North Carolina

Uncertainty, questions at UNC played ‘a big factor’ in Brandon Ingram turning down Tar Heels

It might endure as one of the great unanswered questions in North Carolina basketball history – the question of what might have been had the Tar Heels successfully recruited Brandon Ingram, and whether they would have if not for the uncertainty surrounding an NCAA investigation.

If not for that – the investigation into a long-running scheme of suspect African Studies paper classes – would Ingram, the 6-foot-9 Kinston High standout, have selected UNC on Monday instead of Duke? Ingram ended his recruitment by selecting Duke over UNC, N.C. State, Kentucky and Kansas.

UNC, though, might have recruited him with more fervor and commitment than any school. Ingram often attended UNC games at the Smith Center in recent years, and he said on Monday, after announcing inside a crowded gym at Kinston High, that he nearly committed to UNC a year ago.

Then things changed. The NCAA announced in late June it was reopening its investigation at UNC, and interest in Ingram, who rose nationally in the recruiting rankings, increased.

He went from being a top-30 prospect to one that some consider among the nation’s very best. ranks Ingram the No. 3 prospect in the class of 2015.

Asked Monday if he would have committed to UNC had it not faced such uncertainty because of the NCAA investigation, Ingram said, “I think I would have.”

“I liked them a lot,” he said. “But I’m kind of glad that I waited.”

Ingram’s father, Donald, said he and his family wanted answers to questions that, to this point, have been impossible to answer. It’s unclear how the NCAA investigation will affect the UNC men’s basketball program, and what kind of sanctions – if any – coach Roy Williams and his team will face.

Painful loss

Williams in March acknowledged that “junk” surrounding his program – his way of describing the NCAA investigation and other issues UNC has encountered in recent years – has negatively affected recruiting. He said in some cases he has had difficulty convincing top prospects to visit campus.

Losing Ingram to Duke hurts UNC in a variety of ways, not the least of which is the loss of a coveted prospect to a fierce rival. This recruiting competition, too, is another high-profile recruiting defeat for Williams and his staff.

UNC’s 2014 recruiting class was ranked among the best in the nation, but even so, Williams in recent years has had difficulty attracting the most-talented players in a given class. Meanwhile, Duke and Kentucky have excelled on the strength of freshmen who have left school early for the NBA.

Had Ingram chosen UNC, he arguably would have been the Tar Heels’ highest-profile recruit since Harrison Barnes chose the Tar Heels over the Blue Devils in 2010. At that point, UNC was but a year removed from a national championship, and it wasn’t trying to recruit amid significant unknowns.

The questions about what might happen at UNC – and what penalties it might face – proved too difficult for Williams and his staff to overcome during Ingram’s recruitment. Donald Ingram said the cloud of the NCAA investigation “played a big factor” in his son’s decision to turn down UNC.

“We wanted to see something on paper,” Donald Ingram said. “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.”

An eight-year investigation into the Syracuse men’s basketball program found an assortment of violations, and the sanctions, which the NCAA announced last month, included scholarship cuts and the suspension of Boeheim from his team’s first nine ACC games next season. Syracuse also self-imposed a postseason ban.

It’s unclear what penalties UNC might ultimately face, or even which sports might be subject to penalties. UNC is still waiting to receive from the NCAA a notice of allegations, in which the NCAA will detail the violations it uncovered during its investigation.

Communication mishap

Brandon Ingram created questions recently when during a nationally televised interview on ESPNU he referenced UNC having received “the allegations” on April 17. His comments quickly spread on the Internet, creating speculation about whether UNC had received the notice of allegations.

Steve Kirschner, a UNC athletic department spokesman, later said the university had not received it. Ingram on Monday attributed his comments to a communication mishap with Williams.

“Before, he told me that they were going to get (the notice of allegations),” Ingram said of Williams. “But of course, it was up to the NCAA to send them and they got way backed up. So I went back and talked to (Williams). I didn’t think he was lying to me or anything like that.

“But I knew that they didn’t receive them after he came from the in-home visit.”

Williams and Steve Robinson, the UNC assistant, were the last coaches to visit Ingram at his house last week. They arrived Wednesday, the day after Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and his staff had visited for the second time in less than a week.

Before Ingram, the Tar Heels had successfully recruited former Kinston High standouts Jerry Stackhouse, in the early 1990s, and Reggie Bullock, who departed UNC in 2013 after his junior season. In recent seasons, UNC had successfully recruited Isaiah Hicks from Oxford and Theo Pinson from Greensboro. Both of them were among the top prospects in the state when they committed.

Williams had been hoping Ingram might follow Stackhouse and Bullock to Chapel Hill, and he might have if not for the all the unknowns. Ingram on Monday both downplayed the role of the NCAA investigation in his decision and said that without it he likely would have chosen UNC.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “Just going back, I trusted coach Williams, Steve Robinson, and I listened to everything they said. So I got a really good feel for what they said, and I don’t think anything is going to happen next year for them.”

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer