How Much Do Recruiting Rankings Factor into NCAA Basketball Success?

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How Much Do Recruiting Rankings Factor into NCAA Basketball Success?
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There's not a player in the 2015 class who has received the kind of hype that surrounded Andrew Wiggins. But for the typical college hoops fans, it doesn't matter. The overall strength of a particular class is not their focus.

The typical college hoops fan is locked in on one thing and one thing only when it comes to the players the school they root for signs: the rankings.

As in, how the recruiting services rank a player. If Kentucky signs two or three top-10 recruits, Big Blue Nation is going to be in a frenzy. If Bill Self lands another top-three prospect, Kansas fans will be dreaming of a national championship. Expectations are often created by these rating systems.

But should they be?

In this one-and-done era of college basketball, there have been two ways to win a national title and multiple formulas to build a Final Four team when it comes to recruiting.

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The last two champions have been a juxtaposition to what seemed like would become the standard championship look when John Calipari won his first title in 2012. Calipari had a starting lineup that didn't include one upperclassman. He was simply luring the best talent possible to Lexington with the realization that those players would not be around long and he could rebuild right away.

But what Louisville and Connecticut proved in the last two seasons—along with Kentucky's lost (NIT) season in 2012-13—is that experience and roster-building over time is the other (and more predictable) way to win.

It's like in the NBA with some teams convinced they need a superstar in his prime to win and others trying to replicate the Spurs' model of teamwork and familiarity. Not everyone can have the former, but that's no reason to believe that a Final Four or championship is not possible without landing a surefire superstar.

To study the importance of recruiting rankings in predicting future team performance, I took a look at the starting lineups of every Final Four squad since 2007 (the beginning of the one-and-done era) and where each player ranked on Scout.com and Rivals.com, taking the average of the two for a consensus ranking.

The data shows how college basketball is changing and how we should not view every team's future potential in a vacuum.

 

Blueprints of the Champs

This preseason, Duke is a lock to be ranked in just about everyone's top five, despite the fact that leading scorers Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood left for the NBA off a team that didn't even win a tourney game. The reason for such a ranking is all about the incoming freshman class. Big man Jahlil Okafor is the consensus top-ranked incoming freshman, and Duke has the top-rated recruiting class in the country, both per 247Sports. 

USA TODAY Sports

Mike Krzyzewski is basically rolling with the Calipari model in 2014-15, hoping the likely one-and-done Okafor can lead him to a title. 

That's never how Coach K has won before, and really, Calipari is the only one to win a title with such an approach. 

The standard is still bringing in several talented classes, molding that group and then winning once they have a few years of experience under their belt. It does help to have at least one player who was once a hyped recruit.

When you look at the last eight champs, there is a trend when it comes to the recruiting rankings. Every one of those champs has had at least one top-25 recruit. 

Top-ranked Recruit From Last Eight National Champs
Year Top recruit Year in School Avg. Ranking
2014 DeAndre Daniels, UConn junior 20.5
2013 Chane Behanan, Louisville sophomore 23
2012 Anthony Davis, Kentucky freshman 1.5
2011 Kemba Walker, UConn junior 13
2010 Kyle Singler, Duke junior 5.5
2009 Ty Lawson, North Carolina junior 7
2008 Darrell Arthur, Kansas sophomore 12
2007 Corey Brewer, Florida junior 25

Rivals.com and Scout.com

What also separates the champs from a majority of the Final Four teams is that their starting lineups are made up nearly entirely of players who were ranked coming out of high school—or at least four of the five starters. Louisville (2012) and both of UConn's national champs had four of five starters appear in one of the two sets of rankings, and the other five champs had all five starters appear. 

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

What you'll also notice from the chart above is only one of the top prospects listed (Anthony Davis) was a freshman on the title team. Davis and Carmelo Anthony are also the only freshmen to ever lead a national champion in scoring for the season. Considering both happened in the last 11 years, that does at least indicate the times are changing, but a majority of champs are still led by older players. 

This past season was a good example of how difficult it still is to be led by a star freshman. Duke and Kansas had the crown jewels of the 2013 class—Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker, respectively—and neither made it past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. 

Kentucky got hot with five freshmen starters and made the title game, but that group was close to imploding in the regular season and managed only a No. 8 seed with the most stacked roster in the country.

That roster had five top-10 recruits and an average ranking of 7.5 for the starters. Taking away Calipari-coached teams, the closest comparison to that many highly ranked players on one roster was North Carolina in 2009, which had an average ranking of 20.9, and all five starters were upperclassmen. 

Champs by Average Recruiting Ranking
Avg. Ranking
1. Kentucky (2012) 9.5
2. North Carolina (2009) 20.9
3. Kansas (2008) 25.8
4. Duke (2010) 28.9
5. Louisville (2013) 33.25*
6. Connecticut (2011) 37.75*
7. Florida (2007) 65.7
8. Connecticut (2014) 69.5*

Rivals.com and Scout.com

*Only four players qualified. 

