Has success with developed talent changed Roy Williams' strategy?

ByJeff Goodman ESPN logo
Tuesday, October 17, 2017

In a backward way, whether Roy Williams will admit it or not, the 3-year investigation into bogus classes offered to North Carolina student-athletes helped produce the championship banner that went into the rafters of the Dean Smith Center on Friday night -- the same day that the NCAA essentially cleared the program of any and all punishment related to said investigation.

Now Williams has a decision to make: Does he toss his hat back into the ring and battle John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski for the top kids in the country? Or will he have learned a valuable lesson from the past two seasons -- when a bunch of less-talented, more-invested players were one Kris Jenkins bucket away from winning a pair of national championships?

Let's not forget that Williams also won national titles with star-studded rosters in 2005 and 2009, and back then, his work ethic combined with the North Carolina brand and the allure of Michael Jordan made the Tar Heels more intimidating than any program in the country.

A decade ago, Williams' presence at a recruit's game forced opposing coaches to look at other options.

"We never beat North Carolina for a kid," former UConn coach and Basketball Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun told ESPN. "For the majority of my career, that was the program that was the most powerful. Obviously, it changed in the last seven or eight years -- but Roy was as feared as anyone when it came to recruiting."

Williams lured top-10 recruit Marvin Williams across the country in 2004; grabbed another, Tyler Hansbrough, from Missouri in 2005; then put together a star-studded class in 2006 that included a trio of top-10 guys -- Brandan Wright, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington. Those guys might not have lived up to the hype, but at the time it considered the best class in the country -- even though Ohio State's Thad Matta had reeled in Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr., Daequan Cook and David Lighty. Four years later, Williams beat Coach K to reel in the No. 1 overall player, Harrison Barnes.

However, over the past few years, while coaching staffs have obliterated North Carolina with negative recruiting and chatter of a looming postseason ban, teams such as Duke and Kentucky have dominated the one-and-done game. The Tar Heels have been left to take the next-level players, the ones who generally lack the pro potential to leave after just one season. While one-and-done-built teams like Kentucky and Duke sat at home, Williams took three seniors and three juniors to the Final Four last year in Arizona. But according to colleagues, Williams won't turn a blind eye to quick-turn guys such as Tony Bradley (ESPN No. 17), who was the one-and-done exception on last year's roster.

"Coaches are attracted to talent," one former high-major coach who has plenty of experience with recruiting one-and-dones said of Williams. "He's not going to be able to say no to the best players. As much as he might want to stick to the formula that's worked for him, he won't be able to do it."

Calhoun added his assessment.

"Coaches aren't going to turn those guys away," Calhoun said. "And there's no reason to think Roy can't get back involved with them now."

Former Duke standout Brandon Ingram admitted he didn't go to North Carolina because of the uncertainty surrounding the investigation. And the Tar Heels had no shot at prying guys such as Harry Giles and Marvin Bagley Jr. away from Duke or De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk away from Kentucky. But theTar Heels were fortunate to land high-level talent they could develop.

Joel Berry II was considered a winner from the beginning, but no one thought he'd become arguably the best point guard in America. Justin Jacksonwas intriguing, but he was too unathletic to become a focal offensive player for a team capable of going deep into the tournament. Isaiah Hicks' motor was in question, and so too was Kennedy Meeks' weight. Nate Britt was a non-shooter. And Theo Pinson looked the part, but there were questions about whether he could also make enough shots.

C.B. McGrath said that Williams won't change his recruiting strategy, and McGrath would know better the just about anyone. McGrath was on Williams' staffs for 18 seasons, before getting the head job at UNC Wilmington in April. McGrath and assistant Steve Robinson were Williams' primary recruiters over the past few years, while the Tar Heels dealt with the cloud hanging over the program.

"We still tried to get the one-and-done guys," McGrath said. "But now Coach might have a better chance to get those players. The NCAA investigation won't hurt him anymore."

Williams already landedNassir Little, a top-20 player, earlier this month; but seemingly the only reason why is that Little was connected to the recent FBI investigation and the Tar Heels were the last school standing, after Arizona and Miami -- also connected -- were eliminated.

With the banner raised, a clean slate and a lack of big-name players in the program, North Carolina should re-enter the fray and continue to fight coaches K and Cal in the one-and-done game.