“You can recruit there.”
It’s a statement made frequently during college basketball’s annual coaching carousel, and relates to the attractiveness of any number of head-coaching vacancies. But what does it mean?
With the pursuit of top high school prospects set to resume next month, and with the transfer portal adding a new dimension to roster construction, we decided to take a conference-by-conference look at the recruiting landscape within the top leagues. Which schools have the biggest (legal) recruiting advantages? Who does more with less? Which programs have the biggest inherent recruiting challenges, and what are they?
To answer those questions, ESPN spoke with a wide variety of anonymous coaches across college basketball’s top six leagues, as well as the nationally relevant programs beyond those conferences. Over the next seven weeks, we’ll rank the programs in order of which have the best sales pitches, with our survey of coaches helping to place those teams into tiers. We begin our sales pitch study with the ACC, home to some of the game’s most recognizable programs … and others that are forced to compete for players in the shadow of the bluebloods.
There’s a clear-cut duo at the top of the ACC in terms of recruiting advantages.
“They’re the crémé de la crémé in college basketball,” one coach said.
North Carolina is arguably the best job in college basketball, and while the Tar Heels aren’t at the top of the recruiting rankings each year alongside Duke and Kentucky, they have inherent advantages that attract top-notch recruits on a regular basis. They have as much history and tradition as anyone in the league, and they’re in a talent-rich area of the country that loves basketball.
“Carolina’s Carolina,” an assistant coach said. “You walk in and you see [pictures of] Jordan and Perkins and Worthy and you get a feeling unlike anywhere else.”
The consistency on the recruiting trail will be put to the test over the next couple of years. Roy Williams retired last month after 18 seasons in Chapel Hill and was replaced by assistant coach Hubert Davis. Davis hasn’t really had a chance to prove himself in the recruiting rankings yet, instead hitting the transfer portal for commitments from Brady Manek (Oklahoma) and Justin McKoy (Virginia).
“It’s not going to be the same without Roy,” an ACC coach said. “It’s been interesting to see the guys Hubert is offering, the grad transfers they’re taking. They took Brady Manek, he’s more of a stretch-four; will they change the way they’re doing things?”
The questions being asked about North Carolina right now might be asked about Duke in a few years. How much of the Blue Devils’ recruiting success is tied to Mike Krzyzewski? Coach K has turned Duke into one of the best jobs, if not the best, in college basketball, with five national championships and 12 Final Four appearances since taking over in 1980. He has produced countless NBA players and has recruited as well as anyone in the country over the past several years.
“It’s tied to Coach K, but it’s still probably the best high-major academic school, or one of them,” an ACC coach said. “They went to the national title game before Coach K got there. Vic Bubas was one of the first coaches to really recruit nationally. He had success there. What Coach K has done is on a totally different level. But obviously they have an iconic arena, they have a fan base, they have money. It’s a very difficult act to follow, so I understand what people are getting at. But if Brad Stevens or whoever is the coach there, they’ll still get whoever they want.”
The coaches we spoke to were split down the middle on which of the two programs is better for recruiting. But either way, it’s as elite a duo of schools as you’re going to find in a single league.
One ACC coach recalled a conversation he had with a Big Ten head coach a few years back about fighting an uphill battle on the recruiting trail against some other schools in the league. His fellow Big Ten coach had similar thoughts, but with one caveat.
“We don’t have Duke and Carolina in our league.”
There was a clear tier break after these three, and a few coaches made the case that it’s really Louisville and Virginia in their own group.
Louisville is one of the best jobs in the country from a coaching perspective. It has everything: resources, facilities, fan base, three national championships (although the 2013 title was vacated), plenty of Final Four appearances. But it also has expectations bordering on those of a blueblood while being a notch behind those programs in terms of cachet.
“It’s like a pro team. Huge fan base, they make so much money. There’s no issue with resources. The arena is incredible,” one coach said. “The hard thing is the expectations are out of whack, you’re in a state where Kentucky is always going to be the king. You’re in a little bit of a funny geographic place; there are a lot of good players around you, but the bordering states are Big Ten country. It’s a great job, but it’s maybe not a great recruiting job.”
Virginia has closed the gap on the top three in recent years, for obvious reasons. The Cavaliers have been among the most consistent programs in the country, highlighted by a national championship in 2019. One coach pointed out that Tony Bennett might have the best hit rate on recruits — when he wants a player, he gets him. Of course, part of that is he’s not going against Duke and Kentucky and Kansas for every player, but that’s also part of what makes the Cavs so effective on the recruiting trail.
“They do a good job of targeting who fits them,” one coach said. “It’s a great academic school, it has one of the best arenas in the country, obviously a great coach. They’ve really built the fan base. It’s a great environment, great location.”
