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Sumner On Recruiting & Perspective

The last few weeks have been most fruitful for the top-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels' basketball program. Roy Williams' team has received commitments from a trio of class of 2009 big men, John Henson from Texas, and twins Travis and David Wear from Santa Ana, California. Then came a commitment from class of 2010 wing Reggie Bullock, from Kinston. Most recently, Dexter Strickland, a consensus top-10 combo guard from New Jersey committed to Carolina. Add that to an earlier commitment from 2010 point guard Kendall Marshall and the light-blue program has public verbal commitments from no fewer than six future players.

Duke meanwhile, has no commitments. Not surprisingly, this situation has resulted in a fair amount on angst among portions of the Duke fan base, including a lengthy thread on DBR.

I understand the discomfort. But I think much of it is misplaced and based on a number of erroneous assumptions. I'm going to use my soapbox to clarify and expand upon some of my comments on the message board and hopefully shed some light on what is and is not happening.

First, let's start with North Carolina. There seems to be a perception that Roy Williams is recruiting at an unusually high level. The reality is that North Carolina has recruited at a high level since Frank McGuire came down from St. John's and locked up New York City. Dean Smith expanded that network and it has never faltered for very long. Like every coach, Smith missed on some people he really wanted, Randy Denton, Tom McMillen, David Thompson, John Lucas, Ralph Sampson, Danny Ferry and others.

The recruiting may have suffered a bit during the Guthridge/Doherty transition period but not as much as some people think. After all, Kris Lang, Jason Capel, Brian Morrison, Adam Boone, and Max Owens were prep All-Americans. There certainly weren't any Michael Jordan's on Carolina's roster in 2002 but there was enough talent on hand to win a lot more than eight games. The 2002 season was a result more of the inability of Doherty and his team to get along. And remember, Doherty brought in the bulk of the 2005 NCAA title team. Has Roy Williams brought in a class any better than the Sean May, Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants, David Noel class?

Reasonable people can disagree on how the quality of Carolina's program impacts the quality the college-basketball's most significant rivalry. But it's simply not realistic to expect North Carolina to not field very good basketball teams. They've done it too long to expect a prolonged drop off.

And that applies to the rest of the ACC. Every single player on the Duke roster came to Duke for a variety of athletic and academic opportunities but high on that list is the chance to play in the nation's top basketball conference and in the nation's top basketball rivalry. That doesn't happen if the competition doesn't keep bringing in top talent. Do you want to have the nicest lawn in a lousy neighborhood or the nicest lawn in a great neighborhood? It's a great neighborhood. Enjoy the view.

I'm not going to attempt to handicap the incoming UNC players. Evaluating and ranking 17-year-olds and projecting their development over a half decade or more is an art not a science and it's a pretty inexact art. Anyone who remotely follows the subject can come up with names like Jerrod Ward, Maurice Ager, Joey Beard, Schea Cotton, or Marcus Taylor, players who entered college as can't-miss-prospects and woke up one morning wondering what language they speak in Belgium. But I would remind readers that none of the recent UNC commitments was a Duke target. In fact, that applies to the entire current UNC roster. Roy Williams may be winning recruiting battles but he's not winning them against Mike Krzyzewski, at least not on a regular basis.

One final thought about UNC. Roy Williams signed six players in 2005-'06. He went into the 2006-'07 recruiting season looking for a few select recruits but under no obligation to sign just anyone. He missed on Kevin Love, Kyle Singler, a couple of other prospects and shut it down. Duke, meanwhile signed three top players. So anyone who follows recruiting knew that UNC would have a bigger class than Duke last fall. Yet the dismay and surprise when this happened was palpable. One of Carolina's fall '07 signees, by the way, is a point guard who has been recruited over twice before he has even reached the mid-point of his senior year in high school. So is this smart recruiting or over-recruiting?

What would the Duke reaction have been had Duke had a class with no recruits? Not pretty I fear. But the same people who would have excoriated Krzyzewski for such a predicament now praise Williams as the master of the recruiting universe.

So what about Mike Krzyzewski? His first full recruiting class at Duke was the high school class of 1981. Duke went after numerous big names and proved the adage that close only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades. Duke missed on Chris Mullin, Bill Wennington, Uwe Blab, Jimmy Miller, Wayne Carlander, Rodney Williams, Buzz Peterson and others. Duke couldn't even get that Jordan kid to give them the time of day.

Krzyzewski decided that he needed to refine his recruiting, identifying a smaller pool of recruits and focusing on them. He came up with what I have called, perhaps with some hyperbole, the Class that Saved Duke Basketball. But Duke had some misses even then. David Henderson came on board only after Duke missed on Jo Jo Buchanan and Curtis Hunter. Mark Alarie might never have worn Duke blue had Tim Kempton picked the Devils over Notre Dame.

