The Duke basketball program needed some recruiting success in the fall of 1995.
The Blue Devils had just welcomed head coach Mike Krzyzewski back after his leave of absence to heal his bad back. Duke was 9-3 and No. 11 in the nation when he stepped down in early January, 1994, but won just four of 19 games without him to finish 13-18.
Worse, big men Cherokee Parks (an NBA lottery pick) and Erik Meek (an early second-round NBA draft pick) had graduated off that team and guard Trajan Langdon (a future lottery pick) was going to miss the coming season with a knee injury, leaving the Devils as short-handed talent-wise as they had been since the opening years of the Krzyzewski era. It was obvious that unless Coach K could re-stock his roster quickly, Duke's days as a national power would be over.
But there was reason for hope on a hot September night, when Coach K gathered some of his former greats for a Legends of Duke exhibition at muggy (this was in the ancient arena's pre-air conditioned days) Cameron Indoor Stadium. Seated at courtside were Duke's top three recruiting targets - a big man, a point guard and a shooting guard who would restore the Devils to national prominence.
You can imagine the despair in the Blue Devil nation when, over the next month, Coach K struck out on all three future McDonald's All-Americans. Big man Jason Collier picked Indiana over Duke; point guard Shaheen Holloway elected to stay home and play for Seton Hall; and worst of all, wondrous wing man Willie Dersch flat out rejected the Devils and signed with ACC-rival Virginia.
Oh, the anguish! Oh, the pain!
Kind of like this week, when so many Duke fans are tearing their hair out over Roy Williams recent string of 2009 and 2010 commitments. In the space of two weeks, the Tar Heel coach landed six future prospects. How will Duke ever compete? Or, as one DBR poster recently suggested:
You all have to admit we will be playing from behind for the foreseeable future. Roy is simply a great recruiter and has figured out how to distribute playing time
To quote the great Warren Oates, "Lighten up, Francis."
I do NOT admit that Duke "will be playing from behind for the foreseeable future." I'm not even sure that what Williams has been doing in the last few days will turn out to be a positive for the UNC basketball program.
Please understand that I'm not saying that Williams screwed up in any way or that the six committed players he landed won't be very good players for the Tar Heels. I AM suggesting that Williams' early signing tactic is a gamble (more on that later) and that Coach K can - and very possibility will - match whatever success UNC had so far in the 2009 and 2010 classes.
Let me explain. And let me start that explanation by returning to the fall of 1995.
The Internet was in its infancy in those days and the Triangle had just one part-time sports talk radio outlet so the cries of outrage weren't quite as ubiquitous as they are today. But to listen to those Duke fans who followed recruiting closely in 1995, you'd think the Blue Devil program was doomed to a generation of mediocrity after the three straight swings and misses on Collier, Holloway and Dersch. And that strikeout had come on the heels of a number of frustrating whiffs on big men targets - Adonal Foyle, Jerry Gee, Andrae Patterson ...
Of course, in hindsight, we can see that Coach K regrouped and before the 1995 fall signing period arrived, landed Mike Chappell, a slender wing from Michigan, and Chris Carrawell, a swing man from St. Louis who was once rated a top prospect, but was considered damaged goods after suffering a pair of shoulder injuries.
The next spring, Krzyzewski signed another swingman - prep All-America Nate James -- and a year after his early 1995 recruiting fiasco, he had the greatest single week in recruiting history, landing within days commitments from Elton Brand, Shane Battier and Chris Burgess (each rated the No. 1 player in that class by at least one major recruiting service).
The rest, as they say, is history.
The funny thing is that none of the three gigantic misses that Krzyzewski had in the fall of 1995 turned out to be a great player. Collier did little to help Indiana before he got fed up with Knight's act and transferred to Georgia Tech. He became a solid player in two seasons for the Jackets, twice winning second-team All-ACC honors. Holloway had some off-the-court problems, but became a fine playmaker, helping Seton Hall (under coach Tommy Amaker) reach the Sweet 16 in his senior year. Dersch turned out to be a flat-out bust, averaging a mere 5.9 points a game in his career with the Cavs.
Chris Carrawell, the 2000 ACC player of the year and a consensus first-team All-American, ended up with a better collegiate career than any of Duke's first three choices.
