How North Carolina has turned recruiting losses into wins and even a national title
The Tar Heels are winning at an elite level even though they're not recruiting that way
North Carolina missed on five-star forward Kevin Knox last weekend -- at which point Andrew Carter, who covers the Tar Heels for The News & Observer, detailed how Knox became the 46th top-25 recruit to reject a UNC offer in the past five recruiting cycles. In that same stretch, North Carolina has enrolled just three top-25 prospects -- Isaiah Hicks, Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson.
Meantime, Kentucky has signed 25 top-25 prospects in the past five recruiting cycles, according to 247 Sports. Duke has signed 15. So there's been an undeniable talent shortage in Chapel Hill relative to what John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski have been enjoying. And yet it hasn't affected the on-the-court product at all -- which is remarkable and perhaps enlightening. To be clear, Roy Williams would've loved to have enrolled more top-25 prospects over the past five years. That's why he offered 49 of them. But it's possible not getting them was a so-called blessing in disguise because the byproduct was still-good-but-not-great recruiting classes that resulted in fewer one-and-done/two-and-done players and allowed the Tar Heels to get old, stay old and win the 2017 national championship.
After also making the 2016 national championship game.
And winning back-to-back ACC regular-season championships.
In the past four seasons, the Tar Heels have advanced to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament three times, the Final Four twice and averaged 29 wins despite missing on 93.9 percent of the top-25 prospects they've offered in the past five recruiting cycles. That's impressive. And though Kentucky and Duke have both also been really good during the same established timeframe, neither the Wildcats nor Blue Devils can match UNC in title-game appearances or NCAA Tournament victories.
North Carolina has won 14 games in the past four NCAA Tournaments.
Kentucky has won 13.
Duke has won nine.
There are, of course, lots of possible explanations for this -- among them favorable postseason draws and perhaps even luck. But what I found most interesting in looking at the makeup of North Carolina, Kentucky and Duke over the past four seasons is that all of the recruiting wins at Kentucky and Duke have created immense turnover within their programs -- because elite recruits tend to leave college after one or two years -- and required them to annually rely heavily on freshmen while North Carolina's top players have always been older.
And that seems to matter.
Consider: No freshmen have been among North Carolina's top-three scorers in any of the past four seasons whereas nine freshmen have been among Kentucky's top-three scorers, and six have been among Duke's top-three scorers, in the same timeframe. So North Carolina's best players tend to be juniors and seniors while the best players at Kentucky and Duke are usually freshmen and sophomores. And the age, development and familiarity of those older players has allowed UNC to make up for the clear disadvantage in raw talent it has relative to its fellow blue-blood programs.
That's what I think, at least.
Bottom line, it's true North Carolina has been losing on the recruiting trail more often than not lately. But it's possible that's precisely why North Carolina has been winning on the court so much. Rather than signing top-25 prospect after top-25 prospect and creating a revolving door for one-and-done/two-and-done players that forces the Tar Heels to annually rely on 18 and 19 year olds, North Carolina has mostly been enrolling very good four-star prospects, keeping them three or four years and winning with 21 and 22 year olds.
So the recruiting misses haven't hurt UNC.
And maybe, just maybe, they've actually kinda helped.
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