NCAA Basketball Recruiting: Biggest Takeaways from Early Signing Period so Far

Jake CurtisFeatured ColumnistNovember 19, 2013

NCAA Basketball Recruiting: Biggest Takeaways from Early Signing Period so Far

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Unofficial verbal commitments became official signings last week, forcing the so-called experts to determine what the results of the early signing period will mean for college basketball.

    As usual, Duke, Kentucky and Kansas were presumed to be among the big winners in the recruiting wars in what has become a contest in itself. However, there were other issues of note in the early signing period.

    Of course, today's conclusions won't be verified for at least a year, perhaps longer. But that won't prevent us from choosing the 10 biggest takeaways from the early signing period.

     

     

A Package Deal Made Duke the Big Winner

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    Jahlil Okafor
    Jahlil OkaforUSA TODAY Sports

    The package deal could become the wave of the recruiting future.

    Duke is always a contender for an NCAA title, but when center Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones announced on Nov. 15 that they would become Blue Devils, Duke assumed the role of 2013-2014 favorite.

    That announcement propelled Duke's recruiting class to the No. 1 ranking, ahead of Kentucky, by both Scout.com and Rivals.com.

    Jabari Parker will probably be off to the NBA before Okafor and Jones arrive, but the acquisition of one of the best package deals in college basketball recruiting history transformed Duke into a potential monster.

    More interesting is the dynamic of the choice by Okafor and Jones, who had decided some time ago that they would attend the same college. They did not play on the same high school or AAU teams, but bonded while training for the good, old USA on the national teams.

    Okafor, a mobile, do-everything, 6'10" center from Chicago, is considered the nation's No. 1 recruit by ESPN.com, Scout.com and Rivals.com. Jones is ranked either No. 4 or No. 5 by those recruiting services.

    Together they formed a package similar to what Ohio State got when Mike Conley and Greg Oden decided they would stay together and play for the Buckeyes in 2007. Ohio State got to the NCAA title game when Oden and Conley were freshmen, even though Oden missed much of the season with injuries.

    It leads to speculation in an ESPN.com article that elite recruits might pair up to create a recruiting package in the future. A joint approach would ensure the presence of a friend to make the transition from high school easier, and it would also enhance their chances for immediate team success as college freshmen.

     

     

Where Is Michigan State?

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    Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

    One school's name that is conspicuously absent in the team recruiting rankings for 2014 is Michigan State.

    The Spartans' current team is ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll after the first week of this season, so you would expect Michigan State to land at least a few big-name recruits based on its status. A few key players, namely Keith Appling and Adreian Payne, are in their final season of eligibility, and Gary Harris might turn pro after this season as well. The openings are there.

    However, Michigan State signed just two players, neither of whom is ranked among the nation's top 100 recruits by either ESPN.com or Scout.com. ESPN.com does not rank Michigan State's 2014 group among the nation's top 40 recruiting classes. The Spartans did not rank among ESPN.com's top 40 recruiting classes last year either.

    In fact, none of Michigan State's last six recruiting classes was ranked higher than 10th by either ESPN.com or Scout.com.

    Somehow the Spartans keep winning. It's an indication that coach Tom Izzo knows which players will function best in his system, even if they are not among the highest rated recruits.

     

Calipari Is Still the Recruiting King

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    There is some debate whether Kentucky or Duke pulled in the nation's best recruiting class in the early signing period. There is little debate that John Calipari should retain his unofficial title as recruiting king, however.

    ESPN.com rates Kentucky's 2014 class the best in the country, while Scout.com and Rivals.com rank Kentucky No. 2, behind Duke.

    However, no program in history has had the consistent recruiting success Kentucky has had since Calipari came to Lexington. It rivals the football recruiting success USC had when Pete Carroll was the Trojans' head coach.

    Since being hired by Kentucky in May 2009, the Wildcats recruiting classes were ranked No. 1 by Scout.com all five years from 2009 through 2013 and No. 2 for 2014. ESPN.com ranked five of those six classes No. 1, with his 2012 class being No. 2. 

    The Wildcats' 2014 class may be Calipari's weakest since he's been at Kentucky, yet he still signed two players ranked among ESPN.com's top 10 recruits, No. 6 Karl Towns Jr. and No. 7 Trey Lyles, with all four recruits ranked among the top 33.

    For most other programs, that might rank as the best recruiting class in school history. For Calipari, it amounts to an off year, because it's the first time since he's been at Kentucky that he didn't sign at least one player ranked among the nation's top four recruits.

