Analyzing College Basketball’s Relationship Between Recruiting Rankings and Wins

College basketball coaches will hit the recruiting trail on Friday for the start of a six-day recruiting period in which they’re allowed to evaluate prospects and make in-person, off-campus contact with recruits.

The final day of the official NCAA “recruiting period” for the 2018-19 recruiting calendar is Thursday, May 2, which means the next two-plus weeks are critical for coaches as they put the finishing touches on their 2019 recruiting classes and continue building their rosters for 2020 and beyond.

In light of a 2019 Final Four, in which just 16 former top-100 recruits played in Minneapolis, it’s fair to wonder how strong the correlation is between success on the recruiting trail, at least in the eyes of recruiting services who assign star ratings to prospects, and winning.

Using the data available from the 247Sports Composite rankings, which take into account all of the major recruiting services, we compared the win totals for every program in one of college basketball’s top seven conferences – the AAC, ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC – plus other notable programs like Gonzaga, Nevada, Buffalo and VCU, among others, over the course of the last four seasons to determine each school’s average recruiting class ranking during that time span. In total, 104 schools were examined.

The goal was to measure recruiting efficiency, which would help answer the following questions.

  • Which schools have enrolled highly-touted recruiting classes and then backed up their recruiting class rankings with successful seasons?
  • Which schools have taken under-the-radar — or at least non-one-and-done — recruits and won at just the same level?
  • Have other schools consistently had recruiting classes ranked among the best in the country, but then produced underwhelming results on the court?

 

Duke and Kentucky have landed the top two recruiting classes, in some order, for each of the last five seasons. Their average national recruiting class rankings in the last four seasons are a minuscule 1.25 and 1.75, respectively. The next best is Arizona at 9.25.

[RELATED: These Are Reasonable Expectations When Your School Lands a Top-10 Recruit]

The Blue Devils and Wildcats have won at an extremely high level since the start of the 2016 season, but there are other programs that have won at a higher level – in the regular season and the NCAA Tournament – with inferior talent from a recruiting rankings perspective.

We graphed the 104 schools examined, comparing each program’s win total in the last four seasons to its average recruiting class ranking in the last four recruiting cycles, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.

NOTE: Schools that didn’t enroll any scholarship freshmen in a given recruiting class didn’t have that year’s recruiting class count towards their average recruiting class ranking. Schools that had a recruiting class ranking of “N/A” were assigned the next-highest ranking available, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.

In the last four recruiting cycles, only seven schools landed a top-25 class every year, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings. They are Duke, Kentucky, Arizona, Texas, Kansas, UCLA and Oregon.

In total, 49 different schools landed at least one top-25 class from 2015 to ’18.

As referenced earlier, Duke and Kentucky are in a tier of their own when it comes to recruiting.

Here’s a look at how other schools with high-level recruiting success in the last four seasons stack up. The number in parentheses is their average recruiting class ranking in the last four years, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.

Tier 1 – Duke (1.25), Kentucky (1.75)

Tier 2 – Arizona (9.25), Texas (9.5), Kansas (10.75), UCLA (11.5), Oregon (14)

Tier 3 – Auburn (16.67), LSU (20.5), Michigan State (23.5), Indiana (24.3), Ohio State (24.5), Syracuse (26.8), Washington (27), Villanova (27.8), Mississippi State (28.3), Arizona State (29), North Carolina (29.3), Florida (31.3), Stanford (31.3), Maryland (32)

To add further context to the graph above, we added a trend line, which shows the average win totals based on the average recruiting class rankings in the last four seasons of the 104 schools examined.

To simplify the trend line concept, a team that falls above the trend line has maximized the talent it has enrolled more so than the average power conference program or top-level mid-major in the last four years.

Teams that fall below the trend line have underperformed with the talent they’ve enrolled in the last four seasons based on the averages of their peers.

Given that the bulk of power conference teams have had an average recruiting class ranking between 30 and 80, and have won between 60 and 90 games in the last four seasons, here’s a closer look at that group of teams.

Of course, this concept isn’t perfect. It doesn’t take into account transfers (inbound or outbound), early NBA Draft departures, coaching changes or veteran-laden teams in the 2016 and ’17 seasons that may have benefited from recruits from the 2012 and ’13 recruiting classes.

But at the very least, it provides a surface-level lens of how much college basketball’s best programs have won recently in regard to the level of recruits they’ve enrolled. It also shows that while Duke and Kentucky have won at a high level while annually enrolling the two best recruiting classes in the country, Texas and UCLA have been relatively disappointing given their nationally elite recruiting efforts.

Villanova, North Carolina and Virginia have won national championships with three and four-year players, with the former and latter making use of redshirt seasons and tapping into the transfer market.

