ESPN continued its Sales Pitch (ESPN+) series this week, examining the men’s college basketball programs in the SEC that have the most and fewest advantages in enticing recruits and transfers to campus. After seeing the results of our survey, ESPN.com’s writing team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi debated some of the finer details within the SEC recruiting landscape, including whether Kentucky’s 2020-21 performance was a sign of things to come, whether Alabama and Arkansas will have staying power on the trail, and the impact NCAA investigations have had on the perception of the league.
Follow this link to read what anonymous coaches said about recruiting in the ACC, the Big East, the Big Ten, the Pac-12 and the SEC.
What was your biggest takeaway from a star-studded Kentucky roster struggling as it did last season? Was it an anomaly, or a sign of something more worrying?
Medcalf: I don’t think it was an anomaly. And it was less worrying than it was proof of the changes in college basketball. More than anything, I think Kentucky’s struggles were more evidence that we’re probably going to shed the “powerhouse” label in the coming years. I believe Kentucky, North Carolina and Duke will always have an edge based on the history and legacy attached to those names. But the diversified talent pool has just minimized the value of that edge. Kentucky had a talent problem. Sure, John Calipari had elite players, but he didn’t have Cade Cunningham or Jalen Green or Jalen Suggs. A decade ago, those three players would have gone to Duke or Kentucky.
It looks like, via the transfer pool and the addition of top-rated prospects, the Wildcats will bounce back. But I don’t think we’ll see programs dominate the game for a stretch of five, six, seven or eight years in a row anymore. We won’t see another Kansas run in the Big 12. And it will be more difficult for Kentucky, UNC and Duke to separate themselves.
Through 2006, the top basketball prospects could either pick their favorite colleges or the NBA. Most still picked the blue bloods. The one-and-done culture — and the success of NBA stars who didn’t pick Duke, Kentucky or UNC (Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Paul George) — has just opened the door for other programs and ventures. Top recruits know that if they’re good enough, the NBA will find them, even if they’re not playing for a perennial power. That will make it difficult for Kentucky to stay strong because this isn’t a generation of talent that follows any trends. They kinda do their own thing. I don’t think we’ll see another once-in-100-years-subpar-record at Kentucky. But I do think Kentucky will experience a more turbulent stretch in the coming seasons.
Borzello: I don’t think it was an anomaly, nor am I all that worried about it being a trend that continues moving forward. I do think it was a direct result of the changes we’re seeing on the recruiting trail. Six or seven years ago, we could take the top 10 prospects in the country, roughly split them up between Duke and Kentucky, throw a few to Kansas and Arizona and North Carolina, and it wouldn’t be too wrong.
It’s different now. Top prospects are being spread out to far more programs than they were a decade ago, and it’s led to a more level playing field. Sure, Duke and Kentucky will still get top-ranked recruiting classes — but there’s a huge difference between getting Nos. 3, 5, 8, 10 and 17 in the rankings and getting Nos. 7, 10, 26, 34 and 46. John Calipari could make up for inexperience when he had talent that was so superior to most of his opponents. Last year, there was inexperience and a lack of overwhelming talent.
Calipari has clearly noticed, opting to reload more heavily via the transfer portal this spring. He went out and landed four top-25 transfers, while also getting two five-star recruits and another top-35 prospect. Kentucky might not have a talent advantage on every program in the country, but the roster will be more experienced, balanced, versatile and deeper than last season.
Gasaway: There were perhaps several things going on at once with UK last season. For starters, this rotation turned out to be a little less star-studded than John Calipari likely expected in October. Isaiah Jackson looks like a late lottery pick, and it’s probable Brandon Boston Jr. will hear his name called early in the second round. And, well, that could be it as far as Wildcats in the 2021 draft are concerned. Indeed, no UK player earned first- or even second-team 2021 All-SEC honors.
Then consider that the problem with this team, at least in SEC play, was its offense, and the problem with this offense was that … Kentucky couldn’t make 2s? Is this even possible with one of the best recruiting classes in the nation? Go figure, it happened. Per hoop-math.com, the Wildcats were just so-so at the rim and (relative to the respective Division I averages) downright hapless on 2-point jumpers. Did not see that coming.
To top it all off, these guys were done no favors by the hoops gods. You don’t often see a team outscore its major conference by 0.02 points per possession on its way to a 9-16 overall record. Add all of the above together and, from top to bottom, it sounds like one slightly worrisome and possibly portentous anomaly followed by one curious oddity and capped off with one plain old fluke.
