"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Monday, May 04, 2009

What Does It Take to Make the Final Four?

Cracked Sidewalks is pleased to welcome Mark Henderson to the site as a guest columnist. A 1992 Marquette graduate, Mark is an avid reader of the site and a well-read fan of college basketball. In this column, he reviews the recruiting histories of recent Final Four and NCAA championship teams to see how their tendencies might relate to Marquette and the future of the program.

Talent alone is no guarantee of success in the NCAA tournament. Other factors such as coaching, team chemistry, experience, and luck can all play a role. But it takes elite-level talent to build an elite-level program.

Although Marquette has appeared in the Big Dance the past four seasons, questions remain about the future of the program. Can Buzz Williams maintain this level of success? Does MU have what it takes to compete with the best of the Big East, year after year? Is a second national title even a remote possibility?

With these questions in mind, it’s worth analyzing where Marquette stands in comparison to the top college basketball programs in terms of talent. A closer examination of the recruiting records of these programs yields some intriguing answers.

Methodology and notes
This analysis is based on the NCAA Final Four teams from 2006 to 2009 — along with their respective recruiting classes from the four years leading up to their semifinals appearance. In other words, we want to see what kind of high school prospects each team signed to help them reach the Final Four. All recruiting information and rankings come from the rivals.com archive.

First, a couple caveats:

1) Recruiting rankings are imperfect, at best. No two recruiting services ever come up with the exact same list. Some can’t-miss prospects never pan out, while others considered projects become superstars. For our purposes, we’re not concerned with whether a player should be ranked #34 or #89; from a broader perspective, rankings can still prove informative.

2) Signing class lists don’t distinguish between high school prospects and junior college signees with less than four years of eligibility. They also don’t account for fifth-year seniors, transfers or players who declare early for the NBA draft. The influence of these factors will be discussed more in depth later.

Baby Blue chippers
North Carolina’s blowout of Michigan State in the 2009 NCAA championship game confirmed what most experts had predicted as early as a year before. By almost any measure, the Tar Heels were the most talented team in college basketball. A review of their recruiting classes from 2005 to 2008 offers ample proof.

During that four-year period, North Carolina signed an astonishing five 5-star recruits (as rated by rivals.com): Ed Davis, Wayne Ellington, Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Brandon Wright. The first four all played at least 34 games during the 2008-09 season and averaged 60 ppg between them; Hansbrough and Lawson were both named All-Americans. Wright declared for the NBA draft following the 2006-07 season.

If that weren’t enough, UNC’s signing classes for 2005-08 also featured seven 4-star recruits: Larry Drew, Bobby Frasor, Marcus Ginyard, Danny Green, Alex Stepheson, Deon Thompson and Tyler Zeller. Four of these — Drew, Frasor, Green and Thompson — played every game of the ‘09 season and would have formed the centerpiece of an NCAA tournament team all by themselves.

Only at a school such as North Carolina is it possible to view 3-star recruits as an afterthought. Head coach Roy Williams and his staff added a couple of those for good measure: Will Graves and Justin Watts.

From 2005 to 2008, only one other program signed more 5-star recruits (Duke, with six). No other program signed more 4-star recruits. The story might have had a very different ending if the team had lost more players to the draft, or if Lawson’s late-season foot injury continued to bother him. But the end result should come as a surprise to no one.

While this post focuses on Final Four teams, the case of Duke makes an interesting side note. It’s a team that never quite lived up to its potential, for a variety of reasons. Two of its 5-star recruits, Gerald Henderson and Kyle Singler, became true impact players. But Josh McRoberts left for the NBA following the 2006-07 season. And the others — Greg Paulus, Brian Zoubek and Elliot Williams — have been inconsistent contributors. All the same, the Blue Devils had enough talent to finish second in the ACC and advance to the Sweet 16 before falling to Villanova.

A not-so-Spartan roster
Michigan State may have been over-matched by the Tar Heels, but that’s not to say Tom Izzo’s team was undeserving. Hardly. The Spartans were one of the most talented teams in the country, as a review of their recent recruiting classes shows.

MSU signed one 5-star recruit between 2005 and 2008: Delvon Roe. Big deal, right? That’s just the start. During the same period, the Spartans also signed an impressive six 4-star recruits (Chris Allen, Tom Herzog, Kalin Lucas, Korie Lucious, Raymar Morgan, Durrell Summers) and five 3-star recruits (Isaiah Dahlman, Draymond Green, Maurice Joseph, Austin Thornton, Travis Walton).

Throw in redshirt senior Goran Suton — a 3-star recruit from the Class of 2004 — and you have a team that could legitimately play at least 10-deep. Just not quite on the same level as UNC.

Recruiting by numbers
Connecticut entered the 2009 season expecting to challenge for the national title and came up just short. Their Final Four run is no accident. But oh, what could have been.

In the years 2005 to 2008, UConn matched North Carolina by signing five 5-star recruits: Andrew Bynum, Curtis Kelly, Ater Majok, Stanley Robinson and Kemba Walker. Robinson and Walker emerged as true leaders for the Huskies, especially down the stretch. The same can’t be said for the others. Bynum opted to go straight to the NBA out of high school. Kelly transferred to Kansas State after two seasons of limited playing time. Meanwhile, eligibility and recruiting issues may prevent Majok from ever taking the court for Connecticut.