     

Larry Brown Pulled off the Biggest Recruiting Coup

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    Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

    It's unclear how long 73-year-old Larry Brown will remain SMU's head coach. However, it's pretty clear he pulled off the recruiting coup of the early signing period by landing guard Emmanuel Mudiay.

    Mudiay is rated the nation's No. 2 recruit by Rivals.com, No. 3 by Scout.com, No. 5 by ESPN.com

    Mudiay decided to stay in his hometown of Dallas and attend SMU, rather than accept the pitches of his other finalists, which included Kentucky and Kansas.

    SMU has not been to the NCAA tournament since 1993 and has not been ranked since 1985. The Mustangs went 15-17 last season.

    History says a program like SMU simply cannot sign a player of Mudiay's caliber. The only recent example that is remotely comparable was Kansas State's signing of Michael Beasley in 2007. However, Kansas State had considerably more basketball success in the years leading up to that signing than SMU has had.

    In fact, the closest recent parallel to Mudiay's signing probably was SMU's signing of Keith Frazier last year. Frazier, a McDonald's All-American, was rated the nation's No. 18 recruit for 2013 by Rivals.com and No. 33 by Scout.com. Like Mudiay, Frazier is a Dallas product who opted to stay close to home.

    As a freshman, Frazier is averaging 9.0 points for an SMU team that brought in a bunch of transfers and is considered a sleeper team by USA Today.

    More will be expected when Mudiay arrives.

     

     

     

Chris Collins Provides Hope at Northwestern

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    Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

    Northwestern is the only team from one of the power basketball conferences that has never played in the NCAA tournament. However, the results of the early signing period suggest Chris Collins may be capable of changing that.

    In his first year as a head coach at any level, Collins signed four players that Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune said "could turn out to be the best in school history."

    All schools tend to overestimate the quality of their recruiting classes, but Northwestern's claims have some credibility.

    ESPN.com ranks Northwestern's class the 23rd-best in the country and No. 3 in the Big Ten, behind Ohio State and Indiana.

    The stud of the class is small forward Victor Law, rated the No. 66 recruit in the country by ESPN.com and No. 70 by Scout.com. 

    Law is certainly not in the category of a Jahlil Okofor or any of the elite recruits. He and the Wildcats' three other signees, Scott Lindsey, Bryan McIntosh and Gavin Skelly, are unlikely to make Northwestern a threat for a Big Ten title. But they may indicate Collins has the recruiting skills to make the Wildcats an NCAA tournament team. 

     

The Undecided Players' Choices Will Sway the Results

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    Justise Winslow (right)
    Justise Winslow (right)Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

    Three highly rated players have yet to sign with college teams, and those three could sway the team recruiting rankings and those teams' fortunes considerably.

    Center Myles Turner, shooting guard Rashad Vaughn and small forward Justise Winslow all rank among Scout,com's top 10 recruits. But none has signed yet.

    It is noteworthy that Arizona is on the list of finalists for all three, and Kansas is on the list for Turner and Vaughn.

    The most important undecided player is Turner, a 6'11" player from Bedford, Texas, who is rated the nation's No. 2 prospect by ESPN.com. Arizona, Texas, Ohio State, Oklahoma State and Kansas look like the leading contenders from Turner's services at the moment. Whichever school lands him will have a versatile player who can do almost anything offensively and can block shots at the other end. His only presumed shortcoming is that he may not be quite strong enough yet to dominate the paint the way Kentucky freshman Julius Randle does.

    Turner's decision could launch Kansas or Arizona to the top of the 2014 class.

     

     

Stanford's Johnny Dawkins Can Bring in Talent

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    Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

    Johnny Dawkins has not had much success on the court at Stanford, which makes his success on the recruiting trail that much more impressive.

    Even though the Cardinal has failed to make it to the NCAA tournament in any of his five seasons at Stanford, Dawkins has had two outstanding recruiting classes. One of those was in 2010, and the other is the 2014 class he signed this fall.

    His 2010 class, which was ranked No. 15 nationally by Scout.com, No. 16 by Rivals.com and No. 18 by ESPN.com, is providing four of the five starters for this season's Cardinal squad. That group had better produce an NCAA tournament team or Dawkins is likely to be fired.

    Despite that ominous possibility, Dawkins signed a class rated even higher than his 2010 group. Stanford's three signees, power forward Reid Travis, center Michael Humphrey and point guard Robert Cartwright, all rank among the nation's top 100 recruits. The class is ranked No. 13 nationally by ESPN.com, No. 14 by Scout.com and No. 16 by Rivals.com. Perhaps more importantly, the group is the second-highest rated group in the Pac-12, behind only Arizona. This is despite signing just three players compared with the six Stanford signed four years ago, 

    Being able to bring in that kind of talent with Stanford's sky-high academic requirements speaks to Dawkins' recruiting skills. His inability to make the most of that talent may lead to his dismissal, which would allow his successor to take advantage of the players coming in next season.

