The Recruiting Game
The impact of superstar freshman and the questions surrounding their time in college.
With the ’09-10 college basketball season underway, we will once again be introduced to another star-studded freshman class, spread across some of the top programs in the country. For these All-American athletes, the path toward stepping on campus and actually playing for their respective universities may seem long overdue.
In today’s recruiting landscape, top 100-level basketball players are hyped up from the time they are in 8th grade. The pressure mounts for these young superstars to step on campus and perform from day one. And every October, after years of recruiting battles, coaches will finally get to see their prized recruits in action. But after putting four to five years of recruiting in on these athletes, how many coaches will actually get to keep them in their program for all four years?
The 2009 freshman class is showered with big time names like Dexter Strickland, John Wall, Derrick Favors and Renardo Sidney. With their first games just around the corner, it leads us to wonder which path they will follow. Will they be freshman phenoms who take their teams to the promised land? Will they bail for the NBA after one year? Will they simply not fit into the program and be wearing a different school’s uniform in two years? Every college coach in America wants to keep his guys through graduation, but it definitely doesn’t always happen like that.
Names like Kevin Durant, OJ Mayo, Michael Beasley and Greg Oden ring synonymous with players who were able to make huge impacts as freshman, but left for the NBA. Yet, think about what they could have achieved as sophomores. This is the game within the game that high major Division 1 coaches play each year. They go after that top 20 player, knowing that he may be gone after a year. How do you convince a kid who averages 20 a game and has pro scouts drooling over him to stay?
Think about Blake Griffin for a second. As a sophomore he may have been one of the most dominating power forwards ever to play college basketball. Yet we may have never had the pleasure of experiencing this dominance had he made the quick jump after 14.7 ppg and 9.1 rpg as a freshman. He was first team All-Big 12 and was surely on many different NBA Draft boards. In his freshman season, Oklahoma goes 10-8 in conference play and makes it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Now compare that to his 22.7 ppg and 14.4 rpg as a sophomore, with a 13-3 record in the Big 12 and an Elite 8 appearance against UNC. Not to discount any of the other Sooner’s play, but let’s face it, Oklahoma was probably a .500 Big 12 team without Blake Griffin. The importance of keeping guys in the program for more than one year makes a huge difference.
There is a category of freshman who are surrounded by hype, have great freshmen seasons, but don’t have the overwhelming ability to turn a program around in one year. Take Mike Rosario of Rutgers for instance. Coming out of the famed St. Anthony’s program in Jersey City, NJ, Rosario was a McDonald’s All-American and the No. 16 player in that class. Rosario seemed like a godsend for a Rutgers program that had been floating on the bottom of the Big East for a number of years.
As well as Rosario played as a freshman (16.2 ppg), he was unable to help turn around a team that finished 8-10 in the Big East and 11-21 overall. Rosario falls into that category of freshman who are good, but not good enough to change an entire program in a year, or maybe for that matter, ever. Going into his sophomore season, Rosario’s Scarlet Knights are picked preseason 13th out of a possible 16 Big East opponents. It is a very young team with only one senior, but even if Rosario scores 30 a game, I don’t see him being the difference maker. This is a guy who will most likely be a four-year guy, and hopefully get them going by the time he gets that diploma.
Then there are the unhyped superstars who slowly make their presence felt among high major programs. Take Luke Harangody of Notre Dame. Coming out of high school he was just outside of the top 100 player recruiting circle (No. 103 Rivals.com). He was not a McDonald’s All-American, but definitely a very good recruit for Notre Dame. Probably not a guy they thought would carry their program for the next four years. But Luke cames in and averaged 11.3 as a freshman in the Big East. The big boost came as a sophomore where he jumped to 20.4 ppg and 10.6 rpg, only to increase both statistical areas as a junior.
Now, going into his senior year he is the preseason Player of the Year candidate, in what may be the toughest conference in all of college basketball. While Notre Dame is only picked 8th in the Big East, Harongody helped them remain a top 40 program with trips to the NCAA and NIT Tournaments in the last two years. Harongody is a kid who has NBA potential, but definitely needs all four years to get there. In his case, there were at least 80 or so guys who were recruited in front of him but can’t claim to have close to the success Harangody has had.
Last, there are those dreaded words, ‘transfers’ and ‘busts.’ Between guys who end up leaving one school for another, and those that just fade into obscurity, each top 100 recruiting class is good for about 10 of these freshman. I never want to use the word ‘bust,’ when talking about an 18- or 19-year-old kid, especially when they have four years to make their mark. Yet, there are always a certain number of kids who “don’t live up to their potential” on a yearly basis.
Transfers can be even more disappointing than busts, because they can eventually go to another program and live up to their true potential. Look at Elliot Williams, former Duke Blue Devil. Coach K gets the No. 4 shooting guard in the country in Williams, who makes his mark in their starting lineup late in the season. Williams shows great potential for helping the 2009 Blue Devils get back to the Final Four. Yet, due to a family medical problem he transfers to Memphis, and, just like that, Duke is left scrambling.
Now, you can’t fault a kid for moving home due to a family medical problem, but it shows how the loss of just one recruit can lead your program back at the drawing board. This isn’t the first time Duke had to deal with transfers. In recent years Duke lost the No. 3 center prospect in Eric Boateng, No. 24 small forward in Jamal Boykin, and the No. 15 small forward in Taylor King. Arizona State, California and Villanova were the lucky recipients in each respective case. Out of the three, King may be the biggest loss, and is now playing for a preseason top 5-ranked program in Villanova. This is a kid who scored over 3,000 points in high school, but lacked the necessary freedom he needed at Duke. Boateng is about a season away from being labeled not just a ‘transfer’ but also a ‘bust.’ After leaving for Arizona State, he has averaged 3.9 and 1.8 ppg in his last two seasons. We are talking about a guy who was the No. 3 center prospect in the 2005 Class, with names like Andrew Bynum, Amir Johnson, Tyler Hansbrough and Jon Brockman. Needless to say, these were guys who Coach K put a lot of stock into, and it just did not work out.
Coach K has been criticized in the last couple of years for bringing in safe recruits, or guys who would need to stay for four years. During this time, Duke has fallen from prominence. Just last week, however, the No. 6 player in the country, Kyrie Irving, verbally committed to Duke. Maybe Coach K is willing to play the game within the game again — bringing in a stud who may only be at Duke for a couple of years. Maybe he is willing to go after the Will Avery, Elton Brand, and Corey Maggettes again, even if they can only give him one good year.
So it leads us back to the 2009 recruiting class, and the questions surrounding these top recruits. Will John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins lead Kentucky back to prominence? Will Renardo Sidney be good enough to turn the Mississippi State’s program around on his own? Will Dexter Strickland make an impact and be happy on a big man-dominated UNC team? Will any of these guys stay four years? Only time will tell which of these blue chippers live up to expectations, and which coaches spent four years playing the recruiting game, and lost.
Steve Brodzinski played basketball at New York University and served as a Division 1 and 2 assistant coach. He currently runs Maximum Hoops doing skill development work with high school and college athletes.