North Carolina

UNC’s Roy Williams has missed on one-and-done players. But so what. He’s winning.

Zion Williamson’s highlight reel

Spartanburg Day senior Zion Williamson picks the Duke Blue Devils giving Coach K the top three high school recruits in 2018.
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Spartanburg Day senior Zion Williamson picks the Duke Blue Devils giving Coach K the top three high school recruits in 2018.

On Jan. 10, 2015, North Carolina hosted Louisville in a nationally televised game at the Dean E. Smith Center. At the time, the Tar Heels were ranked No. 18 in the nation, the Cardinals were No. 5.

In attendance that day were top basketball recruits Brandon Ingram, Jaylen Brown, Harry Giles and Dennis Smith Jr. Ingram and Brown were two of the most sought out recruits in the Class of 2015; Giles and Smith were two of the top prospects in 2016.

As the game was winding down, UNC guard Marcus Paige, at the time a junior, made the arena erupt when he scored a game-winning layup in the 72-71 upset win over the Cardinals, and afterward Ingram, Brown, Giles and Smith ran toward the Tar Heels’ locker room to join the celebration.

In that moment it was easy to see UNC fans envisioning that group of recruits leading the Tar Heels to more wins. In reality it would be the last time any of them were inside UNC’s home locker room. Months later, Brown would sign with the University of California and Ingram would commit to UNC’s biggest rival – Duke. In the fall of 2015, Giles would also commit to Duke, while Smith would commit to N.C. State.

That group of recruits not only committed to other schools, but were very successful, with the exception of Giles, who battled injuries during his one season at Duke. Brown, Giles, Ingram and Smith would all go one to be one-and-done college players, and each was a first-round pick in the NBA draft.

As a freshman at Cal, Brown averaged 14.6 points per game, was named first-team All-Pac-12 and was the league’s Rookie of the Year. The Boston Celtics selected Brown with the third overall pick in the 2016 draft, one spot behind Ingram, who was picked by the Lakers after averaging 17.3 points in his only season at Duke.

Ingram was also the ACC Rookie of the Year. Smith won that award in 2017 and was picked No. 9 by the Dallas Mavericks in the 2017 NBA draft.

But did the Tar Heels really suffer without those top recruits?

Making the NCAA title game - twice

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North Carolina’s Marcus Paige, middle, makes an off balance three-pointer to tie the NCAA tournament title game against Villanova with 4.7 seconds left on April 4, 2016. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

In 2016, Brown and the Golden Bears lost 77-66 to Hawaii in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Ingram and the Blue Devils lost 82-68 to Oregon in the NCAA tournament’s Round of 16.

That same year, however, the Tar Heels won the ACC tournament, beating Virginia 61-57, before going on to lose to Villanova in the NCAA championship game. UNC was led by a pair of four-year players – seniors Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, a unanimous AP All-American pick.

Johnson is a perfect example of the type of player Williams recruits and develops. Johnson was a four-star recruit from Cardovo, S.C. and the top player in the state coming out of high school. He wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American, but his game improved each year he was in Chapel Hill.

Johnson’s scoring increased each season, and by his senior season, he was one of the top players in the country.

Senior forward Joel James was also on that UNC roster. James, who didn’t start playing basketball until his sophomore year of high school, arrived in the same class with Johnson, and was a valuable reserve by the time he was a senior.

Last season, UNC, again relying on upperclassmen, made it back to the national title game, but this time beating Gonzaga, 71-65, to give Williams his third NCAA championship win since returning to UNC in 2003.

That 2017 team relied heavy on seniors Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Nate Britt, and juniors Joel Berry, Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson, last season’s ACC Player of the Year. Before that season, Meeks, Hicks, Berry, Pinson and Jackson all entered the NBA draft without hiring an agent, but returned to Chapel Hill.

But back-to-back trips to the national championship wasn’t enough for some fans.

Under the cloud of an NCAA investigation

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Duke guard Brandon Ingram, middle, passed on UNC because of the NCAA investigation. Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

To many, missing out on those high-ranking recruits like Ingram, Smith, Brown and Giles was a blow to the Tar Heels’ future. The uncertainty of the NCAA’s investigation into UNC’s ongoing academic scandal and the potential for penalties the university’s athletic programs faced particularly played a hand in Ingram passing on the Tar Heels.

Ingram, a five-star forward who was ranked No. 3 nationally and No. 1 in the state coming out of high school, played for Kinston High, the same school that produced former Tar Heel basketball players Jerry Stackhouse and Reggie Bullock. Asked in April of 2015 if he would have committed to UNC if not for the ongoing NCAA investigation and the possible sanctions, Ingram said, “I think I would have.”

Ingram and his family wanted answers to questions, that at the time, UNC could not answer. Brandon’s father, Donald, said the NCAA investigation “played a big factor” in Brandon’s decision to attend Duke.

“We wanted to see something on paper,” Donald Ingram said in 2015. “We wanted to hear it on television. We wanted to know that they’re not going to fall into the same situation like Jim Boeheim with Syracuse. So you don’t want to go into a (situation) that’s already hot. And it played a factor in it.”

That led some to question whether UNC coach Roy Williams could still lure big names to Chapel Hill.

Shortly after Ingram’s commitment to Duke, UNC fans grew frustrated and one even found a way to address Williams directly by tracking down his home phone number and leaving him a less-than-friendly message.

“Told me it was going to be a cold day in Hades,” Williams said in 2016, “when the Carolina people are going to be satisfied with the job that I was doing because Brandon Ingram signed at Duke.”