“Tony has a certain type,” another coach said. “He’s gotten to the point in his career where you have to trust his evaluation on face value. I remember watching Ty Jerome, and there’s no way I thought he could play at our level. They do a great job with development, they find guys that fit what they do. The Joe Harrises of the world. And he recruits quickly. If [the pursuit] lasts a long time, like when they lost Trevor Keels to Duke, that’s unusual.”
A third coach said Bennett is quietly one of the best closers in the league. He recalled the recruitment of Carson McCorkle in the 2020 class. Several ACC programs were in pursuit, but when they all went to watch him early in a recruiting period, Bennett was there too. McCorkle committed to the Cavaliers a week later.
“When he’s very involved, it becomes hard,” he said.
Syracuse might be losing its grip on this tier, but it’s still there for now. The Orange are in a similar conversation to Duke — how much of the program’s success is because of head coach Jim Boeheim, and how far will it fall when he leaves?
Coaches’ perceptions were split on Syracuse’s recruiting advantages. The obvious knock is the location — “it’s cold as [expletive] and snows in October,” as one coach said — but it still has its pluses.
“It’s still one of the real iconic college basketball programs, and it’s in an area of the country where there’s a lot of good college basketball players,” a coach said. “Not necessarily in Upstate New York, but they’re within striking distance of New York City, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston. There’s a lot of players there, and there’s not a lot of programs of Syracuse’s stature in those locations.”
There isn’t much separation between the rest of the programs in the league, but the brand recognition of these two schools gave them a boost, according to coaches we surveyed.
When it comes to recruiting above their weight class, Florida State has done that extremely well in recent years — while also continuing to find under-the-radar gems like Devin Vassell and RaiQuan Gray.
“They’ve done a great job of really finding some guys,” one coach said. “We played Devin Vassell — I had to look up his recruiting ranking. In two years, he’s a pro. Same thing with RaiQuan Gray. Then they sprinkle in Scottie Barnes and Jonathan Isaac and those kinds of guys. Trent Forrest was one of my favorite players to watch the past few years because of his toughness. He was highly recruited, but he had some injuries. They find guys, they find transfers, then they mix in a junior college guy.”
Leonard Hamilton was named by multiple coaches as the best closer in the league — “he really loves recruiting. He loves all of it,” one coach said — and assistant coach Charlton Young was referenced as someone who has consistently impressed on the recruiting trail.
“It’s a big state school that can recruit the state of Florida, the state of Georgia, the state of Alabama,” a coach said. “And it has a brand name because of football.”
Along those same lines is Notre Dame, which has struggled on the court in recent years but was a regular in the NCAA tournament during most of Mike Brey’s tenure in South Bend. The Fighting Irish also consistently landed top-100-caliber players.
“It’s a brand name,” one opposing coach said. “You don’t have to tell anybody who you are or where you are. Guys that go there typically don’t want to leave. The guys they get want to go to Notre Dame.”
“Football dominates so much there. It makes it a tough job, but it’s still a good job. They went to back-to-back Elite Eights in 2015 and 2016, but I’m sure there was as much focus on the starting quarterback at spring practice,” another coach said. “I think it helped them to move to the ACC. There’s a certain appeal about that. You’re recruiting a Midwest guy, and you can sell them on, ‘We’re in Big Ten country, but you can also play Duke and Carolina.'”
Each of these schools received a mention as being one of the three most difficult recruiting jobs in the league, but the consensus was that all three have something that keeps them a step ahead of the bottom tier of the rankings.
For NC State, it’s the fan base and the tradition.
“It’s a basketball job, man,” one coach said. “When you play there, when everyone’s allowed to have fans, they get 20,000 people in the damn thing. The ACC tournament in Greensboro, you’re staying in the same hotel as them, their alums are all over the place. They have a lot to sell.”
The problem is clear, however. At best, they’re the third choice for players from the area.
“I just think they’re in no man’s land,” a coach said.
Georgia Tech’s biggest advantage is its location, but that also might be the Yellow Jackets’ biggest drawback. Atlanta is among the most talent-rich areas in the country, maybe the most fertile in the past several years, but Tech doesn’t own the state. Everyone recruits Atlanta, and it’s not the easiest landscape to navigate given all the grassroots programs and power brokers in the area.
“It’s clearly above the next tier because of Atlanta, but it’s hard to recruit Atlanta,” one coach said. “Josh [Pastner] has done a good job of getting Atlanta guys on the back end, after they transfer.”
