But frankly, I can't think of a more appropriate way for the Butch saga to end than with a confused final burst of miscommunication.
Even those with inside knowledge--apparently including Butch's high school coaches and usually reliable sources close to the Carolina program--seemed to spend a good bit of Tuesday confused by the mixed messages and half-information that was swirling around the Butch decision. So if you were simply a dedicated fan following your favorite web sites for a nugget of good news, or waiting for confirmation of the bad news you feared, forget it. Tuesday was a day when the insiders were tongue-tied and twisted. The rest of us could have hoped for no better.
Nevertheless, as the dust settles and we get one precious day closer to real basketball action in the Smith Center, we do know some things about the recruitment of Brian Butch and its aftermath.
1. Butch will attend the University of Wisconsin for all the right reasons. When high school kids are big time athletes, it's hard to remember they are making choices about colleges for the same reasons any of us did. Butch is an extraordinarily talented basketball player who has shown he can hold his own against top competition anywhere. But he played his AAU ball with a team of kids whose parents likely did not send their kids to Appleton because the coach was going to get them to the league. He grew up in a town that lives and breathes Badger sports like Chapel Hill lives for the Tar Heels. And he chose a program where he felt the style and approach of the coaches and players best fit his own personality. Even if Butch was a lifelong Tar Heel fan who dreamed of honing his skills to the point where UNC would come calling for him, it's just hard to argue with that logic. But it wasn't all about basketball, and it wasn't all about Matt Doherty or Tom Crean or Roy Williams or Bo Ryan. In the end, Butch took his time, weighed the factors carefully, and picked the school where he felt most comfortable. Butch picked Wisconsin for the same reason thousands of Carolina kids pick UNC or NC State each winter. He stayed home.
2. Butch might not have been the answer to Carolina's needs anyway. Make no mistake: Butch has earned his top-ten ranking from many analysts. He is not a prototypical post player, but he absolutely is the kind of guy you want on your team, because he's highly skilled, able to create matchup problems, and driven to win. But what UNC needs most is a top-notch interior presence to allow Sean May to create the very same kind of matchup problems--a Brendan Haywood-type post player who can bottle up the middle on both ends of the court. Butch is great, but he isn't that guy. So while his decision means a loss for the Heels, it might not be the loss that David Padgett was. But regardless, Butch's decision means Doherty and his staff have their work cut out for them with the 2004 class.
3. Carolina's coaches are getting a baptism by fire in the recruiting wars. Twice now, Carolina has positioned itself in the top two for the services of a top-10 big man, and twice it has finished second. If that were the complete story, one could argue that isn't really a bad record for a young coaching staff, especially coming off a year in which they landed one of the top five classes in the nation and have already lined up one bona fide blue chip recruit in the class of 2004.
But that isn't the whole story. The way Butch's decision evolved and the way word spread will unavoidably create public perceptions that the staff isn't getting a clear read on where they stand with key recruits. And true or not, there is a lingering perception that the Tar Heels under Doherty have not landed a top-ten player when competing against top programs in the country. Five years ago, it wasn't unheard of for Carolina to lose a kid to Kansas or Arizona, but fans aren't used to the new stature of the program--a situation where losing a kid to a successful middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team is entirely plausible.
So this opens a battle on at least two fronts. UNC's coaches must continue to work hard to convince top talent to come to Chapel Hill--harder than they used to, perhaps. And they must also fight a public relations battle at home with some fans and boosters who remain nervous about the state of the program.
As always, it isn't as bad as some people will say, and when you look at the incredible talent level of this year's team over the team two years ago, it's almost laughable to put credence in the arguments of those who claim Doherty can't recruit. But college basketball relies on a constant stream of talent to maintain success, and maintaining success depends on a constant stream of talent. If that's not a rock and a hard place, I don't know what is.
4. The next six months in Chapel Hill just got a lot more interesting. Matt Doherty and his staff began the week hopeful that by the tipoff of the Blue-White scrimmage, recruiting for the class of 2003 would have wrapped up successfully. With a solid two-man class of Reyshawn Terry and Brian Butch, UNC would have filled its needs for a post player and increased depth on the wing, and it would have taken a big step toward filling the cupboard with top talent in each class. Carolina would have started a pivotal, challenging season with the focus of fans, coaches, and players alike on the court rather than the recruiting wars.
Instead, the season begins with questions on and off the court--questions that will persist not only through March but beyond to the summer camps and college decisions of the class of 2004. Do the Tar Heels give a remaining scholarship to an as-yet-unidentified target in the class of 2003? Can Damion Grant and Byron Sanders do enough to fill the gaps when Jawad Williams and Sean May aren't on the floor, and to bridge a gap of two full seasons before the team sees fresh blood join the battle in the low post? Do Doherty and his staff have what it takes to close the deal with a big-time target when the competition includes the nation's best programs? Even if the team wins big this year, the concerns persist. Everyone suspects that this current group of Tar Heels has its eyes on the NBA at the soonest opportunity. Is there enough stability and talent in the pipeline to weather the feared storm of early departures?
It is difficult to recruit as a new head coach with a relatively raw staff of assistants. It is more difficult still to recruit successfully coming off an 8-20 season. One would hope that these things are in the past, and that a winning year will restore confidence that the Tar Heels are truly on the way back. But what happens if Carolina ends with a second straight losing record? These questions would have been present no matter what Brian Butch had decided. But with Butch on his way to Wisconsin, the stakes unquestionably are higher. How Matt Doherty and his young charges handle the pressure may well define how this chapter in Carolina basketball history will end.
You can email Mark at email@example.com.