The Roy Williams model for building national champions: strategy or luck?

Thanks to a tip from Shannon, I read this post from a UNC recruiting blogger offering his interpretation of Carolina’s ability to keep so many highly talented players in school. It’s a nice theory: Carolina and Duke regularly pass on the guys who would turn pro after one season in favor of high-character players that are committed to staying and winning, capitalizing on their status to be “selective about skill and personality.”

There are elements of this that are absolutely true. Character is a major factor in Roy’s recruitment of players, and even a casual college basketball fan recognizes a fundamental difference between his model and that of John Calipari at Kentucky. It’s also true that keeping players in school as been the most critical component of college basketball success over the last decade, and Carolina’s two titles during that span – and its set up for a third next season – especially demonstrate this trend.

But to suggest intentionality by Roy to become the anti-Calipari, the coach who actively seeks players who will stay three years in order to win a title when they do, is an idealistic and inaccurate picture of Carolina basketball. As much as we want to think otherwise, Roy’s players – though they may not have a singular focus on getting to the NBA as soon as possible – do have it as their end goal, and a quick look at our most recent NBA prospects immediately dismisses this blogger’s theory. It is nonsense to derive theories of this nature from the decisions of thirteen individuals, and that is the most problematic aspect of his argument: the history of Carolina basketball, and his interpretation if it, would have to be radically different if merely two or three of these players had made alternative decisions. And it very nearly happened:

Marvin Williams and Brandan Wright: Two of the top recruits in the country who both turned pro after one season.

Ed Davis: Returned for his sophomore season despite establishing himself as an early pick, but only one more season was enough to convince him he would rather be in the NBA.

Sean May, Rashad McCants, and Raymond Felton: It is difficult to know for certain how close these three were to leaving after 2004, if at all, but it is certainly true that their decision to return was a calculated benefit from a draft stock perspective even had we not won the 2005 title, after which all three became lottery picks.

Tyler Hansbrough: He is one of two players on this list that fits the blogger’s theory, but for that reason it should be cautioned that his extremely exceptional case is exactly that: extremely exceptional, even strictly within the realm of Carolina basketball.

Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, and Danny Green: The exception of Hansbrough is contrasted with the decisions of his teammates and fellow national champions. The textual critic in me reads the statements of each player following their decision to withdraw from the draft in 2008 and notices that all three reference the negative results of testing their draft stock as their reason for staying. Danny Green stayed and cemented his legacy as one of my favorite Tar Heels ever (I am looking now at his jersey hanging on my wall). But the fact remains that these three returned only because their stock wasn’t where it needed to be to justify the jump, and in doing so drastically changed the course of college basketball history. The ability for a blogger to even speculate on this suggested recruiting strategy of Roy Williams teetered on the difficult decisions of three individuals who declared for the draft and subsequently withdrew; had they chosen the alternative, we are not having this conversation.

Harrison Barnes, John Henson, and Tyler Zeller: In this team there may be a general exception; it certainly appears that the desire to win was a bigger factor for these three than with past groups, but that itself does not reveal a recruiting strategy. Only Barnes does not have the potential for substantial gain by staying, and we will never know what Henson, and in turn Barnes, would have decided had John been a projected top five pick as he was coming out of high school. Thankfully, that is irrelevant, and I will ruminate on this special group in a later post.

Roy recruited Barnes so heavily no doubt because he thought there was a chance he would stay. But he took a risk there nonetheless, just as he did, and lost, with Wright, Davis, and Williams. UNC recruits from among the top players in the country, all of whom want to play in the NBA, and actually to adjust our strategy as this blogger suggests would come at our expense. That the 2005, 2009, and 2012 teams exist as they do reflect a perfect storm of varying motivations, but in most cases a calculated assessment of NBA draft stock that came back negative was a significant factor in a player’s decision to return.

The point here is not that Carolina players do not want to stay in school and win – many others would have turned pro in the same circumstances, so there is no questioning that a desire to win and be a part of a great tradition plays a role in keeping players in school. The point is that it isn’t always the determining factor, certainly not often enough to establish a trend, and that Roy has benefited from, among other factors, a little bit of luck.

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    • Jake
    • May 2nd, 2011

    Excellent points, just one minor detail…Ed Davis stayed for two years. But yeah, sadly, though it’s a nice theory, and I think there is some general truth to it, I don’t think it’s enough to really be termed a “strategy.” Carolina guys are a little different than Kentucky/Calipari guys. But perhaps not as much as we might like to think.

    • bweynand
    • May 2nd, 2011

    Oh man, good catch. Perhaps I do not remember this second season very well… Davis gets lumped in my brain with Wright.

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