What Blue Devil fans forgot in 1995 - and are forgetting today - is that a program like Duke is going to get its share of great players. Coach K is not going to get everybody he wants, but for every miss there's another - and potentially better - prospect out there.
Current fans are upset that Duke missed on big man target Greg Monroe - one year after missing on big man Patrick Patterson. Some have tried to paint it as a sign that the Hall of Fame coach is losing his recruiting touch.
Oh, what short memories!
I can recall similar criticisms in the late 1980s, when a younger Coach K struggled mightily to replace Tommy Amaker at point guard. His first target was a feisty coach's son from Miami. But in the spring of 1987, Krzyzewski lost Chris Corchiani to N.C. State. He next focused on a super-quick playmaker from Long Beach. Calif. But Darrick Martin elected to stay in Southern California and play for UCLA.
The back-to-back misses left Duke fans frustrated, but it also left Coach K with an open position in the fall of 1988, when Bobby Hurley was looking for a place to play. The chance to start as a freshman was a huge lure for the New Jersey playmaker - who knows if he would have come to Duke if Corchiani or Martin was established as a starter? It's possible - Kentucky fans could never believe that Chris Duhon would go to Duke one year after Jason Williams - but it's also possible that Hurley would have moved on to his next choice.
[Time out for an interesting recruiting story. Hurley's first choice that fall was North Carolina and he went to UNC and offered a commitment if Dean Smith would commit to him - and stop recruiting celebrated New York point guard Kenny Anderson. Smith, believing UNC the leader for Anderson, refused Hurley's offer and told him quite honestly that Anderson was his top priority. Hurley then went to Coach K and made the same offer. It was an easy answer for Krzyzewski - Duke was an extreme longshot in the Anderson sweepstakes. Okay, that much is well known. But here's the kicker - if for some reason Duke had turned Hurley down (or as I mentioned above, Coach K already had Chris Corchiani at the point), Hurley's next choice was Georgia Tech. A few years ago, former Tech coach Bobby Cremins was discussing this with reporters and told them that if Hurley had come to him with the same offer, he'd have taken it in an instant. The irony is that Cremins did pull the recruiting upset and stole Anderson from UNC. Had Hurley fallen to the Jackets in the fall of 1988, the likelihood is that UNC would have ended up with Kenny Anderson!]
My point is that before panicking over the loss of Patterson and Monroe, take a deep breath and understand that K - like every other coach - has lost plenty of recruiting targets. Krzyzewski started his career at Duke by missing out on Chris Mullins, Bill Wennington, Uwe Blab, Jimmy Miller, Todd Berkenkamp and Rodney Williams in his first full recruiting season.
Coach K's response: Next play - a year later, he signed Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas and David Henderson and his program was on the road to greatness. But even that historic recruiting class wasn't perfect - K was sorely disappointed to miss on Durham prep All-American Curtis Hunter (the Shavlik Randolph of the 1980s - a good player whose career was derailed by physical problems) and Seattle guard Jo Jo Buchanan.
Over the last two decades, Coach K has had many misses, but he's also had more recruiting hits than any other active coach.
Not all have worked out. Duke has had its share of disappointments - those such as Eric Boateng and Michael Thompson who have left too early or those such as Shavlik Randolph and Josh McRoberts who are good players who don't quite live up to the hype or those such as Chris Burgess and Joey Beard who are flat-out overrated.
But many - maybe most - of K's major recruiting victories have been as good as advertised. That string of great players stretches from Johnny Dawkins to Danny Ferry to Grant Hill to Elton Brand to Shane Battier to Jason Williams to J.J. Redick to Luol Deng to Kyle Singler. And some-think Chris Carrawell for a moment - have turned out better than expected.
Of course, everything I just said about Duke is true of North Carolina too. The Tar Heels have a great program and have a record of signing top-rated recruits that is every bit as good as Duke's - much better, in fact, if you stretch the comparison back beyond Coach K's breakthrough in 1983.
Through the years, UNC has a similar ratio of flops to success stories - about three years ago, I compared the percentage of McDonald's All-Americans who became first-round NBA draft picks at various schools and found that Duke and UNC were within a few percentage points of each other (about 38 percent) and both just above the national average of 33 percent.
My point is, it's silly to get upset when the Tar Heels land a good prospect. That's going to happen. And to pretend that Duke won't answer is equally silly.
