While North Carolina enters next season as one of the prohibitive favorites to cut down the nets at season's end, a cloud remains over the program that has significantly hindered Roy Williams' ability to land elite recruits.
Williams & Co. will enter this season as one of the top teams in the country, with a veteran-laden roster that includes just about everyone from last season's 26-win team that lost to Wisconsin in the Sweet 16. He's fortunate that everyone besides replaceable athletic wing J.P. Tokoto (think: Theo Pinson) returned to Chapel Hill. Talented big man Brice Johnson came back, and so did Marcus Paige, Kennedy Meeks and Justin Jackson. That quartet, along with guys like Isaiah Hicks, Nate Britt, Joel Berry II and Pinson, will give Williams a chance to get to the Final Four for the first time since 2009.
However, this could be the 64-year-old Williams' last shot at competing for a national title, depending on what happens with the ongoing academic fraud probe. The NCAA recently reopened an investigation that placed the school's football program on three years' probation in 2012 and banned the team from the 2012 postseason. The university found issues with 54 classes in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) taught from 2007 to 2011, including grade changes, forged faculty signatures and limited or no class time.
The school also hired ex-federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein to conduct an independent investigation. Wainstein found that more than 3,100 students -- 48 percent of them athletes -- took "paper classes" in the Afro-American studies department. The report, which exonerated Williams, was forwarded to the NCAA after it was completed in October 2014.
In the past, Williams and North Carolina could battle just about anyone for a potential recruit and come out on top, whether it was rival Duke and Mike Krzyzewski (i.e. Harrison Barnes), a West Coast power or Kentucky and Kansas. That's changed lately, as the Tar Heels have struggled to land program-changers.
They targeted Jaylen Brown (No. 4 in the ESPN 100), Brandon Ingram (No. 3), Stephen Zimmerman (No. 12), Ivan Rabb (No. 8) and Malik Newman (No. 10) in the Class of 2015. Williams and his staff came up empty, instead pulling a pair of fringe top 100 players: shooter Kenny Williams (No. 82), the one-time VCU signee who only wound up committing to the Tar Heels following Shaka Smart's departure to Texas; and Luke Maye (No. 95), whose other finalists were Clemson and Davidson.
"I can't answer that question for them," Ingram's father, Donald, told ESPN when asked how much the academic situation affected North Carolina's recruiting efforts. "If you look at who has signed, it appears that might have been a factor."
Brown opted to go across the country to California and play for Cuonzo Martin. Ingram, who hails from Kinston, N.C., and is coached in the summer by former Tar Heels star Jerry Stackhouse, chose Duke over North Carolina even though the Blue Devils have an abundance of wings and UNC was in desperate need of a shooter. Zimmerman, one of the top big men in the country, decided to stay home and play at UNLV. Rabb, who wound up staying close to home and signing with Cal, never seriously considered UNC -- and the same was true for Newman, who wound up deciding to play close to home at Mississippi State.
But it won't be easy, depending on whether the NCAA hits the program with significant sanctions -- or if UNC remains in limbo when this group of incoming seniors is forced to make decisions.
"You absolutely have to pay attention to it," said Tatum, ESPN's top-ranked player in the class. "It affects my decision a little bit, but not too much -- at least for me."
"You definitely have to look at it," added Giles, who checks in at No. 2 in the country. "You never know, especially if it's not finalized yet."
Recruits are worried about the unknown, although Williams -- who, through a North Carolina spokesperson, declined to comment -- and his staff are attempting to convey the message that they won't be hit hard by the NCAA. Recruits are concerned about prospect of being held out of the NCAA tournament.
"That's one of the biggest concerns," Tatum admitted. "Not being able to play in the tournament because of a ban. That would be hard."
Tatum and Giles intend to try and wait and see what happens. Giles is an in-state kid, and Tatum still has the Tar Heels as one of his four finalists along with Duke, Kentucky and Saint Louis. They both said opposing coaching staffs are actively using negative recruiting tactics against North Carolina.
It's not even necessary.
"We don't have to bring it up," one assistant coach who has recruited against the Tar Heels on multiple occasions said. "The families bring it up to us. They know everything."
North Carolina will be fine this season with its veteran core of upperclassmen. However, Paige and Johnson will graduate after next season. And there's a chance that Meeks and/or Jackson could depart early for the NBA.
Sure, North Carolina will still be good enough to make the NCAA tournament in 2016-17 and beyond. But will the Tar Heels be Carolina good?
North Carolina could wind up going through two recruiting years without getting North Carolina-caliber players if the Heels can't get it done with the 2016 class. Remember, back in the day Williams was pulling in top-10 players with ease. There was Brandan Wright,
Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington in 2006, Ed Davis in 2008, John Henson in 2009, Harrison Barnes in 2010 and James Michael McAdoo in 2011. Sure, not all of them panned out, but Williams was able to beat the big boys. He did well in 2014, getting Justin Jackson (No. 8), Pinson (No. 10) and Berry (No. 17), but that was also before the academic probe heated up, and none of them are considered "program-changers."
"Brandon Ingram was probably going to go to North Carolina," one college assistant coach told ESPN. "I think it would have been done without the academic stuff."
"I really thought Brandon Ingram was going to UNC, but I felt like the allegations steered him away from the school," Tatum added.
Recruiting has also been more difficult for North Carolina because the staff has to be more diligent about which recruits it goes after. With the academic issues affecting more than just the basketball program, it can't take chances on at-risk academic kids.
The Tar Heels' staff has a difficult task. While some opposing coaches don't feel the need to bring up UNC's ongoing investigation, others aren't quite so generous.
"We make sure they know," one high-major assistant coach said. "That's all I'll say."
"If I'm North Carolina, give it to me," another added. "It makes it worse not knowing. They are lucky they stacked guys up early before everything really came out."
But the longer Williams and North Carolina are left in limboland, the more difficult it will be for the Tar Heels to land elite recruits and challenge for national championships.