On Mo Bamba and UNC’s struggle to sign prospects like him

Number 1 prospect Mohamed Bamba discusses basketball recruiting

Mohamed Bamba, arguably the No. 1 prospect in the class of 2017, discusses his recruitment and his thoughts on Duke and North Carolina, both of which have prioritized him.
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Mohamed Bamba, arguably the No. 1 prospect in the class of 2017, discusses his recruitment and his thoughts on Duke and North Carolina, both of which have prioritized him.

Let’s talk Mohamed Bamba. Specifically, let’s talk about a question I asked Bamba last week at the Peach Jam – a question, I’ve learned, that some have taken issue with.

First the background on Bamba: He’s arguably the best basketball prospect in the class of 2017. He’s a 6-foot-11 forward from Harlem. He’s a fantastic player. He’s gifted on the court and in the classroom. He’s reportedly giving Harvard serious consideration. All the big basketball schools want him, too: Kentucky, Arizona, Indiana, Louisville and, yes, Duke and UNC.

Anyway, I wrote a story about Bamba that came out last week. Nothing too crazy – sort of a basic update about where his recruitment stands, which isn’t all that clear given that Bamba said he’s still considering every school that is recruiting him. So the story comes out, and it’s an OK story but among the hundreds of stories I’ll write in a year, it won’t be among the most memorable.

And, oh yeah: Here’s where I should tell you that the story also included a video of a group interview with Bamba. I shot it on my phone, like a regular Spielberg. So the story comes out, along with the video, and it fades into the background. Until Thursday, that is.

That’s when people find out, from watching the video, that I had the nerve to ask Bamba about the fact that UNC in recent years hasn’t successfully recruited players of his caliber. To which Bamba replied: Yeah, well, “Tony Bradley is pretty good.” Bradley is UNC’s best incoming freshman – and he is indeed very good, and has a chance to be great.

Even so, Bradley, a lean 6-foot-11 center, isn’t a top-5 prospect, like Bamba is. I reminded Bamba of this. He said: “I don’t really care about that.”

Honestly, it’s probably what I’d say if I’d been Bamba. Anyway, a week later people finally watched my Bamba video (thank you), and some members of a passionate online community of UNC fans apparently took issue with my question to Bamba about UNC’s recent inability to land players regarded as highly as him.

I won’t go into everything, but it was the usual nastiness that populates a lot of Internet forums. The perception seemed to be that by asking Bamba a question about UNC’s relative recruiting woes, I was disparaging the Tar Heels, their recruiting efforts and all that is right and good. One person emailed and asked:

“Is there a reason you are so critical of UNC basketball?”

All because I asked Bamba this question. Very strange. I never thought it’d need explaining but apparently it does, so here’s why my question to Bamba was perfectly reasonable: It was reasonable because UNC hasn’t signed a player regarded as highly as Bamba since 2010. That’s when Harrison Barnes signed with UNC. Since then: No top-five prospects for the Tar Heels.

Now, that isn’t to say that UNC hasn’t recruited good – and even great – players. That isn’t to say it hasn’t recruited well overall. That isn’t to say it hasn’t put together very good teams, like the one that reached the national title game in April. But six years have passed since a top-5 prospect – one considered among the best of the best of the best – chose UNC.

Duke hasn’t had trouble recruiting top-five prospects. Kentucky hasn’t. Kansas hasn’t. In every measurable way, UNC is either the basketball equal or superior of those schools. And yet UNC isn’t recruiting like them. Is it the NCAA mess? The perception, right or wrong, that UNC isn’t a good place for top-end, one-and-done talent? Something else?

I thought Bamba might have some thoughts, being the top prospect that he is. So I basically asked: Hey, it’s been a while since a player like you has chosen UNC. What’s up with that? To which he said, “Tony Bradley is pretty good. Tony Bradley is really good.” A fair answer to a fair question. And that question, by the way, still remains.

What would it take for it to go away? It would take a prospect of Bamba’s caliber committing to UNC.