Roy Williams didn’t plan it like this. He has wanted to make that much clear this week but this is how it is, nonetheless, regardless of how hard he worked and how much he hoped. He worked to recruit Harry Giles, hoping that he’d decide to play college basketball at North Carolina.
He watched Jayson Tatum play “many, many times,” Williams, the Tar Heels coach, said earlier this week. Williams wanted him, too. UNC offered a scholarship to Marques Bolden. And Luke Kennard. And Brandon Ingram, who has already come and gone in college and is now playing in the NBA.
All of those players have something in common, and it’s not only that they decided to play at Duke. They were all ranked among the top 25 prospects in their high school classes and, like so many other top-25 prospects in recent years, they spurned scholarship offers from Williams and UNC.
The Tar Heels and Blue Devils renew their rivalry again on Thursday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Cue the hype and the ESPN commercials: the montage of Bloody Montross and Capel’s shot, the Stackhouse dunk and the Rivers buzzer-beater. Dust off the familiar story lines.
It’s nothing new, necessarily, the question that Williams addressed more than once this week. And yet it’s relevant once again, given the glaring contrast between UNC and Duke – one team comprised of the very best high school talent and one that’s not.
No. 8 UNC will be the higher ranked team on Thursday. And the Tar Heels are only about 10 months removed from their appearance in the last national championship game. But still, Williams wants some of what No. 18 Duke has.
He wants those McDonald’s All-American, one-and-done type recruits that, for whatever reason, have simply stopped coming to UNC. The absence of such talent has created a perception that Williams prefers to build his program with players he knows will remain in college for a while.
That, though, is a myth. It’s not that Williams doesn’t want the kind of players that Duke and Kentucky have often successfully recruited in recent years. It’s that those players, Williams has found, don’t necessarily want UNC.
“All the guys that they’ve got, we tried to recruit also,” Williams said of Duke and players like Giles and Tatum and Kennard and others. “I mean, there’s no question about that. We’ve been in a time period here where it’s been difficult for us to get the top-10, top-20 recruit. There’s no question about that.”
Williams was talking, primarily, about an NCAA investigation that is in its third year. The specter of that investigation, which has focused on how a system of bogus African studies courses benefited athletes in several sports over a number of years, goes back even before it began.
Still, UNC’s relative recruiting woes – at least when it comes to attracting the very best high school talent – predates the NCAA investigation, or even the fear that one might be coming. The most recent top-five prospect the Tar Heels signed was Harrison Barnes, in 2010.
Since then, UNC has offered scholarships to 11 prospects who were among the top five players in their classes, according to the 247sports.com composite recruiting rankings. All 11 chose to go elsewhere: five to Duke, two to Kentucky, one each to Kansas, UCLA, Cal and Washington.
Since Williams beat Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski to sign Barnes in 2010, Duke has successfully recruited seven top-10 prospects, including two – Giles and Tatum – who will be on the court on Thursday night. Krzyzewski, meanwhile, said he didn’t necessarily plan it this way, either.
It wasn’t as if he consciously made the decision to build his program around players who would only spend one season on campus. It has just sort of happened that way, he said, given his pursuit of the best high school prospects.
“I think if any program in our conference, if they had an opportunity to get a youngster who was given those accolades in high school and was perceived to be a one-and-done, people would go after that guy,” Krzyzewski said earlier this week. “As long as he fit in academically and people-wise with their program. I mean, nobody’s going to pass over on talent.
“We’re not. I don’t think (UNC) will. I don’t think anybody would.”
All the guys that they’ve got, we tried to recruit also. I mean, there’s no question about that. We’ve been in a time period here where it’s been difficult for us to get the top-10, top-20 recruit. There’s no question about that.
UNC coach Roy Williams on Duke
UNC’s inability to recruit such high-end talent in recent years hasn’t precluded the Tar Heels from success. They entered last season ranked No. 1, among the favorites to win the national championship.
They were a veteran team, led by seniors Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, two top-45 recruits who stayed in college for four years. They reached the national championship game only to lose at the final buzzer when Villanova’s Kris Jenkins made one of the most memorable shots in NCAA tournament history.
Expectations are similarly high this season for the Tar Heels, who again are led by experienced upperclassmen. What UNC lacks in top-five high school talent, it accounts for in experience.
Justin Jackson, the Tar Heels’ wing forward, was a top-10 prospect in the 2014 recruiting class. Now he’s a junior in the midst of a season worthy of first-team All-ACC honors.
Joel Berry, who arrived at UNC with Jackson, was a top-30 prospect in the class of 2014. Now Berry is one of the best point guards in the country. Isaiah Hicks, the Tar Heels’ senior power forward, was a top-20 recruit, and after developing for years he has become an integral part of his team’s success.