Let's take a close look at what's been going on in recruiting - especially between the two schools.
Starting in 2002, when Duke signed the "Super Six" and UNC landed the May-Felton-McCants class that would anchor the 2005 national title, both programs have alternated big, highly ranked classes, with smaller classes. Actually, that trend dates back to the mid-1980s, when Coach K finally achieved recruiting parity with Dean Smith's juggernaut, but the Tar Heel program endured a brief hiccup at the turn of the century during the awkward transition from Smith to Guthridge to Doherty (who did have the one great recruiting class) to Williams.
In 2002, the Blue Devils' six-man haul (J.J. Redick, Shelden Williams) was rated No. 1 in the nation, while Doherty's six-man class (Sean May, Raymond Felton) was rated No. 2. But a year later, each program added just one player of note - Duke did get a great one-year player in Luol Deng, while UNC got Reyshawn Terry, who became a solid contributor in his last two seasons at Carolina.
A year later, both schools were poised to sign great classes, but ended up with less than originally expected. Duke got DeMarcus Nelson, a prep All-American, and David McClure, a top 75 prospect, but lost heralded recruit Shaun Livingston straight to the NBA. UNC added prep All-American Marvin Williams and top 75 prospect Quentin Thomas, but lost prep All-American J.R. Smith to the NBA and withdrew its offer from high scoring guard/convicted drug dealer JamesOn Curry.
Both programs were back with highly rated classes in 2005. Duke's haul of Josh McRoberts, Greg Paulus and company was rated No. 2 nationally, just ahead of UNC's No. 3 ranked class of Tyler Hansbrough, Bobby Fraser and company.
At that point, the two programs were eerily similar in recruiting success for the period between 2002-2005. In the next couple of years, the two programs would slide slightly out of rhythm.
The Tar Heels added a certifiably great class in 2006 - the crop of Brandan Wright, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and the two California big men was ranked No. 1 - even ahead of Ohio State's impressive Greg Oden, Mike Conley haul. Duke's class of Gerald Henderson, Jon Scheyer, Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas was ranked No. 3, but it was a distant third.
Duke continued its consistent showing last season, for the second straight year adding the nation's No. 3 ranked class (Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith, Taylor King) while UNC - bloated with its two previous classes -- took the recruiting year off after missing on Kevin Love.
Well, what does that all that mean? It means that both schools have consistently recruited well over the previous five seasons. Sure, Duke would have loved to land Patrick Paterson or Jon Brockman - or Brandan Wright for that matter. UNC not only lost Love last year, but also came up short in recent years on Richard Hendrix, Brian Butch and Adam Padgett.
That leads up to next year's incoming classes, which are certainly set. It's unlikely, but not impossible that either school could add a spring signee.
Looking at UNC's class is a good reminder of how short-sighted many fans are. Anybody remember all the glee on the Duke boards as Roy Williams lost target after target last spring and summer? Delvon Roe was supposed to be a Tar Heel lock ... but he committed to Michigan State. UNC was regarded as the frontrunner for Al-Farouq Aminu, but he picked Wake Forest. Ty Walker, a 7-footer from Wilmington, was supposed to be UNC's backup plan, but he stunned everybody by committing to Wake too - then stuck with the Deacs after Skip Prosser's sudden death had some Tar Heel fans chortling that he was ripe for a switch.
UNC went after - and missed -- a long string of strong prospects from Samardo Samuels to Tyreke Evans to Jrue Holiday.
It had to be a frustrating year for Williams, even though he ended up with a solid three-man class - power forward Ed Davis from Richmond, Va.; perimeter-oriented big man Tyler Zeller from Washington, Ind.; and point guard Larry Drew from Woodland Hills, Calif.
Unless there's a totally unexpected addition in the spring, that's going to be a higher rated class than Duke's two-man class: Combo guard Elliott Williams of Collierville, Tn., and power forward Olek Czyz of Reno, Nv.
It's an odd coincidence but Davis, Zeller and Williams are currently rated side-by-side-by-side as the nation's No. 11-12-13 prospects on the RSCI Index, which averages the various recruiting rankings. Drew is No. 47 on the list and Czyz is No. 68.
The point is that through the Fall 2007 signing period, Duke and Carolina have both recruited well. The panic we're seeing among Duke fans these days is based, not so much on the past, but on the future. Williams has already lined up four players for the Class of 2009 and two players for the Class of 2010.