Wake Forest has really struggled in recent years. Starting with the 2011 class, the Demon Deacons have landed just one five-star recruit and five ESPN 100 prospects. Especially in an area with Duke, North Carolina and NC State, that’s just not good enough. And that’s translated to the court. In that same span, Wake Forest has been to one NCAA tournament — a First Four appearance in 2017. The Demon Deacons haven’t finished above .500 in the ACC since 2010.
But there’s some optimism moving forward from coaches around the league.
“It’s a tricky one,” one coach said. “But they have a basketball tradition. It’s been lean at certain times, but you had the Tim Duncan and Randolph Childress eras, then the Chris Paul era. It’s a great academic school, but they can also slide some in-state kids in.”
“It’s a better situation than the ones below them,” another coach added. “They’ve got history, and they just got the $30 million practice facility.”
Outside of Boston College, there wasn’t a huge gap between this tier and Tier 4. The Tier 4 schools all received votes for being toward the bottom of the rankings, and four of these five schools were considered by at least one coach to be higher in the rankings.
Pittsburgh’s descent to the bottom of the recruiting rankings can be traced back to its move from the Big East to the ACC. Some of the momentum carried over under Jamie Dixon, but once Dixon left for TCU, the Panthers have struggled both on and off the court.
“It’s hard to recruit there,” one assistant coach said. “There’s no real recruiting base in western Pennsylvania. You have to dip into Big Ten country or D.C./Philly/New York/New Jersey.”
“They had it rolling with Jamie and Ben [Howland], when they had the New York pipeline,” another coach said. “That’s dried up. It’s just not as sexy in New York now. But they have a beautiful arena, just redid some things.”
Clemson faces some of the same issues as Notre Dame and Florida State in terms of being a football school, but the Tigers’ recent success under Dabo Swinney — and the lack of similar success on the hardwood — takes it to a different level. Brad Brownell received a couple mentions for his development of players, but the Tigers have just consistently had a hard time getting talent.
“They have a lot of momentum because of football, so the money’s there, and they just redid the arena. It’s a good location to get guys,” a coach said. “But they’re in football country. Notre Dame deals with that some, but that’s not football country. South Carolina is. That hurts them a little bit.”
Miami is a job, both from an overall perspective and from a recruiting perspective, that generates plenty of disagreement. The Hurricanes have never been past the Sweet 16, and before Jim Larranaga took over, they had been to the Sweet 16 once in program history. There’s no real tradition, and college basketball isn’t exactly high on the priority list on South Beach.
It’s also not as fertile a recruiting area as you might think.
“There’s not a ton of great high-major players there,” one coach said. “Miami is such a geographically isolated place, even within the state. It’s a huge football area, it’s a huge baseball area. But it’s a private school, the resources are just OK. They don’t have the history of even Boston College.”
The Hurricanes have had plenty of success punching above their weight class on the recruiting trail, though, and assistant coach Chris Caputo received a mention as an impressive recruiter. They’ve landed at least two ESPN 100 prospects in five of the last six recruiting classes, including five-stars Bruce Brown, Dewan Huell and Lonnie Walker IV.
One coach pinpointed Miami as one of the better transfer destinations in the league.
“It’s a good transfer place,” he said. “Like ‘Kameron McGusty, if you’re going to leave Oklahoma, come to South Beach.’ They just don’t have the crowd support that most of the places have in the ACC.”
Given Virginia Tech’s consistently low finish in the coaches’ rankings, it’s fairly remarkable the Hokies have reached the NCAA tournament in four of the past five years and could open next season in the preseason top 25 if forward Keve Aluma returns to Blacksburg. Both Texas A&M coach Buzz Williams and Virginia Tech coach Mike Young recruit a certain type of player — very different, but both recruit to a system — which has helped them overcome some of the inherent challenges.
“It’s not easy to get there, man,” one coach said. “You gotta drive four hours from D.C., two hours from Charlotte. They’ve done a good job finding players.”
Boston College was considered by every coach to be one of the three most difficult jobs to recruit to in the ACC, with most of them putting the Eagles last in the rankings. On the plus side, it’s Boston — but that’s also a city that cares far more about professional sports than college sports. They haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2009, they have two players currently in the NBA and their facilities are the worst in the league.
The move from the Big East to the ACC, like Pittsburgh, hasn’t helped. Schools with a similar profile such as Villanova, Seton Hall, Georgetown and Providence have been replaced by deep-pocketed state schools in other regions of the country.
“They’ve had a tough time,” one coach said. “When Al Skinner was there with his staff — and he had great assistants, Ed Cooley, Bill Coen — they did a great job of finding guys. But it’s the hardest place to recruit to in the league. Their facility sucks. They share the arena with ice hockey, so they don’t practice on it — the floor is slippery.”
In other words, new head coach Earl Grant faces an arduous task to recruit at the same level as the rest of the ACC.