Recruiting is why Carolina is better this season than last.

I laugh when the ABC crowd complains that UNC got off Scot-free in the endless academic scandal. Yes, the university escaped more penalties from the NCAA but paid in so many other ways — like more than $25 million in legal fees and a solid trashing of its “public Ivy” image. All that, and ask Roy Williams about his recruiting.

It took until after the NCAA ruled in October of 2017 for Williams to start getting most of the interest back in his program from five-star prospects, and that is showing up this season. The Tar Heels again have veterans starting on a ranked team for the fourth straight year, but they now complement that with their best new class since Harrison Barnes, Reggie Bullock and Kendall Marshall.

This combination of old and young has led Carolina to four straight wins, a 6-1 ACC record including four-for-four on the road and a virtual tie for first place, plus a climb back into the top ten that was upheld by the blowout of Georgia Tech Tuesday night. When was the last time Williams had a freshman starter like Coby White and another frosh with the upside of Nassir Little?

The 2018 season, despite two upsets of Duke, ended with a thud in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Sure, there were seniors Pinson and Berry and emerging junior Luke Maye. But grad transfer Cameron Johnson was hobbling and the freshmen bigs were not consistent factors.

This season’s edition still has a weakness inside, caused mainly by five-star recruits who went elsewhere, but scoring point guard White and a healthy Johnson, seniors Maye and Kenny Williams and a deeper bench led by Little’s development make the Tar Heels look far more dangerous for the Big Dance than a year ago.

Whether good defense triggers offense or vice versa, Carolina is playing much better on both ends of the court lately. A huge test comes Saturday at Louisville, but White and Johnson getting hot to start both halves in Atlanta and Little gaining confidence on the floor were good enough to offset an off-game by Maye, a very good sign.

If this pattern of growth continues, the Heels will be a higher NCAA seed and a much tougher out in March.

Featured photo by Todd Melet