Duke has nobody in either of those two classes ... at the moment.
Obviously, if it stays that way, the Blue Devils will be in big trouble. But it won't. Let's look at those two classes more closely and try to guess how it's going to work out.
UNC has 2009 commitments from John Henson, a 6-10, 200-pound forward from Round Rock, Tx.; David Wear, a 6-9, 200-pound forward from Santa Ana, Calif., and from his twin brother, Travis Wear, a 6-9, 200-pound forward who is also from Santa Ana, Calif. Last week, Roy Williams added the prize of the class - 6-3 combo guard Dexter Strickland from Newark, N.J.
How imposing is that group?
Well, it's very imposing indeed - the New Jersey guard is one of the top 5 rated prospects in the Class of 2009. None of the three earlier commitments are quite that highly ranked. Henson may have the most potential - he's an explosive athlete. But he must add strength (something he's got two years to do) and work on his game skills. The Wear twins are more polished as players, but don't have the big-time athleticism that Henson brings.
There's also a slight concern about the similarity of Williams' recent recruits. Henson, the Wear twins and Zeller from the 2008 Class are all tall, perimeter-oriented forwards. That's not a bad thing, but how many of those can UNC use at one time?
Duke is likely to sign at least three players in the class. It's no secret that 6-2 guard Kenny Boynton, a Jason Williams-lookalike who plays for Plantation, Fla., has been a top target since last spring. Duke is also reportedly strongly in the picture for 6-9, 210-pound Erik Murphy of Southborough, Mass., and 6-8, 240-pound Greg Echenique of Newark. Mark Watson of Blue Devil Nation tells me that there's still strong mutual interest between Duke and 6-4 wing guard Leslie McDonald of Memphis, Tn., who is a good friend of Blue Devil signee Elliott Williams. Then there are another four or five prospects that the staff is still evaluating.
I am very confident that Duke will sign a quality crop in 2009.
Now, pessimists out there will point to Patterson and Monroe and suggest disaster looming ahead. Realists will consider Coach K's track record and wait to see what kind of talent he ends up with. A class of Boynton-Murphy-Echenique-McDonald would be judged by most recruiting gurus to be very similar to Strickland-Henson-Wear-Wear. Obviously, that's a best-case scenario for Duke, but it's not farfetched. And even if there are a couple of substations on that list, it's not the end of the world.
My point is that UNC's early 2009 recruiting haul is good, but in terms of what Duke and UNC usually bring in, it's a good, but not exceptional four-man class.
"Carolina is going to be Carolina," Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said when asked about UNC's recent recruiting success. "It's not like Carolina didn't have great players before. Carolina has always had great players. It's not like it's a shock."
What about 2010?
Well, it's early, but Kendall Marshall a 6-3, 170-pounder from Arlington, Va., is generally rated the No. 2 point guard in his class. And Reggie Bullock, the bullish 6-6 forward from Kinston, N.C., is going to be a top 10 player in the class.
Both have the potential for greatness - probably more potential than any of UNC's 2008 or 2009 commitments other than Strickland.
But you know what? The No. 1 point guard in the class - 6-3 Brandon Knight of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., is very much on Duke's radar. So is 6-8 Tristan Thompson of Newark, N.J., who is a teammate of Echenique (and Louisville-bound Samardo Samuels).
Now, I'm not predicting that Duke will get both - or either one - only that it's very, VERY likely that the Blue Devils will add a quality player or two or three from the Class of 2010.
But there's danger in acting too early - one of the reasons I said earlier that Roy is gambling.
One aspect of the gamble is that prospects mature at a different rate and locking into kids too early can be a problem. UNC endured that problem under Guthridge, when the Tar Heels locked up Ron Curry to play the point and thus didn't see the need for landing late-developing Jersey guard Jason Williams (who originally wanted to play for the Tar Heels).
