John Clay

Is college basketball recruiting overrated? Last two NCAA champs might say yes.

North Carolina head coach Roy Williams cut down the net after his team defeated Gonzaga to win the national championship last April in Glendale, Ariz.
North Carolina head coach Roy Williams cut down the net after his team defeated Gonzaga to win the national championship last April in Glendale, Ariz. Associated Press

Trae Young was supposed to have blazed a trail for the new model in recruiting. Local kid turns down superpowers, stays home, makes buckets, attracts national attention. By starring at Oklahoma, Young proved you need not hitch your star to a marquee program to write your name in lights.

Zion Williamson was supposed to follow the same path. That’s what the recruiting analysts said. The 6-foot-7, 272-pounder out of Spartanburg, S.C., second only to R.J. Barrett in all your favorite recruiting rankings, seemed to favor home-state Clemson. Or South Carolina. Or one or the other over Kentucky or Duke.

Then in a Saturday night shocker, Williamson committed to Duke. A Category 5 storm broke out. Duke has now secured not one, not two, but the top three Class of 2018 recruits in Barrett, Williamson and Cameron Reddish. This caused Kentucky Coach John Calipari to pitch sour grapes at the Blue Devils, ripping the “Dukie is set for life” recruiting pitch as equivalent to swampland. Cal didn’t do it by name, mind you. He didn’t have to.

Here’s my question in all this: How does North Carolina do it?

I know, I know, there was that academic fraud scandal that rocked Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels didn’t go to class. Not real classes, anyway. They signed up for non-existent courses in bogus departments for fixed grades and the NCAA was predictably too chicken to punish the sainted University of Dean Smith. I get it.

All snark aside, how is it that you rarely hear of North Carolina at the top of the recruiting rankings and yet more often than not when March rolls around the Tar Heels are either in or threatening to make the Final Four?

I searched ESPN’s college basketball team recruiting rankings for the past five years. Here’s where North Carolina ranked: 16th in 2013; third in 2014; 33rd in 2015; 13th in 2016 and 17th in 2017. Yet the Heels were a buzzer beater by Villanova’s Kris Jenkins in 2016 away from winning back-to-back titles in ’16 and ’17.

That’s not to throw shade on Mike Krzyzewski. The guy’s a coaching legend. He’s won five national championships, including 2010 and 2015. Duke is a tremendous academic school. Over the past five years, Duke has ranked seventh, first, first, second and first in the ESPN team rankings. Why would you question any prospect that wanted to play college basketball at Duke?

Ditto Calipari and Kentucky. Over the past five years, UK’s recruiting classes have been ranked first, second, second, first and second by ESPN. In eight years at Kentucky, Cal has been to four Final Fours and won a national title. As he stated Monday, in Austin Powers fashion, his NBA proteges are worth a BILLION dollars.

Then there’s Villanova, the 2016 national champions and currently atop the AP Top 25. Here’s where the Wildcats’ recruiting ranked the last five years — 31st, 37th, 24th, 33rd and 39th. Those aren’t typos.

The reason Williamson picked Duke is he wanted to play with other great players. Calipari has made that pitch, too. Duke is the cool school right now, but it could easily switch back to Kentucky, or somewhere else. Kids are like that. Trends change. That’s why they’re trends.

Meanwhile, Roy Williams and North Carolina keep plugging along. I remember it wasn’t long ago the NCAA Tournament media room chatter claimed the game had passed ol’ Roy by. He wasn’t signing the elite prospects. He wasn’t advancing in the NCAA Tournament. He wasn’t getting it done.

And then, boom, dadgum if Roy wasn’t the lead dog again with players like, well, Luke Maye, ranked No. 92 in the class of 2015, who hit the shot to knock Kentucky out of the Elite Eight last year and who is averaging 18 points and 10.4 rebounds this season.

When it comes to recruiting, it’s all important and it’s all cyclical and, most of all, it’s often all overrated come March.

ESPN recruiting champs and NCAA champs

Season

Recruiting

NCAA

2007

USC

Florida

2008

UCLA

Kansas

2009

Kentucky

North Carolina

2010

Kentucky

Duke

2011

Kentucky

Connecticut

2012

UCLA

Kentucky

2013

Kentucky

Louisville

2014

Duke

Connecticut

2015

Duke

Duke

2016

Kentucky

Villanova

2017

Duke

North Carolina

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