North Carolina coach Roy Williams has been candid about the fact that the past four seasons have been as tough as any he has endured during his coaching career. The school had its integrity questioned as an institution, athletic department and basketball program from fraudulent classes that spanned nearly 20 years. The NCAA investigation that followed cast an ominous cloud over the program that rained down underachievement on the court.
All of that seemed to dissipate by the end of the past season. North Carolina’s return to the Final Four in 2016 ended a six-year absence -- its longest since a stretch from 1983 to 1990. Men's basketball wasn’t implicated in the NCAA's amended Notice of Allegations stemming from the investigation.
With the case finally wrapping up, it appears the Tar Heels won't be hit with heavy sanctions. But are they officially back?
The answer is closer to yes, but it isn't quite that clear-cut.
Carolina returns three starters (Kennedy Meeks, Justin Jackson, Joel Berry II) and three of its top reserves (Nate Britt, Isaiah Hicks, Theo Pinson) from last year's national runners-up. That experience alone is a big reason the Tar Heels will likely start the season ranked in the top 10 and be considered contenders to make another Final Four run.
The Heels broke through several barriers last season, including winning their first ACC regular-season championship since 2012 and their first conference tournament championship since 2008. They also lifted a burden for a group that hadn't advanced past the Sweet 16 by reaching the national title game.
But consecutive good seasons and tournament runs aren't what will truly indicate a return to elite status. The place to keep an eye out comes on the recruiting trail. How many elite recruits the Heels seriously contend for will be a better barometer of where the program stands.
Carolina hasn’t had the No. 1 player in the ESPN 100 since Harrison Barnes in the class of 2010, though it has pursued many. Carolina isn't just missing out on the top player; it's missing out on in-state players who in the past were generally locks to end up in Chapel Hill.
Duke snagged Harry Giles, who was No. 1 in the class of 2016, out of Winston-Salem. The Blue Devils signed Kinston's own Brandon Ingram from the Tar Heels last year. Ingram played on the AAU team of former UNC forward Jerry Stackhouse, and Kinston had been a pipeline for Tar Heels for years, including Reggie Bullock recently. Ingram publicly cited the uncertainty of potential penalties from the ongoing investigation as his reason for choosing the Blue Devils, but those close to him knew he grew up a Duke fan.
Aside from the investigation, Williams has had to fight against negative recruiting that he holds players back so they won't leave school too early and, even worse, that he fails to develop them for the NBA. Despite having Marvin Williams and Brandan Wright as one-and-dones during Williams' first five seasons in Chapel Hill, the rumblings started when Barnes returned for his sophomore year in 2011-12. They only got louder when James Michael McAdoo, who ranked No. 6 in the class of 2011, went undrafted in 2014.
Brice Johnson's rise from reserve to first-team All-American and first-round draft pick last season helped quiet that talking point but might not have totally squashed it. That could depend on Jackson's play this season, who was the Heels' highest-ranked signee since McAdoo at No. 8, or Hicks, who had largely been in Johnson’s shadow at power forward.
Jackson was considered to have first-round potential. With the graduation of Marcus Paige and Johnson, Jackson could take over Paige's role as the Tar Heels' go-to player. Hicks likely would have started at many other schools but had the bad timing of being a year behind Johnson.
Jackson led the Heels' class of 2014 that included Berry and Pinson. That trio ranked No. 3 nationally, according to RecruitingNation, which bucked the trend of Williams not landing top players. The caveat was that the players committed early -- before the pending investigation picked up steam.
As Carolina eyes several top-10 players in the class of 2017 -- most notably power forward Wendell Carter, who is ranked third in the ESPN 100, center Mohamed Bamba, ranked fourth, and small forward Kevin Knox, who is ranked seventh -- landing one, if not two, will go a long way in indicating just how firm the Tar Heels are in re-establishing their place among the elite programs.