Sometimes it's nice to be reminded that the experts are just as clueless as the rest of us, isn't it?
Prompted by a poster on a message board who dug up this fascinating article from 2003 on the Rivals top 20 recruiting classes from that season, I was reminded of how easy it is to get caught up in the recruiting game. Between the mystery sources, the rumors and the whimsy of the 18-year-old mind, the whole thing is a crapshoot. And that's before the damned kids even get to campus.
The Rivals piece is an amazing look at how wrong, or how misguided, recruiting rankings can be (Note I said can be, not are ... rankings are useful, just not the gospel).
Taking into account that the 2003 NBA draft stole the top player from the '03 class in Lebron James, the list of misses among the sure-fire recruiting classes is remarkable. According to Rivals.com, who ostensibly covered these kids from age 8 on, in the early signing period, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Maryland, Duke and Pittsburgh all hauled in classes that merited reknown. Also in the top 10 were Michigan State, LSU, Arizona, Syracuse and Depaul.
Notice anything funny about the names on that list? None of those teams have reached the NCAA's Final Four except for Michigan State and LSU -- and the only player listed on those two teams to contribute heavily is Shannon Brown from MSU.
Early defections from the list of who's who that decided the top recruiting classes included Andrew Lavender (transfer), Kris Humphries (transfer, then NBA), Luol Deng (1 yr. at Duke, NBA), Olu Famutimi (NBA), Chris Taft (NBA) and Ndudi Ebi (NBA). Among those who stuck around, Ronnie Brewer among those prominently touted as program-changers is probably the best player, and he never played in a Sweet 16.
A Scout.com article by uber-guru Dave Telep from the summer after reads similarly, with big kudos going to the powerhouses at Florida State, California and Michigan. Not one of those teams has sniffed the NCAA Sweet 16 despite landing big names. Peek down that list and you'll see some interesting names covered almost as afterthoughts. Chris Paul (Wake Forest), Linas Kleiza (Mizzou) are both NBA talents.
So is the point that we shouldn't have rankings or that all the players in the 2003 class stunk? Not at all. Many are and will be fantastic, and some will help and have helped their teams win many games. But there's more to recruiting than hauling in a list of Dave Telep's favorite guys.
While the rules have changed regarding NBA early defections from high school, the prospect of losing a stud recruit after one season on campus is even higher. This can theoretically be more disruptive to a program than never having the player in the first place. Just ask whomever gets the services of O.J. Mayo and his entourage next season.
It may not be as big a deal in basketball as in football for a class to be together for a few seasons simply because of the potential impact of one out of five rather than one out of 22, but Florida's national title is a result partially of cohesion and familiarity as much as raw talent and superstar ability (For the record, the Gators' core is extemely talented as well).
Tubby Smith's much-maligned 2003 class included three top-100 Rivals recruits, but they were unable to mesh with the talent in and around them enough to get the job done, at least thus far. The class, minus the departed giant, will get one more crack with the 2006-07 season.
The other principal variable in a successful class of recruits is pretty simple, honestly. While many folks think that Denny Crum or Jim Harrick just compiled the best athletes possible and 'rolled the ball out there' to win, that is oversimplifying. Harrick is a weasel of the utmost caliber, but a great Xs and Os guy, and Crum is a Hall of Famer. Both were A-plus recruiters.
But those sort of talent-only coaches do exist, and thrive to a degree. Florida State Leonard Hamilton has yet to prove at any of his stops the ability to do anything but convince top recruits to show up. Once there, he lacks the ability to make them into a successful college team. The same goes for the modern-era John Calipari, whose 'guidance' of the Memphis program has resulted in an Elite Eight appearance and a bunch of NIT swag. This despite having a loaded roster of AAU studs seemingly every year.
Contrast this with the results put up by the staffs at Illinois and Kentucky, who have not generally benefitted from ballyhooed recruiting classes (the '04 UK class being the lone exception), or the job Jim Calhoun has done at UConn in blending top talent with role players to succeed.
Luck & Circumstances
Maybe we can call this one the X-factor. For every strong coaching job or well-matched recruiting class, there is a blown knee, a foolish NBA leap or a bounce of the ball. What if Roy Williams doesn't go to North Carolina to take over the floundering, but loaded, stable of players he led to a national title? What if Ndudi Ebi (Zona) or Kendrick Perkins (Memphis) show up on campus for even a year? Are we then talking about Calipari's coaching acumen instead of his NIT hardware? Impossible to know.
For Kentucky fans, much has been said about the lack of production gotten from the Class of 2007. While Perry has proven he can be a useful part -- even a potentially dangerous one -- of a good team, the two-headed beast that is Woo and Shag failed to emerge, due to a combination of Shag's off-court woes and a lack of progression on both of their parts. Whose fault is this? Who knows. Fans love to blame coaches for a lack of player development, and understandably so. But for every lost career (Shag) there is a success story despite the odds (Ravi Moss or Nazr Mohammed).
Go down the list of major programs and recruits and you'll see a similar back and forth of missed chances and golden touches. It's the nature of the beast. The lesson here is that Fall signing period, of even summer before freshman year, is too early to rejoice or surrender in equal measure. The players will decide who had the best recruiting class on the court.
The cocktail of success is equal parts talent, personalities, coaching and a roll of the dice. As we approach the senior year of the recruiting class of 2003, we have learned a lot -- and nothing at all -- about the players therein.
A useful lesson, too, as fans pull their collective hair out about the absolute importance of a power forward from West Virgnia, a can't-miss center from Texas or a point guard who decides to go off the beaten path. Judging success in recruiting is an inexact science at best.