In reality, building a class and in turn laying the foundation for the program is more complex than signing all-americans. The science of communication, motivation and evaluation impact the overall success of a program. The process begins with recruiting.
Over the next few months, we'll roll out recruiting class rankings, assign a numeric value and the debate will begin. However, we've come up with some food for thought when it comes to building a championship caliber class.
It's important to keep in mind that programs are at different stages. For example, North Carolina may be a player away while Indiana is looking to continue strengthening its foundation. Different programs have different needs to cater to as they construct their classes. We're merely trying to shine the light onto some underrated aspects of program building through recruiting.
There have been times when I've seen prospects that have signed with the same school snipe at each other at high school or AAU events. Nowadays, these incidents are more apt to be revealed given the sheer number of media outlets that cover recruiting (thanks, LeBron!). You slug a guy, everyone is going to know. If you're a hothead, it's a secret that won't be kept under wraps for very long. If you are a great teammate, people will read about it. In the end game, chemistry is a big deal.
In 2007, Scout.com ranked Purdue's recruiting class tops in the Big Ten and No. 5 nationally. That same year, Michigan State, Ohio State and Indiana had big seasons as well. The Buckeyes and Hoosiers have already lost key players from their classes to the NBA and Michigan State's class produced last year's Big Ten player of the year, Kalin Lucas. OSU's class yielded likely-POY Evan Turner as well as Kosta Koufos.
However, at the time we felt Purdue's class had the most impact. Three of the signees played (and won) on the AAU circuit together. Robbie Hummel, Jajuan Johnson, E'Twaun Moore and Scott Martin (now at Notre Dame) were a rock solid core in 2007. They were going to be in school a while and though each has potential NBA talent, together they were ready to impact a program. Chemistry, even amongst recruits, is a big deal. Of course talent is paramount to success, but chemistry is a great intangible in a recruiting class.
There are plenty of good coaches who will tell you talent trumps their coaching abilities, especially at the highest level. "It's not about the X's and the O's, it's about the Jimmy's and the Joe's." as Lefty Driesell famously said. All things being equal and provided there aren't too many high-maintenance guys in the same class, we will take the talent. When it comes to high-maintenance recruits, there are some coaches who are simply better and, more importantly, comfortable when it comes to handling them.
The school that doesn't have a successful track record of handling high-maintenance players but brings them in anyway has a higher failure rate with the prospects. Jerry Tarkanian could win with a lot of different guys. There aren't many Tarkanian's today. Programs are under microscopes and coaches can't, won't and shouldn't cover for recruits who cannot walk the straight and narrow. The ones who try, better have a history with winning with those guys or a support system capable of nurturing them. Not to mention patience and a plan.
High School Resume
I'm an advocate of high school basketball at its purest form. There is something about a community that surrounds its players, heaps on praise, expects results and then offers support. It fosters a sense of unity and pride in the uniform and teaches the player he is part of something bigger than himself. It gets him ready to be a part of a team.
When it comes to "resume" in a true high school setting, it boils down to winning. No matter what the circumstances, was the player able to see a measurable goal of a state or conference title and work toward it? In high school, the Division I recruit is likely the team's best player. Did he learn how to play that role well? Was he comfortable in the role? Was he reliable and able to help others raise their game?
If you called the school, would the person answering the phone know the player and be able to speak positively on his behalf? The little details that you can obtain from the team manager to the principal offer an unbelievable insight into the character of the recruit.
A great recruiting class will have diversity and at least one big guy you can count on to be a significant performer. Despite the face of the game changing and it becoming more of a guard's game, elite big men can cure some ills of an unbalanced roster by providing a stabilizing force at both ends. By the same token, the great classes have that elite floor general and wing player who can get his own shot. The next time you fill out your Final Four bracket, think about the teams that have elite point guards and lean toward them advancing.
Diversity in the recruiting class allows for newcomers to compete with the current players thus increasing the overall competition in the program. When newcomers have to compete with each other for time that's fine. But a team improves more when everyone on the roster is on full alert and the newbies can push the older kids, especially if it is a roster where complacency may have set in.
Reflection of Program's ideals
The best programs in the country have hallmarks. Whether it's the temperament and style of their coach to the way the players execute a particular style on the court, great programs have great brands.
Greatness, winning and stability are achieved when players are recruited to the top standards and ideals of the program. A good program won't pull out a Top 25 list and send blanket mailouts to every player. A good program will pull out the list, find out which kids match their style and determine which kids fit the profile of a player in their program and particular system.
From my perspective, it's not too difficult to watch a kid and "brand" him with a particular program. If I see a big man who is a great passer from the high post, immediately Kansas and the high-low comes to mind. If there's a big that can really run, you think of North Carolina. The first time I saw Tyler Zeller I thought what he'd look like running the floor in a UNC uniform. His skill set jumped off the page in terms of the match.
Ever look at a big kid who knows how to box out and be physical. You think about Michigan State. How about a long-armed athlete? Syracuse comes to mind. Big man who can face? Vanderbilt and Wisconsin make sense? What about a guy who guards his man up and down the floor with pride? Duke, anyone?
Now, take a look at the recruits coming into the program you follow. Do they truly match the ideals, playing style and fit the brand of your program? Keep in mind its ok to have one that doesn't quite fit nicely as long as the core ideals aren't compromised and the basic structure of the program is intact. Coaches will often talk about the ability of an odd fit to assimilate into the culture of their program. They never talk about more than one odd man out at a time.
Recently I had a high-major coach tell me he made some recruiting mistakes and wasn't sure how he was going to fix them. The mistakes were made because the ideals of the program were sacrificed for perceived talent. The short term "bump" of signing big name players wore off and he's left with a hodge podge of guys that don't fit. It's a frustrating situation.
Prospects vs. Players
Hassan Whiteside entered Marshall as a prospect. Despite his measurable physical abilities, his immediate success and basketball future were no sure thing. Michael Beasley was a player when he arrived at Kansas State. If given a choice, in today's instant gratification society, coaches would prefer a class full of players. Now, any good coach worth his salt wants the chance to develop a prospect and take him down the path of becoming a player. Doing this takes time, not to mention skill.
No program can take five "prospects" and hold their hands while coaching their team. However, a good program and bring a prospect along while winning games. The key is to have a mix in the class of players and prospects. Naturally, the best-case scenario is a prospect that's a player but hey, there are a finite amount of John Wall-type players and landing one isn't easy.
It's been said before: ranking recruits and players isn't an exact science. Sure, we try and get it right but there are so many variables to examine behind the scenes, so many stories that simply don't get told that factor into the success and performance of a class. We just thought it might be a good idea to throw out some food for thought instead of just assigning a number.