College recruiting is overrated

This spring, after six players signed NCAA D1 scholarships, a few NCAA Division 1 coaches made some interesting comments. One, after we discussed our record and such, said, “You had a talented team”. Another implied that they had spoken to one of my players when she was in high school and passed on her, as though they did me a favor. Finally, another asked if I knew that my best player would end up that good.

Five of the six were initial qualifiers; the D1 coach who thought they were talented could have signed any of the five, but none had even a D2 offer, although several talked to D1s and D2s before signing (truthfully, the coach had three chances to sign them: as high school seniors, after their first year at J.C., and after their second year at J.C., and despite their talent, the coach never offered any). If it was evident that they were talented, how did not one of the 351 NCAA D1 women’s basketball teams offer a scholarship to any? If each program signs an average of four players per year, roughly 1400 players signed scholarships, but these talented players had no offers.

The school that spoke to one before she signed with me was as good as any player on that team. The coach basically admitted one of two things: (1) They could have signed her, but their evaluation skills are poor, and they passed on her to sign players who are not as good; or (2) She chose a not-quite-full scholarship at a junior college over a D1 full scholarship. Either way, I thought, “So, you’re admitting that you’re bad at your job.”

Finally, I did imagine that the player would be as good as she is. I watched two possessions on video before offering her a scholarship. Furthermore, I watched two pull-up midrange jump shots, shots that I avoid. I never saw her play defense or pass or go to the rim. In those two possessions, it was easy to see that she had a transferable skill set: She had a good shooting technique, she moved effortlessly, and she had good height for her position (she signed as a 2/3). When she arrived, I learned that she never shot three-pointers. Also, I moved her to point guard, a position that she had never played. She left as a point guard who shot 38% from the three-point line. She is far from the same player as when she arrived, but it only took two possessions to project that she could develop into such a player.

These three comments illustrate the recruiting issues at many programs. We overrate marketing and sales, and underrate evaluation. We see recruiting as “connecting with players”, and not as identifying players who fit a system or who have the foundation on which to develop. Recruiting is social media and fun graphics, taking pictures in uniform and going to expensive restaurants, not identifying and filling needs or seeing the difference between a weakness that can be developed or hidden and one that will inhibit success.

Consequently, nearly every NCAA Division 1 program relies on recruiting services to rank players and tell them who to recruit. Despite employing multiple coaches who are hired ostensibly for recruiting purposes, they pay outside consultants and services thousands of dollars per year. They outsource the evaluation and talent identification and focus on sales and marketing.

Of course, these adults market to 18-year-olds. I am not invested heavily in recruiting because 18-year-olds do not make rational decisions. I made my final college decision because of weather. My players are older (19-21), and they made their college decisions for a variety of reasons, many inexplicable. Who knows why an 18-year-old chooses one school over another? I know my players thought that the recruiting tactics employed by most of the schools and coaches were ridiculous. Over and over, they asked why a coach did something, and my answer tended to be “because they think that they have to do that because they think that other schools are doing it and they don’t want to miss out on a player because they did not do something that another program did.” It seems like nobody really evaluates which strategies actually work.

Recruiting is the lifeblood of college basketball. Talent wins. This is not debatable. The top programs — Notre Dame, UConn, Baylor — not only recruit top 10 talent, but sign specific top 10 talent. Other programs collect stars and hope to figure out their fit later. They sign as many McDonald’s All-Americans as South Carolina, Baylor, Notre Dame, etc., but fail to reach Final Fours. If talent wins, why?

Evaluation and identification are more than noticing good players. A recruiting service ranks players in a vacuum because the service does not have to win games. Player #1 is marginally better than Player #2 in the rankings’ opinions, but Player #1 is not better in all situations. Kalani Brown led Baylor to the 2019 NCAA National Championship, but she does not fit well with UConn’s style; that does not mean she’s not a great player or that UConn plays the wrong style. It suggests that UConn probably would not recruit her regardless of rankings or stars or that UConn would have to adjust its preferred system to maximize her strengths and hide her weaknesses.