Lunardi: For me, it wasn’t a coincidence that Kentucky and Duke — arguably the most notable “one-and-done” programs in the country — missed the NCAA tournament last season. Think about what was happening in the college basketball world last spring, summer and fall. No in-person contact with new signees, little if any summer ball on campus, a late start to preseason camp, marginalized practice time, etc. In other words, the opportunities for traditional team-building were extremely limited.
It’s also no coincidence that many of the most veteran-laden, “together” teams — we’re looking at you, Gonzaga and Baylor — were among the last ones standing. I’m not denying any of the reasoning of my esteemed colleagues going forward, but last season’s results seem fairly easy to explain.
Alabama and Arkansas finished 1-2 in the conference last season, and both reached the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. Which program’s blueprint best lends itself to staying power at the top of the SEC, and nationally?
Borzello: I don’t see either program falling off much as long as Nate Oats and Eric Musselman are in charge in Tuscaloosa and Fayetteville, respectively, but I think Musselman will be able to rebuild consistently via the transfer portal every spring. He might not have a leg up on the rest of the country now that everyone in college basketball is hitting the transfer portal pretty heavily, but he’s shown a tremendous ability to mesh newcomers with returnees and churn his roster without missing a beat.
Since arriving in Arkansas, Musselman has also hit the high school circuit a bit more aggressively, keeping four ESPN 100 prospects in the state in the 2020 class and landing another top-100 recruit in 2021. The SEC has become an arms race this spring when it comes to stockpiling talent, and Musselman has proven he can keep up in that department.
Gasaway: Oats is on the record as admitting that Alabama’s defense was far better than the coach expected before the season and, yes, part of that was good fortune. (The SEC’s unlikely to make less than 26% of its 3s against the Crimson Tide again in 2021-22.) Nevertheless, this was also a defense that excelled at limiting the number of 3-pointers attempted while also forcing misses in the paint.
Meanwhile, Bama was pushing the tempo and burying opponents under a blizzard of made 3s. Strong D matched with perimeter prowess won Baylor a national title, so it would seem to be a pretty fair blueprint. Still, a major salute is in order for Eric Musselman’s (near-) zero-turnover brand of ball in Fayetteville, as well. The future of the league is bright.
Lunardi: Can’t we just call this a dead heat and not offend anyone? If forced to choose between the two, I’d lean toward Arkansas primarily because of its more successful past. The Razorbacks — and, most importantly, their fans — have been there before. This bandwagon is only going to get bigger and more impressive the faster it rolls.
Medcalf: Musselman tapped into the transfer pool while other coaches were lamenting the irreversible damage “free agency” would have on the sport. But a bunch of those coaches are now all in on transfers because you have to be if you want to keep winning. I wonder how that will impact what Musselman is doing at Arkansas.
Kentucky might have three transfers in their starting rotation. The race is tighter now. But if Nate Oats continues to build his programs around a couple of savvy veterans, then I think his blueprint might be the one that works best amid the fluidity within the sport. He didn’t have to worry about players turning pro after a year at Buffalo, but his best teams had juniors and seniors. Herbert Jones, SEC player of the year, and John Petty Jr., who averaged nearly 13 PPG, were both seniors last season. If he can continue to build around those veteran athletes, he’ll have a level of stability that might be more difficult for Musselman to create now that the naysayers are suddenly transfer-pool evangelists.
Six current SEC coaches (John Calipari, Bruce Pearl, Rick Barnes, Ben Howland, Tom Crean, Frank Martin) have been to the Final Four in their careers, but only one of those (Barnes) finished in the top half of the SEC last season. Which member of this group have you been most impressed with in reconstructing his roster this offseason? Are there any you are particularly worried about?
Lunardi: I’ve long believed that John Calipari is the master salesman of his generation (and not just in basketball). If he were in any other line of work, there’s no doubt he would position himself and his company at the top of the industry. Another positive adaptation appears to be underway in Lexington, perhaps not as dramatic as the original pivot to a “one-and-done” model, but the lumps taken by Kentucky last year appear to have been temporary. Calipari always finds a way to be ahead of the curve.