Speaking of transfers, Gonzaga and Nevada have had two of the best winning percentages in the country over the last four seasons while relying heavily on transfers.

In an attempt to quantify which schools have maximized their recruiting efforts in terms of wins, using the trend line that is based upon the average recruiting class rankings in the last four years of the schools examined, we measured the distance between a school’s data point and the trend line.

The larger the distance between a data point and the trend line, at least in a positive direction, the more a school maximized the talent of its recruits.

The top five schools are listed below, followed by the distance between their data points and the trend line.

  1. Gonzaga: 49.3
  2. Villanova: 43.5
  3. North Carolina: 35.7
  4. Virginia: 35.4
  5. Kansas: 33.9

In the last four seasons, Gonzaga has won 130 games, which is the most of the 104 teams examined. During that time span, the Bulldogs’ average recruiting class ranking from the 2015 recruiting class through the 2018 recruiting class was 80th, according to data from the 247Sports Composite rankings.

They’ve won at a nationally elite level while many of the high school recruits they’ve enrolled were three- or mid-to-low-level four-star recruits. On the other hand, Gonzaga is also a program that’s benefited significantly from transfers like Brandon Clarke, Nigel Williams-Goss, Kyle Wiltjer, Johnathan Williams, Jordan Mathews and Geno Crandall in recent years, so its roster has been more talented than recruiting rankings alone would suggest.

Sure, Gonzaga’s win total is also slightly inflated based upon their West Coast Conference competition but the ‘Zags have advanced to the national championship game, the Elite Eight and the Sweet 16 (twice) in the last four seasons, so they have absolutely earned their place among the college basketball programs that are currently operating at the highest level in the country.

To be more democratic and to weigh NCAA Tournament success more heavily, we graphed the same 104 college basketball programs over the last four seasons, but this time we compared each school’s average recruiting class ranking to the number of NCAA Tournament games they’ve played in the last four years.

We chose the number of NCAA Tournament games rather than NCAA Tournament wins to reward teams that have made the tournament and to separate them from schools that haven’t. We didn’t count games in the First Four for the winning team because it would inflate their number of tournament games as a result of them being one of the final four teams to make the field of 68.

However, we did count First Four games for the losing team to acknowledge their participation in the tournament.

Once again, we added a trend line to show how teams’ NCAA Tournament participation and advancement has compared to the “average” performance in the last four years for power conference and top mid-major teams.

Here’s a look at the schools examined that have won at least 100 games in the last four seasons and how their last four recruiting classes ranked nationally.

School ’15 Rank ’16 Rank ’17 Rank ’18 Rank Avg. Rank ’16 Wins ’17 Wins ’18 Wins ’19 Wins Total Wins NCAA Tournament Games Played (2016-19)
Gonzaga 112 20 120 68 80 28 37 32 33 130 16
Villanova 29 45 28 9 27.8 35 32 36 26 129 16
North Carolina 70 14 19 14 29.3 33 33 26 29 121 17
Kansas 13 16 9 5 10.8 33 31 31 26 121 15
Virginia 62 7 98 63 57.5 29 23 31 35 118 13
Kentucky 1 2 2 2 1.8 27 32 26 30 115 13
Duke 2 1 1 1 1.3 25 28 29 32 114 13
Michigan 107 31 43 12 48.3 23 26 33 30 112 14
Oregon 19 21 13 3 14 31 33 23 25 112 12
Cincinnati 53 63 58 65 59.8 22 30 31 28 111 6
Michigan State 25 3 49 17 23.5 29 20 30 32 111 10
Nevada 150 57 101 52 90 24 28 29 29 110 5
Saint Mary’s __ 89 150 112 117 29 29 30 22 110 3
Purdue 37 108 34 49 57 26 27 30 26 109 11
Wichita State 57 72 125 62 79 26 31 25 22 104 6
Houston 67 134 67 114 95.5 22 21 27 33 103 5
Arizona 3 9 3 22 9.3 25 32 27 17 101 5
Xavier 119 28 11 64 55.5 28 24 29 19 100 8

*Wins in the First Four aren’t included in NCAA Tournament games played.

Five of the seven schools that have enrolled a top-25 recruiting class in each of the last four recruiting cycles have won at least 100 games in the last four seasons. (Sorry, Texas and UCLA.)

So it’s not as if consistently landing top high school talent is a bad thing.

But the roster makeup of last season’s Final Four teams and recent national champions, combined with the possibility that the NBPA lowers its age minimum to 18 by the 2022 NBA Draft suggest there’s value in recruiting players who will be in school for two, three or four years, even if they need to redshirt their freshman year or even if they started their college career at another school and are looking for a new home.

Virginia, Villanova and Gonzaga are proof of that.

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