College basketball recruiting and the scandals that come along with the pursuit of five-star players keep the sport in the news year-round. But there are some programs that have found success with a model that does not require chasing elite prospects.
Programs like Gonzaga are thriving on another formula. It’s one that requires pinpoint scouting and player development.
The number of options for five-star prospects outside of college basketball is expanding, and it’s rumored that the NBA could scrap its age-minimum rules in the coming years, which would lead even more top players to skip the collegiate ranks. So don’t be surprised if more coaches start trying to master what these seven programs already have: winning without the recruiting hype.
Here are the top-seven programs in college basketball with a five-year team recruiting ranking average of 50 or lower. All recruiting class rankings are courtesy of the 247Sports Composite Ranking.
2019: 622018: 1152017: 672016: 1342015: 67
Is it possible for a coach who has made 15 NCAA Tournaments with four different schools (and been to the NBA Playoffs as an assistant with two franchises) to be underrated? Because it seems like Kelvin Sampson flies under the radar for what he’s doing at Houston.
The Cougars had been to one NCAA Tournament in the 25 years before Sampson took over for the 2014-15 season. Now they are in the midst of five straight 20-win seasons and were on track to make a third straight appearance before the season’s cancelation.
What’s most impressive about it all is that the Cougars average team recruiting ranking from 2015-2019 was 89th. Sampson takes three-star talent and molds it into a five-star group.
Houston was four points away from upsetting Kentucky in the 2019 Sweet 16 with a bunch of players who would likely have never been considered for a scholarship with the Wildcats. Then, in what was supposed to be a rebuilding season, the Cougars’ leading scorer was a three-star freshman guard named Caleb Mills who was ranked No. 199 in the 2019 class. Yes, Houston benefitted from the addition of Kansas transfer Quentin Grimes, a former five-star prospect who received a waiver for immediate eligibility. But by and large, the Cougars have thrived under Sampson with collections of unheralded talent.
2019: 792018: 1042017: 622016: 472015: 103
Butler thrived in the Horizon League under Brad Stevens with three-star prospects such as Shelvin Mack and Gordon Hayward playing marquee roles.
But with Stevens’ departure for the Boston Celtics and the Bulldogs’ elevation to the Big East, it was fair to wonder about the continued success of the program’s recruiting formula. Would they have to snag some top-50 players to continue competing during the transition to a higher level?
The Bulldogs have not made any Final Fours in the post-Stevens era, but they have remained fairly regular guests in the NCAA Tournament, even while cycling through coaches and bringing in mostly unheralded players. A couple of former three-star prospects in Kamar Baldwin and Sean McDermott led the way this past season as the Bulldogs surged to No. 5 in the country at one point.
2019: 1322018: 742017: 352016: 1042015: 44
Early on in the 2019-20 season, it looked as if the Greg Gard era was going awry. The Badgers were stumbling out of the gate after a first-round NCAA Tournament exit in 2019 and a 15-18 campaign in 2017-18. But Wisconsin saved its place on this list by winning eight straight games to end the 2019-20 season as Big Ten co-champions.
The Badgers have not signed a five-star prospect since Sam Dekker in the Class of 2012, but they proved with a strong close to last season that their annual collection of unheralded prospects can still compete in an increasingly competitive Big Ten.
2019: 1012018: 882017: 452016: 602015: 85
It took Kevin Willard a while to crack the code, but after 10 years as Seton Hall’s coach, his teams are perennial contenders in the Big East. The Pirates were on track to make their fifth straight NCAA Tournament appearance in 2020 with a five-year average recruiting ranking of 75.8.
Even star guard Myles Powell, who graduated at No. 9 on the Big East’s all-time scoring list, was only ranked No. 81 in the 2016 recruiting class. He’s the highest-ranked prospect the Pirates have landed in the last five years.
Seton Hall flirted with greatness in a 2014 class headlined by five-star guard Isaiah Whitehead. But he stayed just two seasons, and it was only after his departure that the Pirates advanced in the NCAA Tournament for the first time under Willard. That was in 2018 when Seton Hall beat NC State in a first-round game and came within four points of upsetting No. 1 seed Kansas in the second round.
The Pirates’ leading scorer that season was Desi Rodriguez, a former three-star prospect who was ranked No. 349 in the 2015 class.
2019: 132018: 692017: 1202016: 202015: 112
Believe it or not, Mark Few just signed the first five-star prospect of his illustrious tenure at Gonzaga. Jalen Suggs and a pair of four-star, top-100 prospects vaulted the Bulldogs’ 2020 class to No. 12 in the final recruiting ranking. It’s the highest-ranking class of Few’s 21-year run.
But from 2015 through 2019, Few’s classes averaged a final ranking of 66.8. The Bulldogs made a Final Four, an Elite 8 and two Sweet 16s in that time and finished the 2019-20 season with a 31-2 record.
Gonzaga has thrived on keen scouting of three and four-star talent and subsequent development. Transfers have also played a key role in the program’s elevation to perennial elite status.
Just because Gonzaga can now attract five-star talent, don’t expect Few to abandon what got the program to this point. Expect plenty more signees like Rui Hachimura in the future. Hachimura was a three-star prospect and the fourth-highest rated player in a five-man signing class back in 2016. After three years of meteoric development at Gonzaga, he was selected ninth overall by the Wizards in the 2019 NBA Draft and has averaged 13.4 points as a rookie.
2019: 1272018: 362017: 812016: 412015: 46
Baylor signed a five-star prospect in three straight classes under Scott Drew with Perry Jones (2010), Quincy Miller (2011) and Isaiah Austin (2012) each providing fine play during their relatively short stays on campus.
But that run of eye-catching success on the recruiting trail did not generate the success the Bears have experienced in the last four years with less-heralded talent. The 2016-17 team briefly ascended to No. 1, made the Sweet 16 and finished 27-8. It was led by former three-star prospects Manu Lecomte and Johnathan Motley.
The Bears were even better this past season as they spent five weeks at No. 1, finished 26-4 and were in position to potentially land a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. It was a team with former four-star prospects in Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell, Mark Vital and Matthew Mayer. But it also had unheralded former zero-star players MaCio Teague and Freddie Gillespie playing key roles as transfers.
Drew has been at it long enough now to write a book on how to compete in a top conference without relying on five-star talent.
2019: 442018: 612017: 582016: 632015: 53
With the Bearcats replacing star guard Jarron Cumberland and a few other key contributors, John Brannen has a tough task ahead in his second year as coach. But he carried the torch admirably following a rocky start in Year 1 of the post-Mick Cronin era.
Cincinnati’s recruiting classes from 2015 through 2019 averaged a final ranking of 55.8, but Cronin got them to the NCAA Tournament without fail, and the Bearcats were projected to be in the 2020 field as well.
Make no mistake: Cronin landed plenty of four-star players in his tenure — the top four scorers from a 31-win team in 2017-18 were all four-star prospects — but the Bearcats’ run of success on his watch featured virtually no help from five-star players.
Lance Stephenson and Jermaine Lawrence were both five-star prospects who signed to play for Cronin at Cincinnati. But the Bearcats failed to make the NCAA Tournament in 2010, which was Stephenson’s lone season, and Lawrence transferred after playing a minimal role in the 2013-14 season.