ESPN unveiled its Sales Pitch (ESPN+) series this week, examining the men’s college basketball programs in the ACC that have the most and fewest advantages in enticing recruits and transfers to campus. After seeing the results of our survey, ESPN.com’s writing team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi debated some of the finer details within the ACC recruiting landscape, including which programs do more with less, who has a chance to gather some momentum on the recruiting trail, and which programs they’d want their own sons to choose.
Follow this link to read what anonymous coaches said about recruiting in the ACC.
Which ACC coach do you think is the most underrated for their ability to recruit, or to construct a team?
Medcalf: Leonard. Hamilton. Since 2016, five Florida State players have been first-round NBA picks. Only one of those players, Jonathan Isaac, was a five-star recruit on ESPN.com. Two of those players, Devin Vassell and Mfiondu Kabengele, were not even top-100 prospects. And Scottie Barnes is a projected lottery pick in this summer’s NBA draft.
Within basketball circles, Hamilton is respected and praised. But he has been overshadowed in a league that has won half of the national titles since 2015, a league with teams anchored by Tony Bennett, Mike Krzyzewski and, until his retirement, Roy Williams. But his résumé is tremendous. He has finished in the top 45 in adjusted offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency for the past five seasons. Hamilton’s ability to identify the right players for his style of play and develop those players over time has fueled his success. Players get better when they go to Florida State and compete for Leonard Hamilton.
Gasaway: The winner of any award with the word «underrated» in it is going to be Hamilton more often than not, and some day some historian is going to have to explain how exactly that happened. Just look at last season. Florida State had just said goodbye to starters Trent Forrest and Vassell and key reserve Patrick Williams. No problem for Hamilton, he added Barnes to a core made up of MJ Walker, RaiQuan Gray and Anthony Polite and secured the program’s third top-four seed in the NCAA tournament in the past four brackets. The coach has been a model of consistency, and ordinarily that should mean that at some point he would cease to be underrated. Go figure.
Borzello: I’m with Myron and John, it’s clearly Leonard Hamilton. There are two things that really stand out to me about the way Hamilton constructs his roster. One, it’s the height and size in the frontcourt. Every year, the Seminoles seem to have a handful of 7-footers who find ways to contribute over the course of their careers in Tallahassee. One grassroots coach once told me a story about a visit to Florida State’s campus, where the coach spotted a 7-footer he had never heard of, let alone seen before, on a visit. He asked Hamilton who it was, and Hamilton responded, «Oh, we found him. He’s coming next year.» It’s just a pipeline of shot-blockers at this point.
The second thing is depth. Most coaches are shortening their benches and having trouble keeping seven or eight guys happy. Hamilton routinely uses 10-11 guys every season and rarely does he have chemistry or personnel issues.
Lunardi: Nothing at all against Leonard Hamilton, but aren’t we missing the obvious answer? In the six years leading into the pandemic, Virginia won the most games in college basketball, garnered four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament and won the 2019 national championship.
Tony Bennett recruits to a system unique in the ACC, gets consistent buy-in for that system and produces ongoing results at the highest level possible. This at a school that had won exactly one NCAA tournament game in the previous 18 years. If that isn’t at or near the very top of any team-building list, I’m watching the wrong sport.
Which ACC school would you identify as a «sleeping giant,» with the ability to establish fresh momentum on the recruiting trail?
Gasaway: A «sleeping giant» has to be a program that was awake at some point, and on that basis one could suggest that NC State is due to hear its alarm go off anytime now. Mark Gottfried had a good recruiting run a decade ago, bringing in the likes of T.J. Warren, Cat Barber, Rodney Purvis (a top-20 prospect nationally), Tyler Lewis, BeeJay Anya, Abdul-Malik Abu and Caleb and Cody Martin. One might even add Dennis Smith Jr. and Omer Yurtseven to this who’s-who list, though of course Smith’s recruitment later resulted in the NCAA investigating the NC State program. In any event, there’s no shortage of players who wore the Wolfpack uniform, however briefly, and are now playing professionally somewhere in the world. Kevin Keatts can and most likely will build on that legacy.
