Poor Recruiting Hurts AAC More Than Losing Louisville Ever Will

Posted by mlemaire on November 19th, 2014

Last week, RTC national columnist Bennet Hayes asked if Louisville’s departure from the AAC would “cripple” the conference and rightly pointed out that the Cardinals’ consistent excellence and national pedigree would be sorely missed by a new conference still looking to find its way. But with all due respect to my colleague, he isn’t asking the right question. The AAC will absolutely miss Louisville, and the prolonged irrelevance of the teams replacing the Cardinals’ program should be a major concern. But the conference still has enough competitive programs to stay relevant in March. The real question is whether the top five or six teams can ever be consistently nationally relevant. The reason the answer to that question isn’t obvious is because the league can’t seem to attract much NBA-level talent and that all starts with recruiting.

Daniel Hamilton Was The AAC's Only Five-Star Recruit And Best NBA Prospect

Daniel Hamilton Was The AAC’s Only Five-Star Recruit And Is Maybe Its Best NBA Prospect

The early signing period for the recruiting class of 2015 officially came to close today, and after landing just one five-star prospect (UConn’s Daniel Hamilton) in the Class of 2014, things again look bleak for the conference. Only two five-star prospects (UConn commitment Jalen Adams and Memphis commitment Dedric Lawson) signed their letter of intent with an AAC school last week, and not coincidentally, UConn and Memphis are the conference’s only programs that can currently boast top 30 recruiting classes. Let’s break down just how unfavorably the AAC recruiting classes stack up to those from the rest of the major basketball conferences.

  • The AAC, the Big 12, and the Big Ten are the only three conferences without a commitment from one of the country’s top 20 players, but it’s almost a certainty that Kansas will land one if not two or three of the uncommitted five-star prospects.
  • The AAC has only six of the top 100 prospects in the country currently committed, far less than the Pac-12 (15), Big Ten (13), SEC (14), and the ACC (17). The Big East currently has seven top 100 prospects committed and the Big 12 has just five (again… Kansas).
  • Only the Big 12 has fewer schools among the top 30 recruiting classes in the country after the early signing period, and it seems highly unlikely that any other school from the conference will break into that group, although SMU is probably close.
  • Of the top remaining uncommitted prospects, only five-star center Diamond Stone is seriously considering an AAC school (UConn) while the rest of the uncommitted prospects seem to be considering SEC, Big 12 or Pac-12 schools.
  • UConn and Memphis are responsible for four of the six top-100 prospects committed to play in the AAC, and Memphis’ highly ranked class has as much to do with their coaching hires and Dedric Lawson’s decision to reclassify as it does with Josh Pastner’s recruiting prowess.

When you compare AAC recruiting classes to the rest of the country, it is clear that the conference is in immediate danger of falling way behind in talent level. And things got even more depressing last week when one of the country’s top big men and a Memphis local, Skal Labissiere, spurned the hometown Tigers for Kentucky on national television, and three more of the country’s top 100 players, all of whom had UConn among their finalists, announced they were going to play somewhere other than Storrs next season. Now, recruiting against a juggernaut like John Calipari is difficult for any program regardless of conference. And just because a school doesn’t land any five-star prospects doesn’t mean it can’t build a winning program. In fact, some might argue that recruiting one-and-done players is a risky way to build success. But the fact remains, the top recruits are almost all future NBA players, and people will always pay more attention to a school or a conference that is brimming with future NBA talent.

It’s still a bit early to be spouting doom and gloom, though, as a lot can change in recruiting between now and April. But there are warning signs aside from the fact that Memphis needed to hire a pair of recruits’ father in order to land a top class. SMU let all three top 100 players from the Dallas area slip through its fingers to nearby programs like Texas A&M and Oklahoma State. Cincinnati — which has a hard enough time retaining former five-star prospects it does land — has another solid but unspectacular class. Temple has a good class by its standards but none of those commitments will make national waves. Tulsa doesn’t have anybody committed of note; South Florida is more concerned about building an actual roster instead of landing top recruits; and don’t even bother asking about the rest of the programs, none of which will get much notice for their recruiting classes.

Too much is being made of what the loss of Louisville will do to the perception of the conference. If anything, the decision to invite football-first schools like Tulane, East Carolina and UCF to join the conference has hurt its basketball prestige more than losing the Cardinals ever could. If you look at KenPom’s current conference rankings, which are calculated by averaging team’s adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, the primary reason the AAC is ranked so low is because the bottom of the conference is so bad. Losing the Cardinals leaves the AAC without a clear-cut national title contender this season, but the top five or six teams in this conference stack up very nicely with conferences like the SEC, Big East, and Atlantic 10.

The SEC is a prime example of what housing a bunch of future NBA stars can do for a conference’s national perception. Remove Kentucky and Florida from the equation and there isn’t a single team in the league that could be considered a “lock” to make the NCAA Tournament. But teams like LSU and Arkansas and South Carolina still get passing national attention because they have NBA-level talents like Jarell Martin, Sindarius Thornwell, and Bobby Portis on their rosters. The best NBA prospects in the AAC either didn’t start their careers in the conference (Rodney Purvis) or are still very much unproven on the collegiate level (Daniel Hamilton). The best players in this conference and contenders for conference Player of the Year honors are all terrific college players with questionable NBA potential. This may make the league more competitive and fun to watch, but it won’t convince ESPN to put the teams on national television and it won’t help schools receive the type of attention that comes with hearing the name of an alumnus called on draft night. That will start to happen when players like Labissiere end up in the AAC.

Recruiting doesn’t take place in a vacuum. Everything from scholarship limitations to what shoe company the school has a contract with matters in this world. So while it is easy to point to the lack of big names committed to AAC schools and say recruiting in the conference is suffering, there are plenty of extenuating circumstances that could be to blame for this lull. When this becomes a problem is when that lull becomes a pattern. Schools like UConn and Memphis need to start landing some of these five-star prospects; SMU needs to continue to build the momentum from landing players like Keith Frazier and Emmanuel Mudiay; and schools like Tulane and East Carolina need use the financial benefits of their new digs to commit more resources to basketball which will, in turn, attract better players.

Fans of the AAC should have their fingers crossed that Diamond Stone signs with UConn and then convinces Malik Newman to follow him, otherwise the jokes about the AAC being a glorified mid-major conference could become uncomfortably accurate.

mlemaire (324 Posts)

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