By Conor Gereg
Each year there are those programs that perpetually succeed but do so with far less than others. Save for last season, a year without a crowning tournament, we see teams that make a splash with rosters that are far less talented than the field—yet they somehow win.
But what about the programs that accumulate wins year after year with far less firepower? These are the teams that squeeze the last drop of talent from the proverbial sponge.
To find out who these teams are we first need to determine a pair of factors: how well does the program recruit vs. how much success have these programs achieved? The difference between these two factors provides an answer to which coaches do more with less.
There are of course some programs at both the mid and low major levels that continually secure conference titles with players that don’t even register on the recruiting Richter scale—we’re talking to you John Becker and the Vermont Catamounts. Some programs, like Becker’s, have piled up gaudy records (132-42 over the previous five seasons) though the roster is filled with players that aren’t even recognized on most recruiting services. Out west, New Mexico State has grown into the Gonzaga of the Western Athletic Conference, filling out a roster with unheralded high school prospects, Junior College stars, and veteran transfers. At the highest level of the sport however it’s even more glaring as to which coaches at high-major programs are able to translate talent into wins.
“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” ― Stephen King
It’s hard work developing talent. Would the coaches highlighted below jump at the chance to land McDonald’s All-Americans or ready-made elite prospects? Of course. The programs profiled here have proven that they’re successful procuring talent where others may have fallen short and to execute this requires vigilance, a keen scouting eye, and elite-level coaching acumen.
Today we’ll examine a handful of programs that have a reputation of getting the most out of each recruiting class. Within the previous five seasons, not including the small sample size of 2020-2021, each team’s national recruiting ranking, per 247 Sports, and each team’s KenPom ranking, is used to measure wins both on the recruiting trail and on the court. The differential between these is perhaps the most revealing as this captures the coaches, and programs, whose recent history tell us that they’ve done more with their roster than the competition.
5-Year Recruiting Rank Average: 49.6
5-Year KenPom Rank Average: 33
5-Year Differential: + 16.6
The coaches on this list have more than one attribute in common though perhaps there’s an especially salient achievement that links them all: all of these coaches have found diamonds in the rough when it comes to recruiting. Scoring recruits like Marcus Zegarowski, ranked 110 as a high school prospect, and developing him into a potential Big East Player of the Year is not a feat to be overlooked. Alongside Zegarowski has been yet another talented guard that has caused headaches for opposing coaches: Ty-Shon Alexander. Alexander went from a North Carolina high school prospect outside of the top-100 to an early entrant into this most recent NBA Draft. During the 2019 recruiting cycle the Bluejays assembled the 106th-best class in the country yet the very next year the program finished 12th overall in KenPom. The oracle of Omaha has a new name: Greg McDermott.
5-Year Recruiting Rank Average: 46.6
5-Year KenPom Rank Average: 26.4
5-Year Differential: + 20.2
Chis Beard has built his roster with a blend of players that’s especially unique: international stars, talented high-major transfers, and most recently, heralded high school prospects. Beard’s early success has translated into some serious leverage on the recruiting trail, scoring him highly sought after prospects like Nimari Burnett and Micah Peavy in the 2020 class and impact in-state talents like Jahm’i’us Ramsey from the 2019 class. In 2016 Beard’s recruiting haul registered at 135. Just four years later he’s assembled the 10th best crop. Winning games makes life far easier on the recruiting trail and Beard’s success story is living proof.
5-Year Recruiting Rank Average: 46.4
5-Year KenPom Rank Average: 26
5-Year Differential: + 20.4
In previous instalments it’s been well documented that Coach Huggins deserves to see his name enshrined in Springfield though this accolade isn’t just due to his coaching prowess but also due to his eye for translating unheralded recruiting talent into wins. During his 14 years in Morgantown Huggins has nabbed talent outside of the highest ranks in an effort to remain at the top of the Big 12 against teams that annually secure far more prestigious recruiting classes like Kansas and Texas. Huggins current roster is headlined by players like sophomore Oscar Tschiebwe, 31st in the 2019 class, but the ancillary pieces that make this team run are built around players like Derek Culver (84th in the 2018 class) or ultra-versatile wing talents like UConn de-commit Emmitt Matthews (177th in 2018).
Huggins coaching tenure speaks to his recruiting talents, nabbing the top prospect in the country in 2007 with Michael Beasley during his brief stint at Kansas State. But if we’ve learned anything about this future Hall of Famer it’s this: Huggins will win games and will do so without necessarily winning every recruiting battle.