Lunardi: They call it the Research Triangle, but too often North Carolina State’s leg is missing from the Duke-Carolina stool. Questionable hires, poor athletic department leadership, dumb scheduling and shady off-court activities have all contributed to many years of underachieving. Either that or NC State simply isn’t a good job in the shadow of Chapel Hill and Durham, requiring a generational icon like Jim Valvano to thrive. I don’t believe it. With the right guy, the Wolfpack should at least occasionally run with the giants of the ACC.
Borzello: I’ll go with Georgia Tech. It has been a long time since there was any sustained success in the Yellow Jackets’ program, but they’re starting to build momentum on the court after reaching the NCAA tournament this past season. If they can replicate that in 2021-22 with another postseason trip, that could start making Tech a more attractive option for prospects from the Atlanta area. It’s maybe the most fertile, talent-rich area in the country the past several years, but it’s also hard to keep kids home. If Pastner manages to keep a couple more high-level guys in the city for college, that could be a huge boost for the Yellow Jackets.
Wake Forest is another possible shout. The Demon Deacons have had periods of success in the past 20-30 years, and Steve Forbes seems to be spending this spring churning his roster to suit his system a bit better. Forbes is a guy who has consistently won, both recruiting and on the court, at all levels of college basketball. I think he’ll continue that in Winston-Salem.
Medcalf: I think new Boston College head coach Earl Grant is an intriguing addition to the league. He had success at College of Charleston and was a key assistant during Brad Brownell’s first four years at Clemson, where he recruited Gabe DeVoe, Jaron Blossomgame and other standouts for the Tigers. He’s an energetic 44-year-old leader who is trying to boost a program that sits in a hotbed of talent. His school should help him soon with his efforts. Boston College recently announced plans to build a new practice facility, which would enhance Grant’s efforts and help the program compete with other top schools in the area. Because of BC’s challenging past, the bar isn’t that high. Any momentum, I think, will feel like fresh momentum at BC.
All eyes are on Hubert Davis as he attempts to construct a championship-level roster at North Carolina. What do you see as Davis’ biggest challenge in program-building?
Gasaway: The largest challenge facing Davis is the fact that Roy Williams is one tough if not impossible act to follow. Indeed, by at least one measure, North Carolina was the most successful program in the nation from 2005 to 2021. The Tar Heels won three national titles over that span, one more than archrival Duke during the same period, not to mention one more than Florida, UConn or Villanova and two (or three) more than any other team in Division I. Williams left some very large shoes to fill.
Of course, Davis played a significant role in UNC’s success after arriving in Chapel Hill as an assistant in 2012. Through some combination of design and chance, North Carolina’s rosters in those years tended to emphasize veterans while making room for the occasional one-and-done, such asCoby White or Cole Anthony. The result was, for the most part, a consistent level of success (though clearly the 2019-20 season was the exception to that rule). If anyone can carry that approach forward into a new era characterized by more mobility across programs for players, it could well be Davis.
Borzello: The biggest thing I’m looking for is whether Davis takes the program in a different direction, stylistically, and whether there are any growing pains associated with that change. There have already been some hints that some adjustments could be on the way, namely with the addition of Oklahoma transfer Brady Manek, a 6-foot-9 power forward who shot around 38% from 3-point range the past two seasons on nearly six attempts per game. That’s not the type of player who would have fit into Williams’ two-big system. Carolina ranked near the bottom of Division I in 3-point percentage almost every season under Williams — will Davis look to go with a more perimeter-oriented attack?
The transition from Williams’ system to whatever Davis chooses to run might be a little smoother given that Davis knows the entire roster and played a part in recruiting several of them. It’s not going to be an overnight change like it would if, say, Wes Miller took over in Chapel Hill. But there will be an adjustment period. Davis has never sat in that lead chair before, and now he’s doing it while also replacing one of the sport’s all-time legendary coaches. Dealing with those expectations while also potentially looking to implement a new system is not going to be easy.
