North Carolina

UNC coach Roy Williams fighting perception problem

Kentucky is sending players to the NBA draft lottery year after year and having to tell Drake to stop messing with its recruits. Duke is coached by one of the most influential people in the world of basketball – college or professional.

And North Carolina? Well …

“Hell,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said on Wednesday at the ACC's annual basketball media day. “I know more professional golfers than all the other coaches in this league put together. OK?”

He was joking, perhaps, and, well – what did knowing guys on the PGA Tour really mean, anyway?

“So, maybe that doesn't have anything to do with recruits,” Williams said.

This could be a special season for UNC. The Tar Heels on Wednesday were picked as the favorite to win the ACC. They shared the No. 1 national ranking with Kentucky in the recently-released coaches' poll. The Tar Heels are among the favorites to end the season in the Final Four in Houston.

So the 2015-16 season could be one to remember. Which is something of an odd thing to consider given all that's surrounding Williams' program. There's the never-ending uncertainty amid the never-ending NCAA investigation, for one.

And then there's this, too: The Tar Heels' perception problem. It exists. It's there. UNC fans might not want to admit. Williams might want to dismiss it. But he at least acknowledged it on Wednesday, and did so for the first time that I can remember.

In the world of college basketball these days, Kentucky and Duke have become the choice destinations for the best of the best high school players. UNC, meanwhile, has fallen out of favor – and it can't solely be blamed on the ongoing NCAA mess, Williams said on Wednesday.

“What John has recruited and what Mike has recruited – I tried to recruit those same guys,” Williams said, referring to Kentucky's John Calipari and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. “So you don't have any idea what makes decisions. I know that because of the stuff that's been going on for the last two and a half years, I know we've suffered.

“But I'm not saying that's the only reason.”

So what is the full reason? Why are Kentucky and Duke cycling through top prospect after top prospect while the Tar Heels continue to struggle to generate even serious interest from some of the top high school recruits in the country? It's not just the NCAA situation.

No, it goes deeper than that. Williams on Wednesday acknowledged he's fighting perceptions that he limits top prospects, that his players become stuck and the one that seemed to bother him most of all: this notion that he's simply not interested in the kind of one-and-done talent flocking to his rivals.

“It's promoted, whether it's by you as an individual, it's promoted (in) the media as, oh, North Carolina's guys stay,” Williams said. “Tyler Hansbrough stayed around. Marcus (Paige) stayed around. You know, we had Brandan Wright and Marvin Williams – I would recruit them today. If they told me I was going to be there one year, I'd be the happiest guy in the world to coach them for one year.”

Marvin Williams played one season at UNC before leaving for the NBA Draft in 2005. Wright played one season at UNC before leaving for the NBA Draft in 2007. Since then, UNC hasn't had a freshman leave school directly for the NBA. It won't have one this season. And it doesn't look like it'll happen next season.

Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The Tar Heels' experience this season, for instance, is the reason they're favored to win the ACC. Still, though, UNC's lack of recent success with the best of the best high school prospects – the ones most likely to leave quickly for the NBA – is glaring. As is the success of two of UNC's fiercest rivals.

Calipari has clearly made Kentucky a dream destination for recruits. It's the same at Duke, where three one-and-done freshmen led the Blue Devils to the national championship last season. At UNC, meanwhile, Williams said toward the end of last season that he's having difficulty even getting top-end prospects to schedule a visit.

“We had a pretty good run of … a lot of McDonald's All-Americans, and all of a sudden we don't,” Williams said. “Maybe they think I got dumb a lot quicker. I can get dumb with the best of them, but I don't know if it was that fast.”

Williams was smart enough on Wednesday to argue a salient point: During the past 10 years no team in the ACC has had more players leave early for the NBA than UNC. Overall, UNC is behind only Kentucky during that span.

Yet still, Williams hears it: “Oh, you go to North Carolina, Roy puts his handcuffs on you and stuff like that,” he said. Williams said “there is a myth” out there about his recruiting preferences, about his philosophy.

And then there's the tangible, too: Williams isn't coaching NBA stars in the Olympics like Krzyzewski has been as head coach of the U.S. National team. Drake hasn't been spending time with the Tar Heels, perhaps because he's too busy hanging out with Kentucky.

“I can hang out with Steve Kirschner,” Williams said, referring to his team's spokesman. “He's giving me a ride home today. Jesus. … Kids make decisions for unusual reasons. But I am old school. I am old-fashioned. And I don't think I'm that much different than a lot of other guys.

“If somebody tells me that I have to hang out with somebody to be successful as a coach, I'd probably have a problem with that.”

And another thing, Williams said: “I happen to like Drake.”

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