Our former ESPN colleague Tom Crean finds himself at the other end of the curve. Despite an unparalleled work ethic, Crean hasn’t gotten over the hump at Georgia. The Bulldogs enter year four of Crean’s tenure without an NCAA bid and with an aggregate SEC record of 14-40 (.259). At programs of this stature, one always wonders about the length of the leash.
Borzello: Bruce Pearl took a team that finished 13-14 overall and lost star guard Sharife Cooper to the NBA and turned them into a group that should be a consensus top-25 team. The Tigers have arguably the most talented frontcourt in the country in elite recruit Jabari Smith, North Carolina transfer Walker Kessler and playmaking forward Allen Flanigan — all three could be first-round picks. After adding Kessler, Pearl shored up the backcourt with four transfers: KD Johnson (Georgia), Zep Jasper (Charleston), Wendell Green Jr. (Eastern Kentucky) and Desi Sills (Arkansas). If it all clicks, Pearl will have a team that can get to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.
Medcalf: John Calipari had one of the worst seasons in Kentucky basketball history after a poor start the fan base hadn’t seen since the years prior to Adolph Rupp’s arrival. A lot has changed in a few months. Even without knowing if Davion Mintz (11.5 PPG), the team’s co-leading scorer with B.J. Boston last season, will return, Kentucky already looks like a group that can compete for the national title with a trio of transfers (Kellan Grady, Oscar Tshiebwe and Sahvir Wheeler) joining the program.
Probably most worried about Frank Martin, who is coming off a six-win season and adding nine new players at South Carolina. That’s a lot of new faces to mold for next year.
Gasaway: I see you, Rick Barnes. The veteran coach reconstructed, in part, through retention. He held on to the estimable likes of Victor Bailey, Santiago Vescovi, John Fulkerson and Josiah-Jordan James. At the same time, Barnes went out and signed five-star recruit Kennedy Chandler and Auburn transfer Justin Powell. With a nucleus like this, Tennessee’s days of top-half finishes in the SEC should continue.
Multiple schools in the SEC were linked to the FBI probe, and the resultant NCAA investigations into programs including LSU and Auburn are ongoing. What would you say to a college basketball fan who claims the SEC’s successes on the recruiting trail, or on the court, are tainted in some way?
Medcalf: Well, I think those people should say that college basketball is tainted. It has been 70 years since CCNY got caught in a point-shaving scandal, and there have been convictions, violations, penalties, accusations and rumors about many programs since then. I don’t think those fans are wrong if they think the SEC’s gains are tainted. But I also don’t know how you separate that from the rest of the field.
If they’re cheating in the SEC, then they’re cheating in the other leagues, too. The FBI scandal has just exposed some of these “strong-ass” offers prospects might be getting. But none of this is new. I don’t think the SEC is out-cheating the Big Ten for talent.
Borzello: Sure, the perception of the SEC is that its schools operate in the gray area more than any other league in the country. And that might be true, but I don’t know that it necessarily taints the league’s recruiting successes as a whole.
The SEC is recruiting at a higher level than any other conference, and it’s really not close right now. There are 20 five-star prospects entering college basketball next season — seven of them are going to the SEC. No other league has more than three five-star prospects. And five of the top nine transfers in our rankings are going to the SEC as well. I’m not chalking that up entirely to potentially nefarious activities by schools in the league.
Gasaway: I would say to thine own self be true and that every fan’s preconceptions and conclusions are sovereign in such matters. That’s precisely what being a “fan” means — only be careful out there.
There are known facts and then there’s what we don’t know yet. As to the former, the FBI found plenty to investigate outside the SEC as well as inside it. And as to the latter, it could be the case that there are tainted successes yet to be uncovered. That last bit sounded ominous and authoritative. No, I’m not teasing a major five-part investigation that’s coming out tomorrow, just saying that somewhere in between the easy extremes of “we know everything already” on the one hand and “everyone’s doing it” on the other may reside something approximating the facts of the matter.
Lunardi: What’s the saying? Those in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Just as referees in the NFL could call holding on every play, there are likely NCAA violations in almost every major college program. Heck, Johns Hopkins lacrosse is going on probation.
Now it may well be that the number and severity of violations is higher in the SEC, but none of us actually know that. All we know is that multiple programs across the country — and in pretty much every major conference — were implicated in the FBI case. Seems to me the best strategy as a fan is to remember that the other end of a pointed finger is right back at you.