By R.L. Bynum
CHARLOTTE — Of the many crucial elements to building a successful program, recruiting — and doing it the right way — is at the top of the list.
A Carolina women’s basketball program expected to be a national contender in Coach Courtney Banghart’s fourth season in Chapel Hill didn’t get to this level by just stacking talent without regard to what kind of people she brings in.
“I tell my staff this all the time: There are two types of coaches in our game — those that can recruit and those who get fired. And so who we bring into our program — it matters,” said Banghart, who was at The Westin Charlotte on Tuesday morning for ACC Tipoff.
She aims to go into every game with the most talented team and prepare as if it isn’t. But evaluating the character of the recruits she knows are talented is important on so many levels.
“My days are spent getting the best people I can and best players and humans and character-driven, values-based fits for Carolina,” Banghart said.
The team is like a family of sisters who hang out together, bond and lean on each other. That creates chemistry on and off the court that makes it easier to meet the challenges of being a college athlete.
“In this business, you need to recruit the right kids because they attract other talent that is like-minded,” Banghart said.
Banghart includes her players when deciding which recruits would fit in. Senior Malu Tshitenge, the only player who has been in the program all of Banghart’s previous three seasons at UNC, plays a significant role.
Banghart says Tshitenge has been like an ambassador for the program and that she feels lucky to have her. The previous coaching staff recruited the 6–3 niece of NBA great Dikembe Mutombo.
“We kind of came in at the same time. So my freshman year was her first year,” Tshitenge said. “So, at the same time, we’re kind of grouped together, so she trusts me to help her make those big decisions like that.”
Tshitenge’s affable personality is immediately apparent when you meet her, and she projects the sort of positive vibes that coaches love. Junior point guard Deja Kelly said that Tshitenge was the host on her recruiting visit and was a big reason that she committed to North Carolina.
“I think Malu just brings a different type of energy that you can’t replace,” Kelly said. “She’s just a very positive voice for our team, a happy soul and is willing to do whatever it takes for the benefit of the team. Whether that’s from the sideline, whether that’s on the court, but in all, just being that voice. Being that positive voice for the team.”
Convincing recruits that it’s a family environment is already easy, given the sort of players Banghart recruits. When they meet nice people such as Tshitenge, it’s hard to go somewhere else.
“She’s super high-energy positive,” said junior wing Kennedy Todd-Williams. “And you don’t really get a lot of people like that. It just translates to our team. We love Malu, so it’s awesome having her.”
It also gives recruits an idea of the sort of person Banghart likes to recruit.
“Coach Banghart talks about how she wants to find that fit for us,” Tshitenge said.
“Not only just any fit but like the best fit for the team. So, I feel like her taking the players’ input on that and finding that best fit, not just talent-wise, but that aligns with our values. So I feel like her incorporating it is great.”
A program-changing five-player class, now juniors — Kelly, Todd-Williams, Alyssa Ustby, Anya Poole and Alexandra Zelaya — have had a significant impact on the program and the sort of players that UNC brought in after they arrived.
“For that five-person class to both respond to adversity in the way they have and to have their commitments match their goals and to individually get so much better, to go from being where they were to where they are?” Banghart said. “It’s just a testament to the program, and it’s a testament to them, and, as a result, people want to follow and see their journey look similar.”
Attracting good people makes it easier for a coach to attract more good people to the program.
“I think our characters have grown, and we’re more mature,” Todd-Williams said of her class. “And just giving that experience and shedding light on the program itself to the recruits have been a big thing for us.”
Todd-Williams says that when a recruit makes a campus visit, the team is invested in getting to know her and explaining the culture Banghart has cultivated.
“We’re explaining how our program is, understanding that she recruits these players, and that’s why they’re on campus to show our personalities,” Todd-Williams said. “We are very genuine people, and it definitely goes to show how our team is totally connected and invested in getting the right people, and they trust how we are, and we’ll tell them feedback. Just a total commitment to getting the right people at this place.”
When Todd-Williams made her recruiting visit from down east in Jacksonville, the vibe immediately appealed to her.
