UNC basketball recruiters battle Duke, frustration

UNC, which will enter next season among the favorites to reach the Final Four, has had difficulty attracting the very best high school prospects in recent seasons.
UNC, which will enter next season among the favorites to reach the Final Four, has had difficulty attracting the very best high school prospects in recent seasons. Robert Willett - rwillett@newsobserver.com

When Jayson Tatum committed to Duke on Sunday, he became another in a long line of heralded high school basketball prospects to choose to play for the Blue Devils, and another to spurn a scholarship offer from North Carolina.

It might not be fair, though, to say that UNC missed on Tatum – because how much of a chance did the Tar Heels really have with him, anyway? Tatum included UNC on his list of four finalists, though it never appeared that coach Roy Williams had a great chance to successfully recruit him.

So it wasn’t surprising when Tatum, the 6-foot-8 forward from St. Louis, announced on Sunday his commitment to Duke over UNC and others. The Blue Devils, after all, were considered the favorites. And the Tar Heels? Well, they were on his list, at least.

That Tatum’s commitment to Duke was expected, though, can’t make it any less frustrating for coach Roy Williams and his program. It’s bad enough to go through the kind of recruiting woes that recently have plagued UNC. It’s worse when your fiercest rival is among the beneficiaries of those woes.

Before delving too far into this, it must be noted that UNC will likely enter next season ranked among the top three teams in the nation, while Duke likely will not. The Tar Heels, who return four starters, including seniors Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, will be among the preseason favorites to end the season in Houston in the Final Four.

Still, in recruiting, one school is and has been for a while, far ahead of the other. Duke and UNC might be separated by eight miles of pine trees and two shades of blue, as it went on that old melodramatic ESPN promo, but in recruiting right now they’re arguably about as far apart as they’ve ever been. At least since the rivalry became The Rivalry in college basketball.

UNC went through a difficult recruiting stretch in the late 1990s and early 2000s, after Dean Smith retired and when Duke brought in classes that included the likes of Elton Brand and Shane Battier, Jason (now Jay) Williams, Mike Dunleavy and Carlos Boozer, among others. The talent gap between the programs widened then, with Duke clearly superior.

Uncertainty hurts

And then it swung back in UNC’s favor in the mid-2000s. For a while now, though, Duke has held a clear advantage against UNC in recruiting. Duke has had little difficulty attracting the best of the best high school prospects to Durham, while at UNC Williams acknowledged not long ago that he’s having trouble even enticing recruits to visit Chapel Hill amid what he sometimes describes as all “the junk.”

“The junk,” to use Williams’ phrasing, is obvious enough. Undoubtedly, the NCAA investigation has hurt Williams’ recruiting efforts, and it has likely had an effect on recruiting in just about every sport at UNC. The investigation has brought uncertainty and questions about sanctions that might be coming. Or ones that might not be coming.

As it has turned out, the mere questions about the sanctions are arguably as damning as any actual penalty might be on its own. The uncertainty has become its own kind of penalty, this unrelenting cloud that has caused recruits to wonder whether they really want to commit to UNC without knowing what the program might endure whenever the NCAA case concludes.

Will there be postseason bans? Might scholarship reductions make it more difficult to field a competitive team? It’s impossible to answer those questions with 100 percent certainty, and so they’ll remain until there are definitive answers. And answers are still a ways away.

Brandon Ingram, a former Kinston High standout who was one of the best prospects in the class of 2015, acknowledged that he might have committed to UNC earlier in his recruitment had it not been for the NCAA investigation. Instead, Ingram waited until the spring to announce his decision and he chose Duke over UNC and others, though UNC might have recruited him with more vigor than any school.

Ingram was the No. 3 prospect in his class according to 247sports.com’s composite ranking system, which essentially is a combination of publicly available recruiting rankings. Tatum is the No. 3 prospect in the class of 2016, according to 247sports. That means that in the past three months, since Ingram made his decision in April, Duke has earned commitments from two top-five prospects. UNC, meanwhile, hasn’t signed a top-five prospect in its past five recruiting classes.

Freshmen potential

The most recent top-five prospect UNC signed, according to 247sports’ composite ranking, was Harrison Barnes, who arrived in Chapel Hill in 2010. In the years since, Duke has signed a top-five prospect in every year but 2012. Those players include Austin Rivers (2011), Jabari Parker (2013), Jahlil Okafor (2014) and Ingram.

Rivers, Parker and Okafor all played one season at Duke before departing after their freshman seasons to enter the NBA draft. Though they all arrived amid considerable expectations, they produced mixed results. Rivers and Parker were leading scorers on teams that lost their first games in the NCAA tournament. Okafor was one of three freshmen to lead Duke to the national championship in April.