Berry, for one, is hoping that UNC’s experience is an advantage against Duke on Thursday. He surmised that it would be – that UNC having older players who have been around each other for years represents “a great deal of advantage.”
“Especially our team,” he said, “with us getting all the way to the national championship game last year, and then some guys on here playing with each other for three years. I think that’s better than having a new guy come in each and every year, and guys leaving. Because you just don’t build that chemistry like you would with guys that have been together three or four years.”
Williams, though, was less receptive to the thought that experience represents a great advantage.
“If it’s created an advantage, than why in the dickens did I spend all the dadgum time recruiting them?” he said about players that chose to go somewhere else.
Part of Williams’ reaction could have been a sales pitch. He is, after all, still recruiting Kevin Knox, a wing forward from Tampa, Fla., who is among the top 10 prospects in the class of 2017. If he chose to attend UNC, Knox would end a long recruiting drought for the Tar Heels.
It has been years, after all, since the Tar Heels have signed a top-10 prospect, and the failure to do so has created urgency. The Tar Heels after this season will lose Hicks and Kennedy Meeks, their starting front court. Both are seniors. They could lose Berry and Jackson, as well, if they decide to enter the NBA draft.
If it happens that way, and if UNC loses out on Knox, the Tar Heels would have but one player on their roster who was a top-20 high school prospect: Theo Pinson, who has fought foot injuries in two of his three college seasons. Williams can easily remember a far different time.
“I’m going to just hazard a guess here, and I have seen something one of my assistants made up,” Williams said. “The first 10 years, we recruited 26 McDonald’s All-Americans, and the last three years, we’ve recruited one, and that was Tony Bradley.”
The line of demarcation, for Williams, starts with what he often describes as “the junk.” He used the phrase again on Tuesday, describing how the NCAA investigation has affected the ability to recruit and attract top prospects.
“When the junk started,” Williams said, “since then, it’s been a lot of negative recruiting and a lot of questions out there. And it’s been harder for us to get those kinds of kids. And I’m not against them. I mean, we’ve had Marvin Williams and Brandan Wright. I would love to have those guys again today.”
This program doesn’t have that reputation of guys coming in here just for one year and just leaving. So I think that’s why a lot of kids just decide not to come here.
UNC junior guard Joel Berry on the Tar Heels
Marvin Williams, who played on UNC’s 2005 national championship team, spent one season at UNC before entering the NBA draft. Wright did the same when he left school to turn pro in 2007.
Since, UNC has not had a one-and-done, which is a phrase that has become part of the college basketball lexicon. Kentucky, under coach John Calipari, has built its program with one-and-dones.
Duke won the 2015 national championship in large part because of three freshmen, all of whom played their final college game in that title game victory against Wisconsin. UNC’s comparative lack of one-and-done talent has created a problem that continues to grow.
It has created a perception that UNC isn’t an ideal place for such players. There’s only one way to counter that perception and yet, the longer it exists, the more difficult it appears to be to attract prospects who are likely to play only one college season.
As Berry put it, some high school players view college as “kind of a waste of time,” an obstacle in the way of the NBA. Those players, he said, often “choose a school that they know they can go there and be a one-and-done and leave.”
“This program doesn’t have that reputation of guys coming in here just for one year and just leaving,” Berry said of UNC. “So I think that’s why a lot of kids just decide not to come here.”
One-and-done talent clearly worked for Duke in the 2014-15 season, but it hasn’t always. The results have been mixed, for instance, this season and in others.
In 2012 and 2014, Duke endured surprising first-round NCAA tournament defeats. Both of those teams were led by freshmen – Austin Rivers in 2012 and Jabari Parker in 2014 – who played only one college season.
And so, as Roy Williams put it, “there’s more than one way to skin a cat, kind of thing.” UNC, though, has been forced to try to win only one way – with more experience – because the paths that Kentucky and Duke have traveled have been, to this point, unavailable to UNC.
Williams offered scholarships to 27 players who were among the top 25 prospects the 2015 and 2016 classes, according to the 247sports.com composite ranking. All 27 of those players went elsewhere. Six went to Duke. Six went to Kentucky. One, Dennis Smith Jr., went to N.C. State.
UNC hasn’t necessarily been hurting without them. The Tar Heels, with their veteran nucleus, are alone in first place in the ACC, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them back in the Final Four in early April.
Yet this isn’t exactly how Williams planned it, the sole reliance on older players. Two of them are sure to be gone after this season, anyway, and others might leave, too.
And so Williams feels some urgency. He’s not averse to one-and-dones, if only they would come.
“You give me Brandan Wright and Marvin Williams, I’d take them every day over an experienced guy – every day,” he said. “Because every coach wants talent. You can’t have talent, you’d like experience. But what you’d really like to have is experienced talent. But everybody’s going to take talent.”
That is, at least, if they can acquire it.
UNC at Duke
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Cameron Indoor Stadium, Durham