Earlier this month, we started our Sales Pitch series by ranking the schools in the ACC based on the quality of their enticements for men’s basketball recruits, and then moved on to the Big East, where we examined whether anyone in the league can close the recruiting gap on Villanova.
This week, we continue our exercise by taking a look at the Big Ten, which hasn’t had a national champion in more than 20 years — but placed nine teams in the NCAA tournament last season and has several of the country’s best programs in its ranks. It’s a competitive recruiting climate, with the top programs in the league often vying for the same high-level prospects.
As a reminder, ESPN spoke with a wide variety of anonymous coaches across college basketball’s top seven leagues (as rated by KenPom and other relevant metrics systems), as well as the nationally relevant programs beyond those conferences, for our Sales Pitch feature. Over an eight-week period, we’ll rank the programs in order of which have the best sales pitches for recruits and transfers.
The top of the Big Ten generated plenty of debate and discussion — and it also resulted in what will likely be the largest Tier 1 of any conference in this series. Within the top tier, the order varied greatly. Some coaches said Indiana and Michigan State were clearly at the top, others said Michigan and Ohio State were in a tier of their own. There’s a fifth team we will get to shortly that also earned plenty of recognition as a possible top-tier recruiting program.
Indiana was considered a Tier 1 program by all but one coach polled. The Hoosiers have the most tradition and history in the Big Ten, which carried plenty of weight with coaches throughout the league. They have a terrific atmosphere, a huge fan base and are still the biggest show in the state.
“For so long, it’s been all basketball,” one longtime Big Ten assistant said. “They have a strong tradition of championships. They’ve had great coaches. It’s all anyone in the state talks about. It has one of the largest alumni bases in the country, and basketball is their flagship sport. And the state of Indiana, they really just love basketball.”
On the downside, there’s a relative lack of recent success. The Hoosiers haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2016 and have advanced past the Sweet 16 just once since Bob Knight left. For a passionate fan base with high expectations, that’s nowhere near good enough.
“It’s a little bit stuck in the ’80s. Nobody really cares about the history and tradition of what you pumped out in the Bob Knight era,” one Big Ten coach said. “Not every kid grows up in the state saying that’s their dream school anymore. And the unrealistic expectations of it make it a very, very difficult job. Strictly from a recruiting standpoint, I think they get really hurt by Indiana not having that pop internally they think it does. The top kids aren’t necessarily saying they’re going to IU.”
Michigan State is more aligned with Indiana than the other two teams in the top tier. The Spartans have been to 10 Final Fours, eight under coach Tom Izzo, and they brought the Big Ten its most recent national championship, back in 2000. They have arguably the best facilities in the league, and they’ve produced countless pros under Izzo.
“Tom Izzo has made it a destination, a blueblood,” one coach said. “You’d be foolish not to put it in the top tier. The brand is significant enough that even in down years, you get crowds. Michigan State is basketball, through and through. That’s helped elevate their brand. They can beat Michigan out for kids. I don’t care how good Michigan is or how good Juwan Howard is, they’re still a football school.”
While Michigan State won a national championship in 1979, most of the Spartans’ cachet comes from Izzo, coaches believe.
“I think they inherently take a dip whenever Izzo leaves,” one coach said. “To follow Izzo, he’s so much a part of the community, the culture, they won’t really realize the true impact that he had on all those things until he retires. For someone to come in and fill those shoes is next to impossible.”
“Michigan State is an overrated job,” another added. “They have Izzo, which is good. But look at their non-Izzo history.”
While Indiana and Michigan State are generally considered better jobs because of their dedication to basketball, Michigan and Ohio State are right there in the top tier with the Hoosiers and the Spartans. In fact, some coaches think the Wolverines and Buckeyes are simply better jobs due to their enormous brands and athletic department resources.
“I feel like they’re in a group of their own,” one assistant coach said. “They have prestige. Brand name, brand recognition. You can pick up the phone and call any kid in the country and there’s gonna be interest because of the brand. There always seems to be NBA-level players in their home state, year in and year out. You’re going to be, at worst, one of two in the state of Michigan, and in Ohio, one of one.”
“What don’t they have that Indiana and Michigan State have?” another longtime Big Ten assistant added.
Michigan won a national championship in 1989, has several Final Four appearances and plenty of recent success. John Beilein had it rolling in Ann Arbor, going to the national championship game on two occasions and getting to at least the Sweet 16 three other times. Howard took over in 2019 and had the Wolverines as a 1-seed and in the Elite Eight this past season. The Wolverines also have the nation’s No. 1-ranked recruiting class entering the program next season.
