This was a hard one to read.
Deadspin reported, wrongly, according to some, that PJ Hairston officially announced that he'll be attending UNC.* The kinda sad part of that story is that the recruiting letters Hairston got from Duke spelled his name wrong. The really sad part is that his decision to go elsewhere came about because he thought of the Blue Devil system as 'mechanical.'
Which, you know...he ain't wrong.
It would be hard to argue that Duke has a free-flowing system, especially when compared to UNC. We're not exactly some fundamental Indiana high school squad from 1951, but we're a far cry from 'loose.' Hairston is somewhere 6'4" and 6'6", depending on who you ask, and you can see some highlights here.
The question becomes: did he make the right choice? If you were a swingman like Hairston, someone who could shoot and penetrate, would you rather play for Coach K or Roy Williams? There haven't been a ton of Dukies lately who resemble Hairston. We've had shooters, like Redick, who use the regimented system to come off pick after pick and get their points on shots. We've had players like Nolan this year, who thrived when given the freedom of the point guard position but looked like a flickering shadow of himself when subjected to the restrictions of the 2-guard slot.
But really, who was our last great non-point guard slasher? Please don't tell me Singler. Scheyer doesn't fit the bill, even before he was point. I guess you could argue Gerald Henderson, but he never seemed like he was at ease within the system and his performances were hugely inconsistent. Before that, maybe Deng? If I'm missing someone, let me know, but none are springing to mind at the moment.
What I'm saying is, Hairston probably made the right decision. And if that's true, it's just another example of Roy having a recruiting leg up on the Devils. We already know Duke can't land a big man; why would any promising center go to Durham with the track record they've established over the last decade? Good power forwards have been few and far between, and the failures of players like Shavlik Randolph are more pronounced than any success.
And it's worth taking a deeper look at Hairston's language: 'mechanical.' Is it just me, or is there a pretty obvious racial component to that word choice? Some will agree with me, and some will say I'm stretching, but I think 'mechanical' conveys whiteness. Something restricted, something militaristic, something in opposition to the free-flowing black game where players like Hairston will thrive. And whether you agree with me or not, you can absolutely bet that recruiters are exploiting that angle. Do you think Hairston spent hours studying Duke game tape, or analyzing their set offense? Maybe. But I bet words like 'mechanical' come from recruiters. That's what they whisper in his ear.
And if you're Hairston, hearing that, with your own worries about whether you'll fit in to a stifling Duke culture, maybe the misspelled name becomes a bigger deal. Maybe you see that kind of an error as an indication that Duke just sees you as a cog in a machine, that they don't care enough about your individuality to even get your name right. PJ? TJ? Makes no difference. Unless you're white or the son of an NBA star, you're nothing but a name to fill a position at Duke.
Mind you, I don't think that's true. But I do think it might be easy to convince someone like Hairston of the fact. I don't think the extreme racial perceptions of Jalen Rose persist to the same extent today, but you can bet they linger in a tamer form. Instead of "Uncle Tom," milder words like 'mechanical' are used. But the two are not unrelated, and it's clear from Duke's recruiting record that Coach K (for one reason or another) does not have a foothold in the urban black community. That reality, it seems, is half circumstance and half choice. How aggressively do we pursue those kids anymore? How much was Coach K turned off by swallowing bitter pills like William Avery?
Whatever the mix, Duke is crucially separated from a vast and rich source of basketball talent. Unfortunately, the team's style plays right into the hands of those who would exploit that image of separation. At this point, it seems like Duke's recruiting prowess is limited to excellent point guards and shooting guards.
As I've discussed before, that's good and bad. Good because the style is pretty high scoring and three-point shot heavy. Bad because it creates teams that aren't built for endurance or March success.
If you look at the overall pattern of Duke basketball since 2003, you have to see 2010 as an anomaly. The fortunate and surprising emergence of Zoubek and Thomas as ironclad enforcers underneath, along with a down year in the NCAA, created a perfect storm for a title. This past March looked a lot more like what we've come to expect from Duke, with an athletic team getting hot and sending us home early.
All of which means that we can probably count on UNC winning another title, even another two titles, before Duke breaks through again. It's impossible to predict how a season will develop, but as of now it would surprise me if UNC wasn't at least in the Final Four next season. It was wonderful watching the Dukies excel behind senior leadership this year, and the win in the ACC title game was glorious, but the truth is that was just a stepping stone for Roy and his young team. You could even call it a good loss. This time in 2012, we might see it as a crucial step in the construction of a championship team.
As we've seen, there's a delicate balance between recruiting college players who are championship caliber and recruiting guys who will stay for more than a year. You don't want to be Calipari, but you also don't want to be stuck with the Greg Pauluses of the world for four years.
Roy, you have to say, has found a way to toe that line and get the best of both worlds. What can you say about next year's Carolina team? Sure, luck is involved; you could argue that Barnes would never have stuck around if his season had started the way it ended. But now, Roy has his perfect mix of four year guys and raw talent. He found an ideal NCAA point guard in Kendall Marshall, a guy who has already proved his excellence at the college level and yet lacks the natural gifts to go early to the pros. He has the best big man tandem in the country in Zeller and Henson, two guys who complement each other's gifts, an offensive and defensive specialist. He got Barnes to return, a guy who could compete for Player of the Year. And he's got a supporting cast of returning players and fresh recruits from which, at any point, a star might emerge.
And he also seems to have perfectly bridged the racial line. He feeds the UNC dixie faithful their Hansbroughs and Zellers, but he also gets the best black players from all walks of life, and he does it while maintaining UNC's strong academic reputation. He's halfway between Coach K and Calipari. Or, better yet, he's standing solidly atop the mountain while those rivals are trying to scramble up the rocky slopes on either side.
Which is why it was so comical to hear UNC fans sound their negativity this season. I know there's never supposed to be a rebuilding year at Carolina, and I know the negative feelings from 2009 were still fresh, but the lack of perspective was still surprising. I wonder if they'd rather have a program like Duke, with its sustained medioxcellence- a new word I just invented to classify a program that is always nominally among the elite yet requires extraordinary circumstances to compete for a title- rather than a team that obeys a natural ebb and flow, riding waves of talent, floundering a bit in the low tide days but finding themselves positioned for a championship at least every three years.
Meanwhile, what do we see for Duke's future? Second in the ACC next season is probably a good bet. Austin Rivers will be the star, and he'll shoot a lot and score a lot of points in some games. Carolina will probably beat us both times during the regular season. Maybe the Heels will lose early in the ACC tournament and we'll win that. Then, in the second round or the Sweet 16, Rivers will go cold for a game and some athletic team will absolutely expose us underneath, and we'll be gone. And we'll sit at home and watch UNC win another title.
Maybe that's how it'll go, and maybe not. But the critical point here is that we expect it play out like that. At least if we're paying attention.
In today's ACC, it's Carolina's world. And Hairston's saga gives us insight into the perception of all the stars that will come into the college game in the near future. Duke is 'mechanical.' Duke is rigid. Duke is, when you get down to it, white. Duke will not allow you the freedom of expression you need to become a top draft pick. Duke is no place for big men, unless you want to end up in Europe or competing for playing time with goofs like the Plumlees.
"Duke is a great school," as Hairston said in a conciliatory gesture, and everybody claims to respect the program. But it's a different kind of great school, and a different kind of respectable program. There's a wide chasm that's been developing for a decade, and both sides seem increasingly accepting of the separation. But while Coach K builds the same kind of team he's built for years and suffers the same noble losses each March, Roy will be laughing all the way to the Final Four.