Medcalf: I think his biggest challenge is the same hurdle so many like him have faced when they’ve followed a legendary coach: handling the pressure and the weight of the task. In most cases, it’s a strenuous undertaking that produces more challenges than success stories. Gene Bartow, Gary Cunningham and Larry Brown, respectively, followed John Wooden at UCLA. All three coaches, for different reasons, each lasted just two seasons underneath the spotlight in Westwood. It’s probably unfair to say Indiana continues to search for Bob Knight’s heir, but the program is still looking for a leader to deliver that magic. Oklahoma State chewed through three coaches in the decade after Henry Iba retired in the 1970s. None finished above .500.
It’s clear the North Carolina search committee to replace Roy Williams was comprised of Roy Williams. I don’t think Williams would have cosigned and promoted the Davis hire unless he knew he’d be capable of handling the role after nearly a decade as an assistant. Davis understands UNC basketball. He has excelled at all levels of basketball. And he’s in control of the sport’s most recognizable brand. That can work in his favor. But a head coach taking his first job at North Carolina is a bit like getting your license and racing on the NASCAR circuit the next day. If Davis, as the captain of the ship, can digest the new pressure attached to this role, he can succeed and extend his alma mater’s prestigious legacy.
Lunardi: Not sure I understand all the angst about Hubert Davis taking over at North Carolina. Isn’t this inevitability the reason he left ESPN in the first place? How much longer an apprenticeship should a very smart, well-connected and incredibly solid person need to manage something he has been a part of his entire adult life? If Jay Bilas or Jay Williams had taken a similar path to succeed Coach K at Duke, would we be having the same conversation?
I don’t get it. College basketball has clearly become way more about managing people than drawing up inbounds plays. The odds Davis succeeds at Carolina are overwhelmingly better than those he doesn’t. We are going to see far more Juwan Howards and Huberts going forward, not less.
If you had a 17-year-old son who was being recruited as a prospect by every ACC men’s basketball program, which choice would help you sleep best at night?
Gasaway: At the risk of wearing out one of my previous answers, I would rest easy if my highly talented, skilled and versatile son (chip off the old block) were being recruited by Leonard Hamilton. I would trust the coach to give it to my kid straight, I would know that this is not Hamilton’s first such rodeo by any means and most of all I would expect my son’s team to enjoy a fair level of success over the next few years (in a fairly salubrious setting, no less). Moreover, based on past experience watching Hamilton, I would not see my son berated unduly much less physically accosted by his coach if my youngster did choose to sign with the Seminoles. Sadly, this is not the standard coaching practice everywhere.
Medcalf: I’d go with Leonard Hamilton here, too. Last season, MJ Walker told me how much he’d grown during his time at Florida State. He arrived as a five-star recruit with NBA dreams and he left FSU as one of the first members of his family to graduate. Hamilton has proven he can develop NBA talent, but he’s also teaching young players to become better people. I also know, based on our conversations, that he takes the most pride in watching players walk across the stage. Last month, he tweeted a photo of the 10 Florida State players — yes, 10 — who’d just graduated. My guess is a lot of the ACC’s coaches, if they couldn’t coach their own sons, would send them to Hamilton, too.
Borzello: I’d be happy with Virginia. The school has unbelievable facilities, a beautiful campus and is one of the best academic schools in the country. Tony Bennett develops great relationships with the players he recruits, and there are rarely stories of discontent or chemistry problems coming out of Charlottesville. Bennett’s teams have had as much success as anyone in the country over the past several years, but the players don’t enter college with the same expectations or under the same microscope as those who attend a Duke or a North Carolina. Of course, I don’t imagine my fictional 17-year-old would have the defensive discipline to play Bennett’s system, but we’ll cross that bridge if it happens. And he’ll end up with a great degree regardless.
Lunardi: Virginia. Best school, favorite coach, wonderful town and a nice drive from our home in Philly to see lots of games. Then again, I’d have a better chance of landing a plane on the sun than having a child tall enough to play Division I basketball.
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