How Well Must You Recruit to Win a National Championship?
Every team starts the season with hopes of winning a national championship. But among the 358 Division I programs in college basketball, only one team will cut down the nets on the first Monday in April. In the preseason, media members, pollsters, and fans spend countless hours conjuring up preseason projections, predictions, and predilections. Some are good, and some are not so good. You might bring up returning starters, or last year’s results; coaching changes, or just plain old gut feel. Ultimately, however, success in college athletics boils down to one thing and that is recruiting.
The relationship between recruiting and on-field success is well-established in college football. Bud Elliott over at 247Sports has done great research in introducing us to the “Blue Chip Ratio”, which details the level at which a team must recruit to win a national title. Essentially, you need at least half your team to be comprised of “blue-chip recruits”—either a four-star or a five-star player—to win it all, hence the Blue Chip Ratio of 50 percent.
At the top of this list are the programs you’d suspect: Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, and Clemson, each of whom has played for a national title in the last four years. Recruiting is certainly not an exact science—coaching, player development, and scheme are all important—but it stands tall as the best predictor of a team’s success.
However, the relationship between winning and recruiting is much more murky in basketball than on the gridiron, for reasons I hypothesize below.
Football and Basketball
Football is a sport based primarily on brute physical strength. As my acquaintance Chris Coleman has pointed out, in general, when teams win in football it’s because they are bigger, stronger, and faster than their opposition. As most coaches will probably tell you, it’s really hard to overcome such drastic physical disparities. By contrast, basketball is a finesse sport, where shooting, passing, and player movement are fundamental aspects of the game. Think about it this way: in basketball, most any player can work on perfecting a three-point shot or a floater. But in football, not everyone can execute a bull rush against an elite tackle like Penei Sewell. That requires a very unique physical skill set, one that is in high demand and is usually reflected in a player’s recruiting ranking.
In football there are also 22 starters and 40-some players in a two-deep. It is a game of attrition, with injuries inevitably occurring that will challenge a team’s depth. The quarterback is the most important player on the field, but he alone does not make a team. Everyone has to contribute in some form, as you cannot win at a high level with significant holes in your roster.
On the other hand, basketball is a sport defined by star talent. The best teams usually have two or three star players, and most rotations only go 8-9 deep. Injuries don’t occur as often and the five starters will get about 80 percent of the minutes. In crunch time, the ball will always be in the hands of your best player, who need beat just one or two defenders to sink the game-winning shot. A quarterback, however, must drive down the field 80 yards to win the game, necessarily requiring help from his teammates, assuming his defense even affords him the chance to be on the field.
Then there’s the fact that football players must stay in college three years, whereas elite basketball players can leave after one year, leveling the playing field for teams that rely on player development. I could go on and on, but you get the point: in basketball, coaching is paramount.
Still, we know that recruiting matters; but how much? In writing this article we’re going to look at two key pieces of data: first, the recruiting resumés of every national champion since 2006; and second, an in-depth evaluation of every Division I basketball team’s recruiting over the last seven years.
Winning a Title
So how well must you recruit to win a national championship in basketball? In trying to answer this question, I shied away from looking at team class rankings on 247Sports. The main reason for this is that basketball recruiting classes are so small (usually 2-6 players per cycle) that the team ranking can be heavily influenced by the total number of commitments. And as I previously noted, basketball is a game defined by stars, so it made more sense to look at recruiting rankings on an individual basis. Is it better to have a team full of well-rounded four-star players, or a handful of four-stars complemented by a transformational five-star? Is there a meaningful difference between the average Top-50 recruit and the average Top-100 prospect?
To answer this, I decided to look at the recruiting profile of every player on every national champion since 2006 (as far back as reliable data goes). In my tabulations I counted only those players who had some impact on their team’s success (there were no strict qualifications for this, but generally any player that played in double-digit games and/or had some tangible impact in the postseason was considered). I classified them by their star ranking (including those not ranked), their ordinal ranking within the class (Top 25, Top 50, Top 100), and whether or not they were a blue-chip recruit (BCR), also expressed in the form of the blue-chip ratio (BCR%).
Note: only high school recruits are included for Top 25, Top 50, and Top 100 categories. JUCO and Prep commitments are excluded.
Based on this data, a team must have the following to win a national title:
• At least five blue-chip recruits (four-star or five-star)
• At least four Top 100 recruits
• A blue-chip ratio of no less than 45 percent
And while not a prerequisite, it certainly will help to have at least:
• One five-star recruit
• Two Top 50 recruits
Some interesting tidbits:
• The average number of blue-chip recruits for each national champion is 7.5, so ideally you want over half the players on your roster to be highly touted prospects.
• To no surprise, John Calipari’s 2012 Kentucky team was loaded with talent: six five-star recruits and an all-NBA starting five including Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. In general, however, you don’t need more than one or two five-stars to win a ring. A handful of Top 50 recruits should do the trick, as these champions averaged between four to five Top 50 players on their roster.
• It’s important to remember that this is just a guideline for what constitutes championship-level recruiting. If I were writing this article in March of 2019, I would’ve told you that you need at least one five-star prospect to win a title; Virginia proved that to be untrue with their championship victory the following month, as did Baylor this past spring.
• Speaking of whom, the Bears also become the first team in the modern era to win it all without a Top 50 recruit. They were led by mid-level four-stars Davion Mitchell (now of the Sacramento Kings), Jared Butler, Mark Vital, and Matthew Mayer. However, two of their key contributors (MaCio Teague and Adam Flagler) were low-major transfers that didn’t even have a 247 profile, and center Flo Thomba was a modestly-recruited three-star prospect. Make no mistake about Scott Drew: the man can coach.