That UNC roster was a throwback to an era when it was rare for a freshman to leave early, yet in a way, it wasn't all that out of the ordinary. Roy Williams was just lucky that his best player, Tyler Hansbrough, didn't have a game that scouts drooled over.

Hansbrough was a rarity. Most top-10 recruits these days don't stay for more than a year or two, and that has created so much roster turnover that it's difficult to consistently sustain success year to year.

It's also opened the door for players like Russ Smith and Shabazz Napier to be the stars on championship teams. Smith was one of the rare starters on a title team who was not ranked coming out of high school. Napier barely made the top 100 of Rivals' ratings. The argument could be made that landing talents like Napier and Smith is more valuable than a one-and-done phenom like Wiggins.

 

Are the One-and-Dones Less Valuable Than Perceived? 

The odds are stacked against Duke to reach a Final Four this year based off recent history, which has actually been more kind to teams that feature freshmen than past eras. 

Still, over the last eight years, only six of the 32 Final Fours teams have had one or more one-and-done freshmen. Four of those six teams were coached by Calipari (Memphis 2008, Kentucky 2011, Kentucky 2012 and Kentucky 2014).

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There have been almost as many Final Four teams that got there without a single prospect who was ranked by both Rivals and Scout. Butler (twice), VCU and Wichita State all got to the Final Four with starters who were apparently late-bloomers or overlooked as preps.

It's not like they weren't talented because they missed out on those rankings. Former Butler wing Gordon Hayward averaged 16.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.2 assists last season with the Jazz, and former Wichita State forward Cleanthony Early went 34th in the NBA draft last month. 

Here's the more important number for Butler, VCU and Wichita State: The average class of the starters on those teams was a junior. 

The Calipari model proves you can win with freshmen, but you'd better have more than one elite prospect—ideally, four or five of them.

Even then it's difficult to navigate the tournament with so much youth, and what Calipari has done—three Final Fours in four years—is unreal. It helps when your best players understand the magnitude of the moment and are there for the younger players to lean on. Anytime you bring up how young Kentucky was in 2012, Calipari will counter by pointing out he had a senior and two sophomores that had been to the Final Four the year before in his rotation.

It's rare for a Final Four team to get that far starting multiple freshmen like Cal has done on his last three Final Four teams. Only six of the last 32 Final Four teams have had multiple freshmen in their starting lineup—three of which were Kentucky. One of those teams (UConn in 2010) did not include a freshman ranked in the top 20 that year. That team was carried by a junior, Kemba Walker. 

That's why we should pump the brakes on the expectations for a team like Duke in the coming season. Take Kansas last season, for instance.

As soon as Wiggins agreed to play for Bill Self, the Jayhawks instantly were perceived to be a national title threat in 2014. This was even before Joel Embiid emerged as a lottery pick. Yet Self was missing two ingredients that his best teams before have had: a talented point guard and experience.

When the Jayhawks won in 2008, Self had three future pros he could plug in at point guard (Mario Chalmers, Russell Robinson and Sherron Collins), and the core of that roster had been together for three years. His 2012 runner-up roster had an all-league point guard (Tyshawn Taylor) and the starting lineup was made up of all upperclassmen.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

It's entirely possible that Kansas could be better this season than last because two of the Jayhawks' best players (Wayne Selden and Perry Ellis) have legitimate experience, as do several other role players on the roster. The argument could be made that Selden, a consensus top-15 recruit out of high school, will end up a more valuable player to the KU program than Wiggins was.

Wiggins still provides value to Kansas in the future. If he becomes an NBA superstar, the fact that he spent time as a Jayhawk is good for the brand and could help land other recruits. But on the court, a player like Selden, who is a future pro but wasn't good enough to leave after one year, is typically the more valuable recruit.

Just take a look at the leading scorer for the last eight champs and how old each player was.

Class of Leading Scorers on National Champs
Year Leading Scorer Year in School
2014 Shabazz Napier, UConn senior
2013 Russ Smith, Louisville junior
2012 Anthony Davis, Kentucky freshman
2011 Kemba Walker, UConn junior
2010 Jon Scheyer, Duke senior
2009 Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina senior
2008 Brandon Rush, Kansas junior
2007 Taurean Green, Florida junior

B/R

That's a chart that anyone who does preseason rankings should check out every season. We tend to overvalue the top incoming freshmen because so much attention is paid to the rankings, and this is the easiest time of the year to create unrealistic expectations. We're currently in the middle of the July evaluation period, which is when many college coaches get their best look at high school players.

It's also the time that talent evaluators form their opinions on where prospects should be ranked and fans will gobble up those rankings.

But once those prospects become freshmen, remember that experience still matters in college basketball even when the best talents don't stay in school long. How to build a winner is more of a process than instant results.

Does landing highly rated recruits matter? Yes. But their eventual impact as freshmen is typically overhyped—at least when it comes to winning in March and April. 

 

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.

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