It shouldn't have to be, but it needs to be said: Roy Williams is not that old. He's four years younger than Mike Krzyzewski. He's just four years older than Tom Izzo. Larry Brown, in just his second season at SMU, is a decade Williams' senior. Gregg Popovich and Rick Adelman on the NBA side both have extra candles on their birthday cake.
Sixty-three isn't even retirement age. And given how much longer coaches throughout history have held on well into their seventies, it's not outlandish to think he'd be at North Carolina for another decade—or at the very least half of that.
Yet it had to be said. It had to be said that Williams is not old because, at different points over the last couple seasons, Williams has indeed looked old. Or at the very least tired.
In Chapel Hill, it's a look they've come to know all too often. Williams slumped on the bench, hand on his face as if someone had just told him his dog had to be put down. Or Williams, exasperated by a bad call or mistake by one of his players, with his hands flailing in recognition before the handshakes and gracious postgame quotes.
Just two years removed from an Elite Eight appearance, it's become strikingly familiar. The Tar Heels are quietly a half-decade removed from Williams' second championship in his first six seasons and have slipped into a strange mediocrity. In his first nine seasons, Williams had two double-digit loss seasons. He has as many in his last two.
There are fair questions of talent and bad luck to be asked here, for sure. In 2012-13, Williams dealt with the departures of Harrison Barnes, Kendall Marshall, John Henson and Tyler Zeller—all first-round picks. This season, the melodrama surrounding the NCAA-P.J. Hairston standoff undoubtedly lowered the Tar Heels' ceiling. In major college basketball, sometimes there are just bad breaks.
Also at center of the team's struggles and grumblings about a lack of competitive fire, though, has been recruiting. While Krzyzewski and cross-state rival Duke only seem to be getting better and more pro-ready players with age—no doubt tied in part to Coach K's Team USA ties—North Carolina drifted backward in the nuclear-arms-like freshman race. The Tar Heels have still ranked among the best schools in the country, ranking No. 14 in 2013 and No. 9 a year prior, per 247Sports.
Now it's fair to say Williams never specialized in landing the Andrew Wigginses of the world. His best teams are typically veteran-laden, sprinkled with one or two contributing freshmen. But the difference, at least these last couple years, has been that not even the recruits Williams has landed have panned out well.
James Michael McAdoo was a potential top-10 pick when he came to Chapel Hill. He'd be a second-round selection if he entered the draft three years later. Marcus Paige scores a ton and has talent, but he's flawed, able to go entire halves without affecting the game on either end. Kennedy Meeks looks like a Sean May Lite in uniform but did not have the same instant production (though May was injured as a freshman). Whether blame lies at the fault of Williams or he's just on a bit of a bad streak with players is unclear.
He just better hope it changes in 2014.
With the big names (minus center Myles Turner) out of the way, we can begin really assessing recruiting classes. On paper, Williams' looks like his best in recent memory. The Tar Heels rank behind only Duke and Kentucky on current rankings—only those rankings are slightly skewed. North Carolina has three players to the other schools' four, and Krzyzewski was able to match Williams' three 5-star players.
Joel Berry, Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson each rank among the 20 best recruits nationally and have been given 5-star distinctions.
The onus will be on that trio to not only help improve the on-court product but also improve the reputation of the school among recruits. The relative anonymity of the team over the last two years combined with the ugly Hairston situation created a situation that left Williams in an even deeper rut. Admitting he took a "subordinate" role within the school's hierarchy, Williams was quoted by Barry Jacobs of the Charlotte Observer in February putting the Hairston situation and current UNC basketball in a difficult light.
I hated it for our program and our school because we’ve had some tough times around here, and I didn’t want another circumstance that made it any more. It was just the most – you don’t want to say devastating because devastating really has some higher connotations, you’re talking about some more serious things than basketball – but basketball is pretty serious to us. It really is.
Jackson, a 6'8" wing with a slight 189-pound frame, is the best of the lot. He can really shoot the ball from almost anywhere, adding a nifty off-the-dribble game to his repertoire as a senior. Given Williams' difficulty in implementing his desired system over the last two seasons, Jackson should fit in with an uptempo style and provide much-needed spacing.
Pinson is best known as the man who brought the selfie dunk into existence, which is either the greatest moment of 2014 or proof positive that society is going to hell and we all need to start building fortified underground bunkers. He plays more like a 3 than a 2 (his long-term position) at this point and needs to build a long-range jumper and ball-handling to go with his otherworldly athleticism. Dude isn't a half-bad film watch on a Saturday afternoon, though.
Berry has the longest road to the starting lineup, with Paige all but certainly back and all but certainly Williams' starting point guard. As it should be.
But more important than what the trio bring on the court is what they symbolize in the moment. Williams has an elite recruiting class. The Tar Heels may still run a little small next season, but they have enough talent to compete for a top-10 preseason spot, assuming (as most do) that everyone sticks in Chapel Hill another season.
For as long as a leash as he has, the excuses for Williams heading into next season are minimal. We'll see then if the last two seasons were merely bad luck or if there's actual cause for concern.
All recruit information via 247Sports.
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