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Carolina and Kansas are in the college basketball news again, this time over the commitment of top recruit Andrew Wiggins to play for the Jayhawks and not the Tar Heels in his obvious and upcoming one-and-done season.
It’s becoming a small irritant to many Tar Heel fans, who expend most of their energy hating on Duke and scoffing at N.C. State. Kansas is in the Big 12 and a time zone away, but KU and UNC have remained tied at the hip since Roy Williams left Lawrence in 2003 to return to his alma mater.
First, there was the hoo-ha over ol’ Roy coming home after he had first turned the job down in 2000. Williams pledged to remain at Kansas until he “died or retired.” But KU angered him by forcing out his mentor and the man who had gambled his entire career on hiring Williams in 1988, athletic director Bob Frederick. Then the school’s new AD, Al Bohl, fired football coach Terry Allen in mid-season. That’s a no-no in ol’ Roy’s book of loyalty.
Had Williams come back in 2000, UNC would have been spared the Matt Doherty era. But Roy turned the resentment he felt from some Carolina fans into resiliency as the Tar Heels won his first, and the school’s fourth, NCAA title in his second year. Now Jayhawk Nation remained mad at him, especially since successor Bill Self struggled early with two embarrassing first-round outs from the Big Dance.
The manure hit the fan in 2008, when the two top-seeded programs met in the Final Four at San Antonio, where the Tar Heels inexplicably fell behind by 28 points in the first half and fell short in their second half rally. Williams then stayed in Texas to cheer on his old school against Memphis, wearing a KU sticker while sitting in the UNC section (among Tar Heels who also stuck around town).
Carolina won another national championship in 2009, but the worm has turned since then. Kansas continued its current string of nine straight Big 12 regular-season championships, returned to the Final Four in 2012 and routed the Tar Heels in the second half of their NCAA third-round game last March after KU dispatched the hurting Heels in the regional championship game the year before. That makes the head-to-head score Self 3, Williams 0.
And, this week, Kansas beat UNC, Kentucky and Florida State to reel in what jubilant Jayhawk fans are calling the biggest recruiting catch in KU history.
That’s a little much for the talented 6-7 Wiggins, who according to NBA scouts would be the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft if he were eligible. Claiming Wiggins’ expected one year at Kansas is bigger than the signing of KU legends Clyde Lovellette and Danny Manning is pure hype, unless Wiggins can lead the Jayhawks to an NCAA title as Lovellette and Manning did their senior years.
But Wiggins not coming to Chapel Hill, when Reggie Bullock’s departure opened up a starting position, is troubling for a couple of reasons.
One is that the Tar Heels have slipped in recruiting since signing Harrison Barnes in 2010. Heretofore, Williams hasn’t seemed interested in the acknowledged one-and-dones, but he did go after Wiggins hard to help rebound from what was a disappointing season in 2013. Carolina has another good freshman class coming in, led by North Carolina Player of the Year Isaiah Hicks, a 6-9 super-talent who may be too slim to be an impact player his first season.
The other, more subtle, problem is comparing Williams’ first 10 seasons back at UNC to his first 12 at Kansas, where it took him a year to get the Jayhawks rolling after inheriting a probation-laden program in 1988 – the same year KU won the NCAA championship, graduated Manning and lost coach Larry Brown to the NBA.
At Kansas, Williams’ run between 1990 and 1998 made him the winningest active coach in America and the fastest to reach 300 career victories. His Jayhawks went to two early Final Fours and suffered some heartbreaking defeats tying to get back there in the late 1990s. But his program tailed off in 1999 and 2000, losing 10 games each season and its second game of the NCAA Tournament both years. Most strikingly, neither team’s leading scorer averaged as many as 14 points. That was a sure indication of a loss in star power.
Williams says he would have returned to Carolina after the 1998 or 1999 seasons had Bill Guthridge decided to retire earlier than he did. Williams had become disillusioned with recruiting in the Big 12, where a crooked AAU coach named Myron Piggie was controlling a lot of top prospects. But the signing of freshmen Nick Collision, Drew Gooden and Kirk Hinrich restored his faith in recruiting, and ol Roy’s last two Jayhawk teams returned to the Final Four.
At UNC, a similar scenario could be unfolding with the new conundrum over taking one-year players. Last season, the Tar Heels were caught short on talent after losing four starters to the first round of the 2012 NBA draft. They had more than nine losses (25-11) for the second time in four years or since the 2010 team went 20-17 after losing four more starters to the NBA.
No player averaged 15 points last season, with Bullock, P.J. Hairston and James Michael McAdoo hovering around 14 ppg. Like during the dip at KU, that also shows a lack of star power, and the Tar Heels will be counting on Hairston and McAdoo to step up their games and become big-time scorers this coming season.
Carolina has certainly been close recently, reaching two Elite Eight games and avoiding disaster last season by going to a four-guard lineup and shooting more three-pointers than usual. But Williams needs to follow through on the pattern he set at Kansas – that is, rebounding from a mediocre stretch by recruiting and/or developing some true college stars and getting back to more Final Fours.
And, if they should meet again, kick KU’s butt.
Feature image by Todd Melet