When I recruit, I value certain things. I also trust that I can develop certain skills. I have a strong sense of our style of play. Consequently, I ignore players who went on to sign NCAA D1 scholarships. Am I wrong? Maybe. However, I know out style, and the players did not fit. That does not make them bad players or not D1 players. When I recruit, I am not collecting recruiting stars; I am building a team.

I worry little about sales and marketing; my biggest recruiting tool is current players. They are my salespeople. I trust that by treating players well, running fun practices, developing skills, and working hard to move on players to the D1 level that the current players will see that and explain that to recruits. Part of that is shaped by our constraints; if a player needs to be wined and dined or cares greatly about gear or free stuff, etc., we don’t have it to offer. We sell what we have: Opportunity and a commitment to enjoying basketball and developing. It is not a sales pitch to wow potential recruits, but I do not want players who need to be wowed. I want gym rats who are drama free, and this recruiting approach tends to work on those players and eliminates others.

This year, I looked for two qualities above all else. I want to be + in these two qualities at every position. When I found players with these qualities, I tried to get a sense of their personalities; were they gym rats? If they have these two qualities, and they love to play, I am confident that our style (practice and playing style) will attract them, and I am confident that players who love to play will improve.

I don’t care who recruits the players or what a recruiting service says. I am not battling for the top 5 players; signing a player such as Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd, Aja Wilson, Arike Ogunbowale, Napheesa Collier, etc. gives a program an opportunity to compete for an NCAA National Championship. I recruit down in the 100s to 1000s to 5000s where the differences between players is one opinion versus another. Ultimately, I trust that players who sign with me will end up better than others because I trust that few coaches develop players as well. Arrogance, maybe, but I think most good coaches would think the same.

When I see discussions about recruiting, however, the basketball side is all but ignored. Recruiting discussions center on wooing players: The sales and marketing. Players are wooed and arrive to campus and find that the coach is completely different. Recruits go from special (the one being pursued) to the bottom once they arrive. Some cannot handle this. Some feel that coaches lied in the recruiting process. Once the sales and marketing ends, they realize the customer service and the product is not actually what they wanted to buy. They are unhappy or they transfer.

Often, this happens because there is a mismatch between the player and the style of play or the coaching style. The player enjoys being wooed and picks the best wooer, and the recruiters focus on sales and marketing and signing the biggest names or the highest ranked players. Nobody really thinks about the fit.

I saw a player on the transfer portal yesterday. I tried to recruit her as a high-school player, but was told that she was going D1. I never saw where she signed. Once I saw her in the portal, I laughed out loud. Like, seriously, who made this decision? The fit was awful in almost every way possible. Of course she is transferring after her freshman year! Our scholarship may not have been as enticing, and bragging about a junior-college scholarship is not the same as a D1 scholarship, but I guarantee that she would have fit better, had more fun, and developed better here. It is not that the college is bad or the coach is bad; this coach is an acquaintance and I would not hesitate to send a player there. However, not this player. It’s like once the momentum got rolling, everyone got distracted by “D1” and “highly ranked” and nobody stopped to think about fit.

Noticing the top 5-10 players is easy. Selling your program should be easy; after all, if you cannot sell your own program, why would anyone want to go there? The difficulty in recruiting is finding the right fit and evaluating players with room to grow (whether because of right mentality, physical traits, developable skills, etc) versus players who have peaked.

Unfortunately, when we discuss recruiting, these separators are discussed infrequently, which is why recruiting ends up being tremendously overrated for nearly everyone below the top 5-10 programs.

The problem now with the transfer portal is that those coaches and programs who are bad at the important skills — identifying potential, evaluating fit, and developing skills — can get rid of mistakes more quickly and sign transfers who are mature and more proven at the D1 level. There were multiple programs that had 5+ transfers this year; before the portal, that would have been a sign of a coach to stay away from. Now, it’s barely a blip. Other programs succeed almost entirely on Division 1 transfers; why risk signing unpredictable high school players when you can watch them play against college competition and then evaluate their skills and fit?

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