This leads me to a pair of myths regarding Duke recruiting. The first is that at some magical prelapsarian Eden, Mike Krzyzewski got everybody he wanted. That simply isn't true. Bruce Dalrymple. Troy Lewis. Chris Webber. Alan Henderson. Perry Carter. Bryant Stith. Adonal Foyle. Richard Keene. Vince Carter. David Lee. Rick Rickert. Many, many more. In the fall of 1999, at the peak of the program's prestige, Duke pulled out all stops to sign an Indiana forward named Jared Jeffries. He signed with hometown Indiana instead and helped the Hoosiers end Duke's 2002 season. If Krzyzewski couldn't cherry pick in 1999, when could he?

The second myth is that Duke never has a back-up option. Duke is selective but not that selective. Kevin Strickland was a back-up to Lewis. Brian Davis was offered only after Stith turned down Duke. Crawford Palmer came on board after Duke whiffed on Adam Keefe and Jerrod Mustaf. Would Duke have signed Carlos Boozer if they had signed Nick Collison? Or Mike Dunleavy if they had signed Brett Nelson?

Has Duke recently matched its high standards in recruiting? Certainly much of the nay-saying is overblown. Assuming 2007 signee Elliott Williams makes either the Parade and/or McDonald's All-America team, that would make 26 consecutive years Duke has signed at least one prep All-American. Chew on that for awhile. Beginning with Dawkins and Alarie in 1982, Duke has signed at least one high school All-American every single year. No exceptions. I feel pretty certain that Kyle Singler and Gerald Henderson are going to be in the NBA Draft Green Room sometime in the next few years and a number of other players figure to hear their name called, so we're not talking chumps here.

There is much concern over Duke's failure to sign a Brand-Boozer-Williams analog to play the post. Obviously, Krzyzewski shares that concern. That's why he went after Blake Griffin, Gary Johnson, and Patrick Patterson last season. Duke missed on all. Was that a failure? Well, I suppose so. But most recruiting efforts are. Most top recruits visit at least five schools but only sign with one; please, no Eric Gordon jokes. So, that means 80 percent of finalists fail. And that's not even looking at the schools eliminated earlier.

Consider Kyle Singler. Kansas, UCLA, and UNC were all schools that hoped to sign Singler. He would be starting for any one of those three and all three of those school's ability to win the NCAA title would be considerably enhanced with Singler on their roster. So did Self, Howland, and Williams fail when they didn't sign Singler? Only, in my opinion, if one assumes that these coaches get everybody they go after. Which isn't the case. Even for Krzyzewski. Or Williams.

Should Duke change its recruiting tactics? Prior to 1999 Duke had not lost a single player early to the NBA draft, not Johnny Dawkins, not Christian Laettner, not Grant Hill. Some Duke fans felt that Duke was so special that this would continue indefinitely. But reality kicked in the door following the 1999 season and since then Duke has lost ten players early to the NBA, leaving twenty years of college eligibility on the table. Although difficult to quantify, I suspect that the lure of NBA dollars played a role in some transfers by members of the play-me-now generation.

So Duke, like every other elite program, is trying to find the right balance between four-year players and potential early entries. Even the best programs have to be ready to reload on short notice. Roy Williams did that after the exodus of 2005. But so did Mike Krzyzewski after 1999.

But I'm not convinced that Duke needs to change its fundamental approach to recruiting. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. And it ain't broke. At least not from where I'm sitting. Duke self-selects on the basis of academics. Krzyzewski has been so successful for so long that we tend to forget that he can't even think about the majority of top recruits.

Then, he and his staff eliminate others for a variety of reasons. All programs make third-party inquiries to relatives, coaches, teachers. Recruiting involves the judicious use of finite resources--time, money, energy. So sometimes, the answer to "why didn't Duke recruit player X' is that because of input involving geography, playing style, personality or other variables, Duke felt they didn't have a realistic chance to sign player X and that those resources were better used elsewhere. Sure they make mistakes. Like I said, it's an art not a science. But you survey the landscape and pick your battles as best you can.

Recruiting classes aren't evaluated a year before they sign on the dotted line, certainly not two years before. Don't confuse an early class with a good class. Some of these kids might change their mind. Some might not get better. For the life of me, I can't see how Williams is going to find enough playing time at the 4 to keep Ed Davis, Henson, and the Wear twins happy but that's his problem not mine and he knows a heck of a lot more about what's doing than I do.

Duke has identified a handful of players in the class of '09 that it likes. They are evaluating some others. They're in good shape with their top targets and that may be an understatement. Still, there's no guarantee they'll sign everybody they want. In fact, there's no guarantee they'll sign any of their top targets. There aren't a lot of sure things out there.

Has Mike Krzyzewski lost his recruiting mojo? The late scientist and author Carl Sagan once wrote that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Given Mike Krzyzewski's body of work as a recruiter, I would require extraordinary evidence and I don't see it. Check back in the autumn of 2008. If Duke doesn't sign somewhere between two and four consensus top-30 recruits, then I'll be worried and we can revisit the topic. But right now my advice is to let the recruiting play out, accept that the competition is going to bring their A games and embrace the challenge. I know that's the way Mike Krzyzewski approaches these things and I suspect he would want Duke's fans to feel the same way.