That kind of thing happens all the time. A New York big man named Wayne McCoy was once touted as the greatest ninth grader ever - he turned out to be a solid college player at St. John's (and had a lot to do with the Johnnies upsetting Duke twice in 1979), but nothing special. Pearl Washington was a New York City legend who was overshadowed in college by late-developing New York City product Kenny Smith. More recently, Sebastian Telfair exploded as a sophomore and was being talked about as the greatest point guard in New York City history. In the end, he didn't even turn out to be the best point guard in his class. Duke fans saw it with Shavlik Randolph, rated the top player in his class as a prep sophomore, whose stock dropped every year after that. UNC fans can remember the hysteria six years ago when sophomore twins Loderick and Roderick Stewart wanted to commit to the Tar Heels - both ended up as good, but not great players.
On the other hand, there are players who blossom late. Jason Williams is not the only example in ACC history. There was this junior swingman from Wilmington, N.C., who was a total unknown as he completed his junior season at Laney High School - Michael Jordan only exploded into the recruiting scene in the summer before his senior year. Luckily for the Heels that Dean had not already loaded up his recruiting class with a bunch of sophomores and juniors.
[Time out again: Actually, he almost did. On the same day that Jordan's commitment was announced, Smith locked up guard Lynwood Robinson, the sophomore MVP of the North Carolina 4-A Tournament, who was supposed to be the next Phil Ford. Robinson ended up playing eight games in two seasons at Carolina.]
I trust Roy Williams' ability as a talent evaluator a great deal, but even he would admit that it's much easier to evaluate a senior than a junior ... easier to evaluate a junior than a sophomore ... easier to evaluate a sophomore than a freshman. Henson is a very good example. The recruiting experts I talk to all think that he has the chance to be a great player, but they agree he's not there yet. A year from now, we'll have a better idea of how much progress he's made (and is making).
That's why I say Roy's early start is a gamble.
It's also a gamble because in the current basketball environment, it's hard to know what your team will need most two or three years in the future. You land a great player and he's gone in a year or two. You may think you're set at point guard, then Jarrett Jack, who has been telling you all along that he's going to stay, bolts. You may struggle for a year until you fill the gap with Javaris Crittenton - then he jumps after one year.
Anyway, I'm not trying to paint a negative picture about UNC's recent recruiting success. I'm just trying to demonstrate that it's a much more complex situation that the mourners on the message boards are trying to make it out to be. Crying about Roy's streak of good recruiting luck is as silly as last summer's chortling about Roy's string of bad luck.
I repeat - UNC is going to sign a lot of great prospects. Duke is going to sign a lot of great prospects.
But let me add one more thing. The panic over the recent recruiting news is symptomatic of something I've seen growing among the Duke fan base over the last couple of years - an unexplainable (to me) sense of pessimism and negativity about the program. Whether it's complaints about K's recruiting, the team's lack of size, his supposed refusal to develop his bench, his reluctance to play a zone or his fondness for the delay game, there's the kind of constant carping that would be more fitting for a program that's floundered for the last quarter century and not one that's flourished.
If you want to be negative and pessimistic about Duke football, I can understand that. Even though I think the recent hire of new head coach David Cutcliffe was a good one and a sign that the Devils are finally on the right track, I couldn't debate a critic who pointed out past "signs" that didn't turn out well. After two decades of football failure, a certain skepticism - even pessimism - is reasonable.
But what has Coach K done to evoke a similar sense of doom?
He's only been the most successful coach in college basketball over the last quarter-century.
Has he dropped off in recent years?
Well, he hasn't matched his 1986-1994 NCAA success-rate, true, but he has maintained a level of consistency that is unmatched in NCAA play over any reasonable time period. His winning percentage in the "oughts" is better than his winning percentage in the 1980s or 1990s. He won two ACC titles in the 1980s; two in the 1990s and now he's won six since the turn of the century. True, a lot of things went wrong last year and Duke finished with "just" 22 wins, breaking a streak of 10 straight seasons with either ACC tournament or regular season title and nine straight years in the NCAA Sweet 16.
Yes, there are potential rough spots to talk about, but given Krzyzewski's track record, shouldn't we approach them with optimism? Is this Duke team undersized? Yes, but so was his 1988 Final Four team and his 1997 ACC championship team. Has he missed on a number of recent big men targets? Yes, but when he endured his point guard dry spell in the late 1980s, he made do with combo guard Quin Snyder and "point forward" Danny Ferry and led Duke to back-to-back Final Fours in 1988 and 1989.
The next time something happens to send you rushing to the computer in panic mode, just remember Oates' wise words and "Lighten up, Francis."