Don’t feel sorry for Jim Calhoun just yet. He also signed up six 4-star recruits: Jeff Adrien, Jerome Dyson, Marcus Johnson, Nate Miles, Hasheem Thabeet and Doug Wiggins. Then, eight 3-star recruits: Craig Austrie, Donnell Beverly, Ben Eaves, Gavin Edwards, Robert Garrison, Scottie Haralson, Jonathan Mandeldove and Chukwuma Okwandu. If you’re counting, that’s a grand total of 19 ranked recruits. Plus, fifth-year senior A.J. Price (a 4-star recruit from the Class of 2004).

Even with the transfers of Johnson and Wiggins, Connecticut was still positioned to make a run at North Carolina — at least until the mid-season injury of Jerome Dyson.

The Philadelphia story
Notice a pattern emerging? You can expect more of the same from Villanova.

Between 2005 and 2008, the Wildcats signed two 5-star recruits (Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes), two 4-star recruits (Antonio Pena, Scottie Reynolds) and seven 3-star recruits (Shane Clark, Dante Cunningham, Casiem Drummond, Malcolm Grant, Andrew Ott, Reggie Redding and Maurice Sutton). Oh, and don’t forget fifth-year senior Dwayne Anderson, a Class of 2004 3-star recruit.

Eight of those players (Cunningham, Reynolds, Fisher, Stokes, Anderson, Redding, Clark and Pena) all averaged at least 17 mpg last season and formed the heart of the Villanova rotation. As with Michigan State, not quite on the same level as UNC. But it’s clear that Jay Wright and his staff worked hard to assemble a team loaded with top-level athletes.

Same old story
The trend continues as you look back at other Final Four and championship teams. Kansas in ’08? Six 5-star recruits, six 4-star recruits and three 3-star recruits. Memphis, last year’s runner-up? Three 5-star recruits, seven 4-star recruits, eight 3-star recruits (an incredible 18 ranked recruits in all). How about the ‘07 champion Florida? Eight 4-star recruits and 8 3-star recruits. And so on.

The lone exception from the past four NCAA tournaments: George Mason in 2006. Perhaps the ultimate Cinderella team, the Patriots roster included a mere three 3-star recruits: Kevin Mickens, Jesus Urbina and Sammie Hernandez. Breaking down that anomaly is the subject of another post.

Just don’t expect it to happen again anytime soon. Since 2006, Final Four teams have signed an average of 12.9 ranked recruits — including 7.8 recruits rated 4 stars or better. The air becomes even more rarified for NCAA champions, who signed 15.3 ranked recruits (9.5 of them rated 4 stars or better) on average.

So what’s it mean for Marquette?
Well, that depends. The good news is that Marquette’s incoming class is a strong one, rated just as highly as the Class of 2005 featuring James, Matthews and McNeal.

Here’s a review of the four signing classes leading up to the 2009-10 season:

  • Four 4-star recruits: Junior Cadougan, Lazar Hayward, Jeronne Maymon and Erik Williams.
  • Five 3-star recruits: Dwight Buycks, Scott Christopherson, Joe Fulce, Darius Johnson-Odom, Pat Hazel.
Clearly, Buzz Williams has accomplished a lot in his first year on the job — especially considering that Hayward is the only ranked recruit signed by Crean who’s still with the team.

That’s probably not enough to contend for the Big East title next year, especially given the team’s inexperience. A fifth straight NCAA appearance is certainly a realistic goal. Beyond that, we’ll have to wait and see.

Williams seems to have an affinity for talent; the unexpected emergence of Jimmy Butler is evidence of that. Unheralded recruits such as Chris Otule, Liam McMorrow, Brett Roseboro, Monterale Clark and Aaron Bowen may surprise, as well — plus MU has at least one more scholarship available for the Class of 2010. But it will likely be another year after that before we know if Marquette is ready to take the next step forward as a program.


Zuch said...

Aaron Bowen should end up as a ranked player (three star or better) as defined in this article. In Scout's latest update Bowen was bumped up to a four star player and ranked as the #19 shooting guard. When Rivals updates their rankings soon Bowen has a good chance of cracking their top 150. A major key for Buzz and Marquette going forward is to build upon the strong 2009 class, and Bowen is a very good start to that goal.

Championships Matter said...

Excellent analysis. The only point I would add is that excellence is built, not found or garnered in a day. The rap on Tom Crean was he could "start" something special, but could never build momentum on it.

One need look no further than our on history to realize success begets success. Al's first major recruiting coup, George Thompson, led to Dean the Dream, Marcus Washington, Bob Lackey, Jim Chones, Larry McNeill, Maurice Lucas, Butch and Bo and, well, you get it!

The three amigos were an outstanding -- perhaps overwhelming -- start. But the problem was that once they were in the door, the only recruiting coup Marquette had was Lazar Hayward. Hence, we never got past the second round.

Buzz started with 2009-2010. This is something wonderful to build on. But if we expect to hoist another banner in the corner of the Bradley Center, Buzz needs to do what Al did -- build on his early success.

Just remember, Championships Matter!