5-Year Recruiting Rank Average: 42.2
5-Year KenPom Rank Average: 12.2
5-Year Differential: + 30
Even before Tony Bennett’s arrival at UVA we saw him develop off-the-radar talents like Klay Thompson into bonafide stars. Since arriving in Charlottesville, Bennet has made a habit out of transforming mid-tier talent into a system that churns opposing offenses to a pulp. This grinding and glacial pace has allowed Bennett to recruit talent that flourishes in half-court sets to the tune of three top-5 KenPom finishes over the last half-decade. Bennett doesn’t necessarily need elite talent to accumulate wins, hauling in just one top-10 recruiting class over the last five years, and the results, and résumé speak for themselves. Bennett’s title run was built on the back of the 7th best recruiting class in 2016 but beyond that the program has only secured a single recruiting class within the top-20.
5-Year Recruiting Rank Average: 66.4
5-Year KenPom Rank Average: 34.4
5-Year Differential: + 32
Butler has made a living off of developing unheralded talent, or talent that is often overlooked by fellow in-state powers like Indiana, Notre Dame, or even Purdue. Over the past five years Butler hasn’t once finished with a top-40 recruiting class yet they’ve finished among the nation’s top 25, according to KenPom, three of the last five seasons. How about this for an example: In 2016 Kamar Baldwin ranked as the 155th best high school prospect. The end result? Baldwin found himself as a Big East First Team selection. “The Butler Way” isn’t just a mantra—it’s a doctrine and the Bulldogs are one of college basketball’s best at player development.
5-Year Recruiting Rank Average: 56.4
5-Year KenPom Rank Average: 19.9
5-Year Differential: + 36.5
Purdue has finished inside the top-10 of KenPom three times in the last half-decade, reaching its peak in 2017-2018 as the 5th best team in the nation. Over that same time span the Boilermakers haven’t had a single recruiting class inside the top 30 and even had a recruiting class outside of the top 100 (108 to be exact) in 2016. Matt Painter is the epitome of consistency and he’s proven he can land wins even if he doesn’t land elite talent.
5-Year Recruiting Rank Average: 76.6
5-Year KenPom Rank Average: 37.2
5-Year Differential: + 39.4
Kevin Willard, recently crowned as the third-winningest coach in program history (192 wins), has built a reputation of winning in South Orange and he’s done so with only a handful of highly touted recruits. Willard nabbed a pair of gems in 2016 and 2017 with Myles Powell (81st in his HS class) and Sandro Mamukelashvili (199th), respectively. Each year Willard secures impact players that reside outside the peripheral of the masses, enrolling talent like Jared Rhoden (199th in 2018) and Tyrese Samuel (184th in 2019). As Willard continues to rack up wins and tournament appearances, there will be plenty more talented players suiting up for the Pirates.
5-Year Recruiting Rank Average: 75
5-Year KenPom Rank Average: 33.4
5-Year Differential: + 41.6
Few programs have done more with less among this group than the Wisconsin Badgers. Bucky has earned the benefit of the doubt as a program that needs to be penciled in as a top-25 team every fall without even a glance at who’s on the roster. Bo Ryan made a living off of this formula and Greg Gard has continued the trend. The past five seasons have seen Wisconsin secure a pair of recruiting classes outside of the top-100 and not once has this program assembled a recruiting class worthy of a top-25 distinction. No matter the players, Wisconsin finds a way to win and it’s a formula that’s merited nothing short of miraculous results.
5-Year Recruiting Rank Average: 86
5-Year KenPom Rank Average: 31.4
5-Year Differential: + 54.6
Kelvin Sampson’s return to college basketball following an extended stint at the NBA level has been nothing short of remarkable. The American Athletic Conference is far from obscurity but it fails to provide enough exposure worthy of highlighting just how impressive a job Sampson has done with the Cougars. It’s been nearly 35 years since this program has experienced such levels of success and although this is the same program that once reeled in Hakeem Olajuwon or Clyde Drexler, Sampson has molded a less illustrious tier of recruits into a consistent winner. This current iteration is led by players who hardly secured many other high or mid-major offers beyond Houston. Take for instance Caleb Mills (199th) and Marcus Sasser (399th), a pair of backcourt stars, both from the 2019 class, who will most assuredly lead the Cougars to an AAC title. This eye for talent isn’t just impressive–it’s unparalleled at this level of the sport.
University alumnus and mega booster, Tilman Fertitta, the man whose namesake dons the building, has his own implosion to fret over as the majority owner of Houston Rockets, a chaotic reality that makes Sampson’s accomplishments further overshadowed. College Hoops purists do however recognize the job Sampson has done in both returning Houston to relevancy but also breathing life into the besieged AAC.