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Williams' Way Works On Recruiting Trail

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

  June 28, 2004 CHAPEL HILL — If you don't think good judgment, good timing and strong personal skills are just as important on the recruiting trail as hard work, think again. About two years ago, under then-coach Matt Doherty, UNC basketball fans were celebrating the arrival of a six-man recruiting class (Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants, Sean May, Byron Sanders, Damion Grant, David Noel) that was rated among the top two or three in the nation. Felton, McCants and May were top-10 prospects, and there were renewed visions of national championships in Chapel Hill.

At the time, UNC legend Dean Smith repeated one of his many compliments toward his former player, that Doherty and his assistants worked much harder on the recruiting trail than Smith and his staffs ever did. Out on the circuit, some opposing coaches actually complained that the Carolina staff worked too hard, indicating that they began to feel guilty any time they wanted to leave an AAU game early or skip an afternoon in the gym to play a much-anticipated round of golf in the great outdoors.

Indeed, Doherty and his aides were so omnipresent at spring and summer events two years ago that members of the rising senior class that year were almost as likely to recognize the UNC coach as they were some of the most famous faces in the college basketball coaching community. With the help of his hard-to-miss 6-7 frame and fresh-faced good looks, Doherty's admirably long hours earned him name and face recognition that most young head coaches could only dream about.

Unfortunately for UNC, when it came time to make difficult decisions on the recruiting trail, Doherty's long hours didn't do him any good. Similarly, when various prospects' decisions came down to their personal comfort level with the coaches at their favorite schools, Doherty often came in second or worse.

Two years ago, the top-ranked rising seniors who listed the Tar Heels among their early favorites included LeBron James, Chris Paul, David Padgett, Kendrick Perkins, Leon Powe, Ndudi Ebi, Brian Butch, Trevor Ariza, Lodrick Stewart and Chris Taft. Doherty wisely ignored James, who obviously had his mind on the NBA, and attempted to prioritize the others, ultimately focusing mainly on post prospects Butch (Wisconsin) and Padgett (Kansas/Louisville).

Caught in a scholarship crunch, thanks in part to his unnecessarily large class the year before, Doherty also attempted to hold off Paul — even alienating the young player at one point by suggesting to a third party that Paul begin his career at North Carolina as a walk-on — to the degree that Paul announced an early commitment to Wake Forest. At the same time the UNC staff was in the process of alienating Paul, who grew up as a huge fan of the Tar Heels, the Demon Deacons were building an extremely close relationship with him. That, Carolina children, is the scary bedtime story about how a prep All-American (and likely college All-American) who once dreamed of playing for your beloved Heels ended up starring instead for one of your chief ACC competitors. Ouch.

Meanwhile, other UNC targets (including Butch) were beginning to talk about the potential long-term instability of Doherty's tenure in Chapel Hill — good guess — and, later, some Carolina players reportedly were describing their coach to visiting recruits in some very unflattering terms. That also proved to be a very big problem.

And what exactly did the hard-working UNC staff ultimately take away from the rising senior class of two years ago?

That would be small forward Reyshawn Terry, an unheralded top-100 prospect who may or may not end up ever playing any important minutes for the Tar Heels, plus a little-known James Madison transfer (walk-on point guard Wes Miller) and a few other walk-ons.

Outstanding Class Within Reach

Fortunately for UNC fans, the debilitating events of two years ago stand in stark contrast to the efforts of second-year coach Roy Williams on the recruiting trail last year and again this spring and summer.

Williams signed four ACC-caliber prospects from the Class of 2004, and while only two (top-five Marvin Williams, top-50 Quentin Thomas) of the four actually will end up playing for the Tar Heels, it's impossible to second-guess the coach's handling of the unusual cases of JamesOn Curry (multiple felony convictions) and J.R. Smith (NBA draft). Both situations were impossible to foresee, and the Heels ended up with a small but excellent (top-20) class anyway. They also did it without having to sacrifice the school's well-deserved reputation for trying to win the Carolina way, which includes a high standard for integrity by most accounts and admirably excludes the admission of convicted drug dealers.

Meanwhile, entering July, it was hard to imagine UNC being in any better position with the Class of 2005. Williams works hard on the recruiting trail, too, and he generally backs it up by appreciating the importance of timing and by making smart decisions.

Williams got an early start on 2005 months ago, when top-40 Virginia swingman Marcus Ginyard committed to the Tar Heels. Unlike many UNC signees of the last three decades, Ginyard doesn't carry an NBA-lottery-like reputation, but the coaching staff loved his combination of character, unselfishness, toughness, academics, athleticism and defensive intensity. Williams, who often grew weary of watching his team's horrendous perimeter defense last season, may have found his defensive stopper in Ginyard.

By the conclusion of the 2003-04 season, the UNC coaches knew they had to make some important decisions — there's that word again — about how to approach the rest of the Class of 2005, and they had to make them quickly. More and more elite prospects were contemplating very early decisions, and the Tar Heels didn't want to be left behind.

Williams ultimately decided that he needed another guard and two big men, and that he would need to pursue plenty of other prospects in a less-intense manner because of UNC's uncertain scholarship situation. (See last issue.) Soon enough, again on the basis of multiple (basketball and non-basketball) factors, the Tar Heels targeted Illinois combination guard Bobby Frasor, Alabama power forward Richard Hendrix and Missouri power forward Tyler Hansbrough. They also extended an early offer to Texas wing C.J. Miles, and they remain in regular contact with more than a half-dozen other top-100 players.

Entering July, the Heels had a commitment from Frasor, and they were in excellent position with Hendrix (also considering Alabama) and Hansbrough (Kansas, Kentucky). Meanwhile, they had the good fortune of Frasor rooming with Miles at one spring event, and Hendrix rooming with Hansbrough at another. The players reportedly exchanged plenty of positive stories about their feelings about UNC and the excitement of possibly playing together in 2005-06. Hmmm.

Perhaps the best news for Williams and the future of Carolina basketball came when Frasor was asked exactly when he knew UNC was the right place for him. Frasor said it happened when he was shooting around in the Smith Center with a bunch of the current Tar Heels during his spring visit to Chapel Hill. He said they described Williams as extremely tough but very fair, a great coach and an even better person, someone who cared for them even more as people than as basketball players. Frasor also said he could sense how much they appreciated the privilege of being Carolina basketball players.

The old-timers will tell you that those kinds of recruiting stories used to happen at UNC under Smith all the time. Nobody remembers it ever happening under Doherty.