     

     

Cliff Alexander Disappoints Illinois Fans

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    Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

    Had it not been for the package-deal commitment of Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones to Duke, Kansas' signing of Cliff Alexander and his deceptive announcement would have been the most talked-about story of the early signing period.

    When he announced his decision on Nov. 15, Alexander first grabbed the orange hat of Illinois, suggesting the Chicago power forward would stay in-state for college. But he quickly put the Illinois hat down and donned a Kansas hat, probably alienating Illini nation for life.

    His deceptive move demonstrated how a teenage basketball player can manipulate the emotions of a fan base. This video on the CBSSports.com website showed how disappointed Illinois students were with Alexander's hat trick.

    The signing of Alexander, the nation's No. 3 recruit according to ESPN.com, in addition to the signing of shooting guard Kelly Oubre, rated the No. 6 recruit by Scout.com, ensured that the Jayhawks will have a powerhouse next season no matter how many of their current crop of talented freshmen leave for the NBA.

     

     

Only the Top Handful of Recruits Are Assured Stardom

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    Anthony Davis
    Anthony DavisRonald Martinez/Getty Images

    We can be pretty sure Jahlil Okafor, Emmanuel Mudiay and Cliff Alexander will be stars the first time they step on the court for Duke, SMU and Kansas, respectively. Such is not the case for players rated just several spots below them.

    A review of past recruiting rankings shows us that a player rated among the top five or six recruits by all the major recruiting services in a given year can expect instant stardom in college.

    Players ranked between six and 10 often have a significant impact as well, although they are not always instant stars.

    Players rated between 11 and 25 generally get playing time as freshmen. A few of them will emerge as major contributors, and a few will disappear into obscurity.

    Once you get past No. 25, the likelihood of success is pretty much the same for everyone in the remaining top 100. The differences among those players are almost indistinguishable.

    In other words, it's easy to spot the players who will become freshman stars.  Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, Andrew Wiggins and Aaron Gordon were rated the top four incoming freshmen by Rivals.com, ESPN.com, and Scout,com, and they have already separated themselves from the other freshmen this season.

    Anthony Davis, Harrison Barnes, Jared Sullinger, Kyrie Irving, John Wall, Tyreke Evans and Kevin Love all were rated among the top handful of recruits their senior year of high school and became college stars as freshmen. 

    Beyond those top few, though, it's difficult, if not impossible, to project the impact players. There is a definite division between the several elite recruits and the rest of the pack. A player rated No. 2 has a much greater chance for college success than a player rated No. 15. Furthermore, a player rated, say, No. 35 is no more likely to make it big than a player ranked No. 78. 

    Only Duke, SMU and Kansas should feel confident the players they signed during this year's early signing period will be stars next season.

     

Snider, McCullough Show the Uncertainty of Recruiting

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    Chris McCullough
    Chris McCulloughGeoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    Illinois, Syracuse and Louisville discovered, for better or worse, how uncertain the recruitment of a high school player can be.

    Louisville landed Quentin Snider, rated among the nation's top 35 recruits by Scout.com, ESPN.com and Rivals.com, but Rick Pitino had to convince him twice to stay home to go to college.

    Snider, who plays at Ballard High School in Louisville, had committed to the Cardinals in August 2011, then decommitted in July. He committed to Illinois this past September and was expected to sign with the Illini during the early-signing period. At the last minute he changed his mind again and signed with Louisville.

    The signing of Snider lifted Louisville's class to No. 7 in the Rivals.com and Scout.com team rankings and to No. 5 in the ESPN.com rankings.

    Illinois, which was also in the running for top-five recruit Cliff Alexander before Alexander opted for Kansas, had a terrible week. The Illini dropped 26 spots in the ESPN.com class rankings to No. 40.

    Meanwhile, Syracuse signed highly rated recruit Chris McCullough, but Jim Boeheim does not know whether he will be able to play for the Orange next season because McCullough does not attend a high school at the moment.

    Syracuse opted to sign McCullough even though he had been dismissed from Brewster Academy for a violation of school policy a few days earlier. No specifics of his violation have been made public, but it's not a good sign.

    As a practical matter, according to an ESPN.com report, McCullough must find another school quickly to ensure he remains on track academically to attend Syracuse next season. The 6'9" McCullough is rated the No. 16 recruit by ESPN.com.