In summary: no, you don’t need five-star talent (but it helps); you don’t need a roster full of McDonald’s All-Americans (but it helps); you just need a handful of Top 100 prospects complemented by good coaching.
But we can take this analysis even further: how well does a team’s recruiting level predict their overall success?
To answer this, I compiled a database of over a decade’s worth of high school basketball recruits using the 247Sports composite rating system. For those unfamiliar, every year 247Sports ranks some 400-600 basketball prospects, each having anywhere from two to five stars with a “composite” score ranging from 1.000 to 0.7000, from R.J. Barrett of Duke to Tyrell Corbin of the Cal State Bakersfield Roadrunners.
I then created a barometer for measuring team talent, which in my infinite creativity I have called the Talent Rating. It’s simple: it’s just the average composite rating of every player on the team, weighted by minutes played. (Note: I gave all players that did not have a 247Sports recruiting profile a 0.6000 score for Talent Rating purposes.)
The Talent Rating turns out to be quite predictive. Since 2014-15 (as far back as my data goes), the thirty most talented teams finished, on average, 30th in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. This might seem a little low, but keep in mind that we are talking about a single variable projecting the athletic abilities of 18-year-old basketball prospects.
Below are the Talent Ratings for every champion since 2015.
Five of the last six national champions finished Top 13 in the Talent Rating. Once again, the Baylor Bears spoiled the party as they won it all with the 56th most “talented” team in 2021. For Final Four participants, most finished rated no lower than Top 60. (Props must be given to the 2018 Loyola Ramblers, who clocked in at 156th in talent and gave fans one of the most memorable postseason runs the sport has ever seen.) As we know, March Madness is always unpredictable due to the tournament’s single-elimination format. But if there’s one thing you take away from this article, it should be this: while recruiting rankings are never a guarantee of success, they are a darn good predictor of it.
So where does this leave Virginia Tech? It’s no secret that Buzz Williams drastically improved the quality of the Hokies’ recruiting in his five-year tenure as head coach of the program: from 2017 to 2019, the Hokies ranked 21st, 14th, and 15th, respectively, in Talent Rating. Nickeil Alexander-Walker certainly played a huge part in that, as the Toronto native was the 40th best prospect in the 2017 class per the 247Sports composite, and the second-highest rated recruit in program history, complemented by four-star recruits such as Justin Robinson and Kerry Blackshear, Jr.
Thus far, current Virginia Tech head coach Mike Young has had to take a different approach. Without having time to fully establish his footing in Blacksburg (and perhaps held back by COVID-19 recruiting restrictions), the third-year bench boss has assembled a roster full of largely under-scouted prospects such as Hunter Cattoor, Keve Aluma, and transfer point guard Storm Murphy, the latter two having played under Young at Wofford.
Because of that, the Hokies’ Talent Rating didn’t look so hot last year.
Indeed, Tech finished dead last in the ACC in Talent Rating at 96th; only five other major-conference programs finished lower. Even so, Young was able to engineer a 15-7 season, going 9-4 in the ACC and finishing 52nd in KenPom despite numerous COVID pauses. That +44 swing from the Talent Rating to KenPom constituted the highest uptick in the league.
As for this year, Virginia Tech loses three four-star guards in Wabissa Bede, Jalen Cone, and Joe Bamisile. Gone too is wing Tyrece Radford, a hidden gem out of Louisiana. Coming in is the aforementioned Murphy, and a pair of former Top 120 prospects who will see an increased role: center Lynn Kidd, a transfer from Clemson, and guard Darius Maddox, who the staff is certainly high on. All told, Virginia Tech’s Talent Rating won’t change much. In fact, it might go down a little. Reason to worry? Not so much. Once you step outside the Top 30 in recruiting, success becomes much more a question of coaching than anything else. There are some question marks about this Hokies team, but 247Sports isn’t responsible for the answers.
• Many Tech fans are familiar with the remarkable job Young did at Wofford, leading the Terriers to a 30-5 record with an NCAA Tournament win in 2018-19. But they may not realize just how special that Wofford team was. The Terriers finished 18th in KenPom, becoming the only team in the last six years to finish Top 20 in KenPom without a single Top 200 recruit on their roster. In fact, the Terriers had just one Top 400 recruit—Chevez Goodwin, No. 376, now at USC. Each of the other 119 teams in that KenPom grouping had at least four Top 400 commits. Doing more with less is Mike Young’s mantra.
• On average, a team that ranks Top 10 in Talent Rating will finish (drumroll please) 35th in the KenPom rankings. If anything, you might say having an uber-stacked roster is actually a negative, because the players on those teams are usually young, and experience is very important in college basketball. That 2015 Kentucky team was not so dominant because they had NBA prospects, but because they had NBA prospects who were sophomores and juniors.
One thing you might notice with the success of Virginia and Baylor is that the recruiting prerequisites for winning a championship are not as strict as they used to be. I suspect a major reason for this is the transfer portal. Sure, transfers have long been a part of college sports, but the portal makes it easier than ever for major-conference programs to snatch up the best low-major players on the market and patch up the holes in their roster with proven, veteran players. I mentioned the role that Teague and Flagler played in Baylor’s title run; incidentally, Tony Bennett’s staff at Virginia targeted Teague in his transfer recruitment process (I guess great coaches think alike?) In any case, it’s a great thing for college basketball that there is more than one way to win a title. You need not be the kings of National Signing Day to cut down the nets in April.
While good times are certainly ahead in Blacksburg, years of recruiting trends suggest that Virginia Tech is unlikely to win a national title this year. They will be a long shot for the Final Four, and so too for an ACC championship. But if there’s one man in America who knows how to outsmart the recruiting nerds, you can find him on a lonely bench in Cassell, dressed in a button down shirt and tie, popcorn in hand.