help is still a year away.

Speaking of Cole’s knee, check out Al’s piece tomorrow. He’ll examine how injuries, both past and present, have played a factor this season.