A look back at UNC’s recruitment of Brandon Ingram and the great ‘what if?’

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski talks with Brandon Ingram during Duke’s win over N.C. State on Feb. 6. Ingram was heavily recruited by Roy Williams and North Carolina, but the Tar Heels’ NCAA investigation factored into his decision to go to Duke instead.
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski talks with Brandon Ingram during Duke’s win over N.C. State on Feb. 6. Ingram was heavily recruited by Roy Williams and North Carolina, but the Tar Heels’ NCAA investigation factored into his decision to go to Duke instead. ehyman@newsobserver.com

Roy Williams didn’t want to play the what-if game, didn’t want to entertain one of the great hypothetical questions in the recent history of his tenure at North Carolina: What if UNC hadn’t been surrounded by the uncertainty of an NCAA investigation during Brandon Ingram’s recruitment?

By now the story is well known. For years, Williams and his assistant coaches at UNC recruited Ingram while he was a standout high school player in Kinston. And for years, Ingram was a regular at UNC games at the Smith Center.

For a while it appeared like Ingram favored UNC more than any other school. But then the NCAA reopened an investigation at UNC, Ingram dragged out his recruitment and eventually, last April, he broke some Tar Heel hearts and committed to Duke, where he’s having a memorable freshman season.

Ingram will return to the Smith Center on Wednesday night when Duke plays at UNC. The sight of him there will undoubtedly stir some memories of all those visits he took during his high school years, and in the minds of many it will likely inspire a question, too: What if?

What if during Ingram’s recruitment Williams hadn’t been hounded by the specter of NCAA sanctions? Would Ingram be playing at UNC right now instead of Duke?

“He’s a great youngster, he’s a great player,” Williams said on Tuesday. “We had some problems. Duke did a great job (recruiting him). He’s playing for Duke. I’m not going there.”

When Ingram made his college choice nearly a year ago, he acknowledged that the NCAA investigation played a role in his decision. His father said, too, that the uncertainty surrounding UNC was too much to ignore.

As it has turned out, though, those concerns were all for naught. UNC’s season hasn’t been derailed by a harsh verdict from the NCAA. In fact, a resolution to the case still isn’t imminent and is unlikely to arrive before the fall.

Which is all to say that Ingram could have come to UNC, left and been preparing for his rookie season in the NBA before a concern that dominated the end of his recruitment – the possibility of sanctions – becomes a reality. And even then, who knows what, if any, penalties Williams’ program might face.

When Williams talks as he recently has about his program having already been penalized amid the NCAA case, he’s referring to things like Ingram’s recruitment. It was a recruitment that seemed promising for so long only to fall apart through circumstances outside of Williams’ control.

“We spent a ton of time on (Ingram), loved him – loved everything about him,” Williams said. “Loved his game. I thought he was an unbelievable prospect. And we worked very hard for three years on him. We didn’t get him. …

“I don’t know that I’ve ever worked a guy as long or as hard as we did Brandon, because we saw him as a sophomore and we started working him hard then.”

There’s another side to the “what if” of Ingram’s recruitment, too: What if at the end of it he simply liked Duke better, regardless of the “problems” – as Williams described them – at UNC?

Despite the time he spent at UNC, despite all of his visits to Chapel Hill and the Smith Center, Ingram never developed close relationships with UNC players. Brice Johnson, the Tar Heels’ senior forward, said he “never really talked” with Ingram during his years of visits.

Like, never? Well, Johnson acknowledged he’d “say what’s up” to Ingram. But that was the extent of it.

“I always talk to recruits but he didn’t really hang out with us like that,” Johnson said.

Marcus Paige, the Tar Heels’ senior guard, said it seemed like UNC recruited Ingram “for five years.”

“I’m sure Duke and State and everybody feels the same way,” Paige said. “So he’s a familiar face with all the staffs and ACC teams. So it’ll be interesting to compete against him after having him around for so long. But none of us are like best friends with him or anything.”

Paige said he thought UNC “had a pretty good chance” at securing a commitment from Ingram.

“I’m sure a lot of Duke fans thought Harrison Barnes was going to go to Duke and the exact opposite happened,” Paige said. “So it’s what makes it fun – is we thought this guy was going to be on our team, and now we’re playing against him.”

And yet what if Paige and his UNC teammates were instead playing alongside Ingram? Would his presence at UNC have elevated the Tar Heels to the clear-cut national championship favorite?

Maybe. That said, it’s unclear whether Ingram would have even started at UNC – at least at the start of the season. And who knows how Ingram would have affected the team’s cohesion.

Individually, Ingram’s decision has clearly paid off. He’s being featured at Duke in a way he wouldn’t have been at UNC. Still, the thought of what might have been still lingers.

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