Top Recruiting Classes Produce Mixed Results: An Analysis of Recent Recruiting HistoryPosted by EJacoby on April 13th, 2012
Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter.
On the heels of Nerlens Noel and Shabazz Muhammad’s signings as the top two high school recruits, everyone is looking forward to next season. There’s especially great hype surrounding Kentucky, UCLA, and Arizona, the prize winners of 2012’s recruiting trail. While those fan bases should certainly be excited, we decided to conduct some research as a reminder that a top incoming recruiting class doesn’t necessarily guarantee future success. The incredible success of Kentucky’s one-and-done recruiting strategy over the past couple of years (two Final Fours, one National Championship) has helped foster the idea that top recruiting classes will result in immediate hardware. But let’s not forget that winning titles with youngsters has been more of an anomaly than the norm. A review of recent history shows that top recruiting classes have resulted in failure nearly as much as sustained winning.
It takes more than one top incoming recruiting class for a program to achieve top-level success. Kentucky’s 2012 National Championship will be synonymous with the “one-and-done” strategy, but it wasn’t like the Wildcats employed all freshmen to win the title. Of their top six players, three were freshmen. Sure, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were their best two players, and Marquis Teague was crucial as well, but UK would not have won the championship based on that recruiting class alone. Doron Lamb, Terrence Jones, and Darius Miller were massive contributors as well, meaning that the team’s success was a culmination of several years of top recruits, not just one haul that came in and won it all. This is the thesis that is established when reviewing recent history.
Let’s take a look at the past 10 years of recruiting history, analyzing a team’s success after it brings in a top-three recruiting class. We get our recruiting class rankings from Rivals.com. In 2003, it was Florida State, Oklahoma, and Maryland that took in the top high school recruits. The result? Just one of these three teams qualified for the NCAA Tournament the following season, with Maryland advancing to the round of 32. The Terrapins’ four years after this top class resulted in just two NCAA Tournaments and zero Sweet Sixteens. Oklahoma also qualified for just two NCAA Tourneys in four years with one postseason win. And Florida State, the owners of the top recruiting class of 2003, did not qualify for a single NCAA Tournament in the following four seasons.
Continuing our research, the top classes in 2004 were Kentucky, Kansas, and Texas. The Wildcats advanced to the Elite Eight in the following season, mainly on the strength of veteran players from previous classes, but they would not return to the Sweet Sixteen in any of the next three seasons. Kansas, on the other hand, is a different story. The Jayhawks received a #4-seed or higher in each of the following four NCAA Tournaments, eventually reaching the Elite Eight in 2007 and winning a National Championship in 2008. KU’s title team’s best players were not from this ’04 class, but that is not necessarily the key variable in our research. We want to know if a top recruiting class produces future success, and in the ’04 Jayhawks’ case, it did. Several players from that class were contributors to the ’08 title. Finishing this year, Texas also found some strong success, making two Elite Eights in the three years following the top-three recruiting class.
2005’s top recruiting class was Oklahoma State, yet the Cowboys never made a Sweet Sixteen in the following four seasons. This is very much due to the fact that their top signee, Gerald Green, declared for the NBA Draft straight from high school instead of playing for the Pokes. But the “one-and-done rule” requiring all players to attend at least one year of college before hitting the NBA would be implemented the following season, so this will no longer be a factor in our research. In 2006, it was North Carolina, Ohio State, and Texas that brought in the top players. The Tar Heels were a massive success and made the Elite Eight in each of the next three years, including two Final Fours and the 2009 National Championship. The Buckeyes did great by advancing to the National Title game in the following season, but did not win an NCAA Tournament game the subsequent two years. The Longhorns made just one Sweet Sixteen in their next four years with an Elite Eight appearance in 2008.
Moving on, 2007 was quite interesting as Florida earned the top recruiting class. But the Gators wouldn’t win an NCAA Tournament game in the following three seasons, qualifying for the Big Dance only once. Of course, the Gators were back-to-back National Champions in 2006 and 2007, and those came without the aid of any top-three recruiting classes. That same year, USC came in at number two, and the Trojans never made it to the Sweet Sixteen afterwards, accruing just one NCAA Tourney win in four years. Syracuse was third and had marginal success, missing the NCAA Tournament the following season and making two Sweet Sixteens in four years but never advancing any further.
Finalizing our research, the 2008 year was especially astonishing. UCLA brought in the top class, but that crop of players’ transgressions were widely publicized in the Sports Illustrated article detailing their problems. The Bruins have since failed to advance to the Sweet Sixteen, and have even missed out on the NCAA Tournament twice in four seasons. The same goes for Wake Forest, which brought in the #3 class in 2008 but has not reached the Sweet Sixteen, and just completed two consecutive horrific years without reaching the NCAA Tournament. Kansas ranked #2 in 2008 and has had much better success, advancing to a Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, and last year’s National Title game in the past four seasons.
The rest is history. Kentucky has owned the top recruiting class since 2009, and it’s resulted in tremendous success. But the other top entries in 2009 were Texas and Villanova, which have not even made the Sweet Sixteen in the past three years. The point of this all is to reiterate that a coach and his staff needs to work even harder once a top recruiting class comes in. It’s incredibly difficult to win anything with a couple of freshmen, and the key is to build a culture of successful player development with these guys. One freshman class needs to result in future success on the recruiting trail, not just an isolated group that’s expected to bring home the hardware.
It shouldn’t be a problem with powerhouse programs like UCLA, Arizona, and Kentucky, this year’s top recruiting class prize-winners. Even though UCLA and Arizona both failed to make the NCAA Tournament last season, they still have some strong young talent on the roster as a result of good recruiting from the past few years, so both teams will have a very good chance of success in the upcoming season. Kentucky might be re-building from scratch, but Kyle Wiltjer is sticking around as well as potentially another significant player. It’s all about instilling a culture of successful recruiting and player development, not just hoping that one dominant class produces banners for years to come. Our research proves this true, and it’s just a reminder to fans everywhere that you can’t expect trophies thanks to one isolated recruiting class. UCLA, Arizona, and Kentucky fans should be ecstatic for next season, but fans of other teams shouldn’t hang their hats on the idea that one class can change an entire culture.