“That family atmosphere and having everyone be genuine and actually showing their character shows a lot about the program, and that’s why I came here,” Todd-Williams said. “That family atmosphere is what brought me here.”
After a recruit visits, tours the facilities and the campus, and meets the team, Banghart seeks input from the players. Kelly said Banghart has a group meeting of players, mainly with those who would play with that recruit, to get feedback on the recruit.
Read about the humble beginnings of the Carolina women’s basketball programs, from coaches driving teams to games to playing and practicing in a dangerously gym, the program has come a long way. Learn interesting stories about the program in this Tar Heel Tribune story.
Kelly said that because of the quality of people that Banghart recruits, they’ve never said that any of those recruits weren’t right for the program.
“Just us being able to look deeply into that; I think it matters,” Kelly said.
When Banghart recruited Kelly, she explained the strategic process of determining who would be the best fit for the program.
“She wants to recruit not only great players but the right people who have great character, which is something I love as a player,” Kelly said. “Being able to be around such great people is definitely a breath of fresh air because it makes it so much easier and so much more fun to play with them on the court, because that definitely carries over.”
After a huge Class of 2021 class that included guard Kayla McPherson and forwards Teonni Key and Destiny Adams, the lone freshman from the Class of 2022 is highly touted point guard Paulina Paris. UNC’s Class of 2023 commitments from point guard Reniya Kelly and forwards Ciera Toomey and RyLee Grays has earned a No. 4 rank from ESPN.
There will no doubt be more to come who want to be part of the winning basketball culture and a supportive, family environment in the program.
|9||Wednesday||W, 91–59||Jackson State||Home||1–0|
|16||Wednesday||W, 93–25||South Carolina State||Home||3–0|
|20||Sunday||W, 76–65||James Madison||Harrisonburg, Va.||4–0|
|Phil Knight Invitational|
|27||Sunday||W, 73–64||No. 17 Iowa State||Portland||6–0|
|December||ACC/Big Ten Challenge|
|1||Thursday||L, 87–63||No. 2 Indiana||Bloomington, Ind.||6–1|
|16||Friday||W, 89–47||USC Upstate||Home||9–1|
|20||Tuesday||L, 76–68||No. 18 Michigan||Charlotte||9–2|
|ACC season begins|
|29||Thursday||L, 78–71||Florida State||Home||9–3, 0–1 ACC|
|1||Sunday||L, 68–65||No. 4 |
|Blacksburg, Va.||9–4, 0–2 ACC|
|5||Thursday||L, 62–58||Miami||Coral Gables, Fla.||9–5, 0–3 ACC|
|8||Sunday||W, 60–50||No. 10 |
|12||Thursday||W, 70–59||Virginia||Charlottesville, Va.||11–5, |
|15||Sunday||W, 56–47||N.C. State||Home||12–5, |
|19||Thursday||W, 61–56||No. 13 Duke||Home||13–5, |
|22||Sunday||W, 70–57||Georgia Tech||Home||14–5, |
|26||Thursday||W, 72–57||Pittsburgh||Pittsburgh||15–5, |
|29||Sunday||W, 69–58||Clemson||Clemson||16–5, |
|2||Thursday||W, 73–62||Virginia||Home||17–5, |
|5||Sunday||L, 62–55||Louisville||Louisville||17–6, |
|9||Thursday||L, 75–67||Syracuse||Syracuse||17–7, |
|12||Sunday||W, 73–55||Boston College||Home||18–7, |
|16||Thursday||L, 77–66, OT||N.C. State||Raleigh||18–8, |
|19||Sunday||W, 71–58||Wake Forest||Home||19–8, |
|23||Thursday||L, 61–59||No. 4 |
|26||Sunday||W, 45–41||No. 13 Duke||Durham||20–9, |
|3||Friday||L, 44–40||No. 13 Duke||Greensboro||21–10|
|18||Saturday||W, 61–59||St. John’s||Columbus, Ohio||22–10|
|20||Monday||L, 71–69||No. 12 Ohio State||Columbus, Ohio||22–11|
Photo courtesy of the ACC