Zion Williamson picks ...... Duke

Duke Blue Devils men’s basketball commit Zion Williamson explains how Coach K secured the five-star from South Carolina.

On Jan. 20, Spartanburg Day School’s Zion Williamson, a 6-6, 275-pound power forward and the No. 3 recruit in the nation, announced he was heading to Duke, picking the Blue Devils over Clemson, South Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky and UNC. Once again, some UNC fans were tired of what they felt like was losing out.

On Twitter one UNC fan wrote “Coach Williams is not the greatest in game coach and now he struggles to recruit. I think he lost a step.”

University of North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams says he respects the Duke program, but "I'll be damned if I want to pattern what we're doing after them."

Even after the fan was reminded of the Tar Heels’ consecutive title games and last season’s championship win, the fan wrote: ‘But keeps missing on top guys in front of the whole world and have to rely on walk-ons like (Luke) Maye.’

Maye, a 6-8, 240-pound junior forward, leads the Tar Heels in scoring (17.8), rebounds (10.4) and blocks. Maye also leads the team in three-point percentage (47 percent), one spot above junior guard Kenny Williams (40 percent). Williams and Maye have started every game for North Carolina this year Maye has played in two championship games. Williams was hurt last season and missed the title game.

Maye arrived in Chapel Hill in 2015, the same season Ingram went to Duke and Brown went to California. Invited to play basketball as a walk-on, Maye received a scholarship before the start of his freshman season. Now he is an All-American candidate and was the 2017 South Regional Most Outstanding Player, after his now-legendary game-winning shot to defeat Kentucky and advance to the 2017 Final Four.

In October, Roy Williams signed Nassir Little, a 6-7, 205-pound forward and the No. 6-ranked recruit from the Class of 2018. The following month, the UNC coach signed five-star guard Coby White, the No. 2-ranked player in the state in the Class of 2018, and Rechon Black, a four-star guard and the No. 5 player in the state. He committed to UNC as a high school sophomore. Little is expected to be a one-and-done player. Black and White are not.

University of North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams tells reporters why he trusts UNC prospect Nassir Little in the wake of an FBI investigation into college basketball.

Duke’s 2014 national title team was led by freshmen Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Grayson Allen. Okafor, Jones and Winslow all entered the NBA draft after one season with the Blue Devils. Roy Williams has had a hard time landing the one-and-done players, which Williamson is expected to be.

But the one-and-done players are not what Roy Williams has needed to win.

"Dadgum" or "daggum"? No matter how you spell it, UNC coach Roy Williams possesses his own lexicon and perhaps should come with his own glossary. Call it Roynacular, Williams’ use of expressions and words like "dadgum," “Jimminy Christmas,” “blank

Jonas Pope IV: 919-419-6501, @JEPopeIV

UNC vs. Duke

Comparing UNC and Duke’s recruiting classes for the last six years.

High school Class of 2018

UNC

No. 7-ranked class

No. 7 Nassir Little (No. 7)

No. 23 Coby White (No. 25)

No. 62 Rechon Black (No. 64)

Duke

No. 1-ranked class

R.J. Barrett (No. 1)

Cam Reddish (No. 2)

Zion Williamson (No. 3)

Tre Jones (No. 8)

High school class of 2017

UNC

No. 30-ranked class

Jalek Felton (No. 30)

Garrison Brooks (130)

Brandon Huffman (194)

Andrew Platek (217)

Sterling Manley (266)

Duke

No. 1-ranked class

Marvin Bagley (No. 1)

Trevon Duval (No. 6)

Wendell Carter (No. 7)

Gary Trent (No. 17)

Alex O’Connell (No. 67)

Jordan Tucker (No. 82)

High school class of 2016

UNC

No. 14-ranked class

Tony Bradley (No. 25)

Seventh Woods (No. 48)

Brandon Robinson (No. 60)

Duke

No. 1-ranked class

Harry Giles (No. 2)

Jayson Tatum (No. 4)

Frank Jackson (No. 13)

Marques Bolden (No. 14)

Javin DeLaurier (No. 39)

Jack White (No. 226)

High school Class of 2015

UNC

No. 70-ranked class

Kenny Williams (No. 96)

Luke Maye (No. 155)

Duke

No. 2 ranked class

Brandon Ingram (No. 3)

Derryck Thornton (No. 14)

Chase Jeter (No. 15)

Luke Kennard (No. 21)

Antonio Vrankovic (No. 203)

Justin Robinson (No. 375)

High school Class of 2014

UNC

No. 10-ranked class

Justin Jackson (No. 9)

Theo Pinson (No. 15)

Joel Berry (No. 30)

Duke

No. 1-ranked class

Jahlil Okafor (No. 1)

Tyus Jones (No. 8)

Justise Winslow (No. 13)

Grayson Allen (No. 26)

High school Class of 2013

UNC

No. 15-ranked class

Isaiah Hicks (No. 16)

Kennedy Meeks (No. 58)

Nate Britt (No. 121)

Duke

No. 9-ranked class

Jabari Paker (No. 9)

Semi Ojeleye (No. 26)

Matt Jones (No. 38)

High school Class of 2012

UNC

No. 5-ranked class

Marcus Paige (No. 30)

Brice Johnson (No. 45)

Joel James (No. 61)

J.P. Tokoto (No. 65)

Duke

No. 41-ranked class

Rasheed Sulaimon (No. 14)

Amile Jefferson (No. 29)

(Player and class rankings according to 247Sports)

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