CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Roy Williams and his North Carolina program would benefit from a late addition to its roster in cementing its status as a Final Four contender in 2015-16, although the lingering NCAA investigation has seriously hampered those efforts.
Look no further than Kinston, N.C., a small town of 21,000 some 110 miles southeast of the Dean E. Smith Center, for evidence of the fallout of a NCAA case still awaiting its midpoint.
It was there that former Tar Heel standouts Jerry Stackhouse and Reggie Bullock grew up, and it was there that five-star wing Brandon Ingram announced his decision on Monday to sign with Duke. Ingram, who UNC first evaluated in 2012 before offering in July 2013, cited the uncertainty of the NCAA investigation as playing a role in his decision.
When asked about the NCAA’s impact on Ingram’s decision at a Rams Club Tar Heel Tour stop this week, Williams told InsideCarolina.com: “It’s very disappointing.”
That’s not the first time Williams has voiced his frustration about the weight the NCAA uncertainty has levied on his recruiting efforts. In early March, the 12th-year UNC head coach told reporters it felt as though his staff was recruiting “with our hands tied behind our back.”
Roughly 12 hours after Ingram’s announcement, CBS Sports slotted UNC as the No. 2 team of its laughably early preseason Top-25 rankings. Such theatrics 11 months ahead of the 2016 Final Four serve little purpose other than to create talking points, although the offseason respect for the Tar Heels highlight their returning talent.
While Williams termed junior wing J.P. Tokoto’s early departure “a big loss,” his program returns nine of its top-10 scorers, including All-American point guard Marcus Paige (14.1 ppg), from a team that won 26 games with postseason trips to the ACC Tournament final and the Sweet 16 last season.
“I told them the only way for our team to be better next year is every individual has got to get a lot better,” Williams said. “I’m excited. I’d like to start practice today, but their bodies can’t handle it so we don’t want to start today. We do really have some good things.”
Williams highlighted three areas of improvement for his team this offseason.
“We’ve got to get better defensively, we have to stop fouling as much, and we’ve got to stop turning the ball over because I thought those areas really hurt us this year,” he said.
The Tar Heels also lacked consistent perimeter shooting outside of Paige - UNC ranked 338th out of 351 teams nationally in 3-point field goal attempts per game (13.5) - and Tokoto’s NBA jump removes length and athleticism from the backcourt. Ingram would have served as a quality replacement, but UNC’s miss in Kinston turns the spotlight to a pair of perimeter recruits – elite power wing Jaylen Brown and three-point marksman Kenny Williams.
Brown has UNC among his four finalists, but is not expected to choose the Tar Heels, while Williams has trimmed his list down to two and will decide soon between UNC and Virginia.
“We do need to add something,” Williams said. “We’re still keeping our eyes and ears open to see if we can add a player or two, but if we do, that will really help us.”
Resolution in the NCAA investigation will not be swift – UNC has yet to even receive its notice of allegations – and a final conclusion may not arrive by the end of the year. There's no questioning the impact it has had on UNC's recruitment of the high school class of 2015. There are no Tar Heel signees to date, with 11 prospects that held UNC scholarship offers thus far choosing other programs - some of whom Williams has lamented never even visited Chapel Hill - all of which is unprecedented in Williams's head coaching career.
However severe the recruiting limitations have been during this mired process, the Tar Heels will still be able to read about themselves this summer as frontrunners for a Final Four spot in Houston next April.
“I would think that we would be one of those teams that would have a chance, but we need to add some help and everybody’s got to get a heck of a lot better,” Williams said.
Pete Dawson contributed to this story.
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