Okafor’s class, in particular, illustrated the potential that comes with staking a team’s hopes on a few especially talented freshmen. Okafor alone likely wouldn’t have been able to lead the Blue Devils to a championship, but he had help from classmates Tyus Jones, the point guard who was the No. 7 prospect in his class, according to 247sports, and Justise Winslow, the wing forward who was the No. 13 prospect. Like Okafor, both Jones and Winslow left school to become first-round draft picks. Quinn Cook, the senior guard, was also instrumental in Duke’s championship run.

The Blue Devils’ triumph against Wisconsin in Indianapolis on the final night of the season gave Mike Krzyzewski his fifth national championship. This one was different than the others because of how Duke won, with a team so dependent on first-year players. At the Final Four and after his team’s final victory of the season, Krzyzewski received praise for adapting to this modern era of college basketball, one in which the most talented players are likely only to play one season before entering the NBA draft.

In recent years no program has used freshmen more effectively, or featured them more prominently, than Kentucky, which won the 2012 national championship on the strength of one-and-done players. Kentucky again reached the Final Four in 2014 with a nucleus of freshmen and the Wildcats returned to the Final Four, and with an undefeated record, in April.

That Duke and Kentucky have excelled recently in recruiting makes UNC’s shortcomings all the more glaring. UNC shares its most passionate rivalry with Duke, and UNC and Kentucky share something of a national rivalry. Kentucky, UNC and Duke are three of four most victorious programs in history, and UNC, Kentucky and Duke rank 1-2-3 in Final Four appearances.

When it comes to attracting the best of the best high school talent, though, one of those programs is not like the others. Still, UNC has hardly recruited poorly in recent years. To the contrary the Tar Heels have more often than not signed highly-ranked classes, with their most recent class – the one most significantly affected by the NCAA concerns – the exception.

UNC’s 2014 freshman class, which included Joel Berry, Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson, ranked third nationally – behind Duke and Kentucky – according to ESPN.com. The 2013 class, which included Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks and Nate Britt, ranked fifth, according to ESPN.com. And the 2012 class, which included Paige, Johnson, Joel James and J.P. Tokoto, who left school after his junior season to become a late-second round NBA draft pick, ranked eighth.

So UNC hasn’t lacked for talent. But it has lacked for top-end, best-of-the-best talent, and it has lacked for the caliber of player – like Okafor, or Karl-Anthony Towns – that in recent years has so often chosen to play at Duke and Kentucky. Williams denies that he has deemphasized recruiting one-and-done prospects. He has said, instead, that he’d recruit a Marvin Williams or a Brandan Wright with as much enthusiasm now as he did years ago.

Marvin Williams, who played at UNC during the 2004-05 season before leaving for the NBA, was a one-and-done before that term became mainstream. Wright, who left school after the 2006-07 season, is the most recent player to leave UNC to enter the NBA draft after his freshman season. Since then, the most highly-rated prospects UNC has signed – like John Henson in 2009, Barnes in 2010, James Michael McAdoo in 2011 – have all stayed at least two seasons.

That UNC recruits players who stick around is good for Roy Williams, and good for the development of his team. The Tar Heels will enter next season among the favorites to reach the Final Four because of their experience, and because they’ll be built like something of a throwback – a team reliant on three- and four-year players, with a potential emerging star in Jackson, a sophomore.

In a strange way, though, it could be argued that the structure of UNC’s team is a turnoff to the most highly-ranked high school prospects. Part of Kentucky’s recruiting success is the constant turnover it creates. Players enter the program, receive plenty of exposure, perhaps reach the Final Four and leave after one season for the NBA. Same thing, recently, at Duke.

High school players with visions of being in college for only a season can look at Kentucky and Duke and see themselves following the same path others have established there. For all of its success putting players in the NBA, and for all the mystique that came with being Michael Jordan’s alma mater, UNC hasn’t established the kind of path that seems most attractive nowadays to the very best high school players.

Williams has at times bemoaned the “bus stop” nature of college basketball – that the players of today seem to care a lot more about the name on the back of the jersey, as the cliché goes, than on the front. For the longest time, playing at a place like North Carolina – or for that matter, places like Duke and Kentucky – meant being a part of something greater than any individual. It’s almost the reverse now, with programs forced to prove it can cater to the individual, that it can fast-track guys to the NBA.

But that’s where we are in the sport. Duke, Kentucky, even Kansas – in recent years they’ve all had more success than UNC in recruiting the best of the best. For the past year or so, certainly, UNC’s recruiting woes could be attributable to an NCAA infractions case that continues to drag on. The problem, though, if it can be called that, didn’t start a year ago. It has been a while now since UNC has done what Duke has accomplished twice in the past three months.