Luke DeCock

Ingram’s college decision a victory for Duke over UNC

Just by himself, Brandon Ingram choosing Duke isn’t that big a deal. Even though the Kinston star is the fast-rising No. 3 prospect in the country, per ESPN, he’s just one piece in a larger puzzle, maybe even unlikely to crack Duke’s starting lineup as a freshman.

Ingram’s decision is, however, the latest battle in the perennial basketball war between Duke and North Carolina, one convincingly won by the Blue Devils.

Ingram previously indicated he probably would have committed to North Carolina last fall were it not for the threat of NCAA sanctions. He was ready to follow Jerry Stackhouse and Reggie Bullock from Kinston to Chapel Hill. Instead, he became yet another recruiting coup for Duke, where Mike Krzyzewski and Jeff Capel can apparently do no wrong.

Between the national title and the imminent delivery of three first-round picks to the NBA, with Jahlil Okafor having a chance to go No. 1 overall, Duke’s image with high school kids is as burnished as it has ever been.

Krzyzewski’s biggest spring recruit was Capel, who passed on the Arizona State job, a flag that he’s now the heir apparent at Duke. And now, in the space of a week, the Blue Devils convinced Derryck Thornton to graduate from high school a year early to solve their point-guard problems and landed the top player in the state.

With the new recruits and changes elsewhere – Trevor Lacey’s unexpected departure at N.C. State and Justin Anderson’s decision to leave Virginia for the NBA – Duke went from rebuilding to reloading. North Carolina and Virginia may be the class of the ACC going into next season, but Duke is atop the second tier ahead of N.C. State and Notre Dame and Miami.

After watching Ingram choose their rivals down the road, the Tar Heels have even more at stake next season. North Carolina’s Final Four drought stands at six years, and Ingram’s snub is the latest recruiting defeat for Roy Williams, who lamented during the season that not only could he no longer land top recruits, he couldn’t even get them on campus, thanks to the uncertainty surrounding the NCAA’s appraisal of North Carolina’s academic scandal.

These things can change quickly – it was not all that long ago that Krzyzewski’s Olympic responsibilities were hurting Duke and he could no longer land top recruits, “not all that long ago” now spanning two national titles – but North Carolina has never been more in need of a good season on the court and on the recruiting trail.

The Tar Heels still move the needle with television programmers, but they’ve slipped with recruits. There are three alpha dogs nationally now, Duke and Kentucky and Kansas. North Carolina used to be in that group. The Tar Heels no longer are. Williams knows it. Ingram knows it, too.

While they’re still in the running for top-10 prospect Jaylen Brown, in the larger picture the Tar Heels remain in limbo. Not even the NCAA knows how it’s going to approach North Carolina’s widespread academic fraud. The NCAA has to ask and answer some vital questions about itself before it can weigh in on North Carolina.

Is what happened at North Carolina merely an internal curriculum issue that’s beyond the NCAA’s purview, as president Mark Emmert seemed to indicate during the Final Four? If so, there’s going to be a mad race among schools to set up phony departments, the NCAA having tacitly endorsed them as long as a non-athlete or two is enrolled.

Or is what happened at North Carolina central to the NCAA’s mission of making sure member schools follow the rules they set for themselves, including the integrity of academic eligibility? If so, the Tar Heels are going to take it right in the chops.

Ingram was frightened away from Chapel Hill by that possibility. As long as the NCAA continues to ruminate, North Carolina will continue to suffer and Duke will be happy to extend the gap further.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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