“Juwan obviously has passion for Michigan,” one coach said. “He’s got a strong NBA background, an NBA career, both playing and coaching. He’s energetic, he’s a competitor, he’s more of a fit for college basketball than the pros from the standpoint of how much an impact he can make on people, on young adults. He’s got an excellent staff, but he’s done an excellent job selling his passion for young people and the University of Michigan. You go back to that [introductory] press conference, and he’s crying. Why? Because he loves Michigan. He’s always embraced that.”
Ohio State has a title, multiple Final Fours and was one of the most consistent programs in the country under Thad Matta. The Buckeyes possess recent success, a very strong in-state talent base to recruit from, excellent tradition and very good facilities.
“They’ve got a huge alumni base,” a coach said. “When they’re good, the fans appreciate their basketball. It’s a basketball-rich state, they’ve got a tremendous basketball history. They’ve had some good coaching staffs. And when you go on an official visit to a football game, you experience a college football game day, you combine that with great facilities, a great city in Columbus, it’s hard to turn down.”
The sentiments of coaches who think there’s a gap between “basketball schools” Michigan State and Indiana and “football schools” Michigan and Ohio State have to do with the perceived focuses of the athletic departments.
“I don’t think they’ve got the staying power if they take a dip, like Indiana has,” one coach said. “It’s too easy for people to call Michigan and Ohio State football schools. If they dip, they could dip for a while.”
“Michigan is still a football school. That’s a challenge,” another coach added. “Some will say that’s a really good thing because they won’t talk about you until late January. But people don’t really pay attention until you hit it big. Ohio State has one of the worst atmospheres in the league.”
It’s a one-team tier — and a program that earned a pair of rankings within the top tier.
Maryland was actually the last Big Ten program to win a national championship, back in 2002, when the Terrapins were still in the ACC. Since joining the Big Ten, they’ve been to five of six NCAA tournaments and earned a share of the regular-season title in 2020. They have some tradition and dedicated fans. But their biggest advantage is location; Maryland might have the most talent-rich recruiting base in the league.
“I think Maryland’s a gold mine,” one coach said. “You can drive in your car and get top-50, top-100 kids left and right. And then you can get transfers because there’s so many kids that are bounce-back kids [players who leave home for school but want to transfer back].”
“Maryland is in the heart of the best recruiting area in the country with good facilities and good academics — but not big [admissions] standards,” another coach added.
Another coach mentioned the program having one of the best atmospheres in the league for home games. One coach thought Maryland should be in the top tier instead of Indiana, while another had the Terps ahead of Michigan State.
While location is the biggest plus for Maryland, it also might be the reason the Terrapins weren’t a consensus Tier 1 job. College Park, Maryland, isn’t exactly in the classic footprint of the Big Ten, and a significant number of prospects from the area would rather play in the ACC or for Villanova or Georgetown of the Big East.
“For some reason it doesn’t sell itself to most kids, both locally and nationally,” a longtime league coach said. “I can’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe it’s not as strong a tradition as the other four schools [in Tier 1]. And if you’re looking at the top four, I just don’t think Maryland is in that top four.”
It also lacks the resources of some of the bigger powerhouses in the Big Ten.
“Financially, they’re toward the bottom of the league,” one coach said.
This is the biggest tier in the rankings, but one could split it up after Purdue and Illinois or drop Iowa down a tier to make it more manageable. Overall, though, this was the consensus middle group in the league.
Purdue received plenty of respect from rival coaches in the league — not only in terms of what the Boilermakers had to sell to recruits, but for the job coach Matt Painter has done on the recruiting trail in recent years. Painter received the most mentions of any head coach in the league as someone who has consistently recruited above his program’s weight class in recent years.
“Matt Painter has done a great job identifying guys that really fit him and fit his program,” one coach said. “There’s been a clear direction the last 10 years, they’re nationally relevant and relevant in the Big Ten every year. They’ve had a run of Big Ten championships here in the last seven or eight years and that speaks to him. There’s stability. People know he’s not going anywhere, he’s not getting fired. Stability plays a really important role in your ability to sustain success and be consistent with it. Recruits trust in the situation.”
“They have the best atmosphere in the league. Their arena, it’s not built for commercialism. It’s built for basketball,” another coach said. “I think the Indiana factor hurts them in the state, but Painter represents what the state of Indiana basketball is all about. He grew up in the state, played in the state, parents can identify with him, even if they’re Indiana fans. They get their work done early. They offer kids early. But they have to, they know that. They’ve done a really good job, getting the right combination of kids that are talented enough, and have the right temperament, the right personality.”
So why isn’t Purdue in Tier 2 with Maryland? While the Boilermakers do have some tradition and won under Gene Keady, the perception around the league is that their success on the recruiting trail in recent years is due mostly to Painter and his staff — nothing inherent within the program.
“Purdue has average facilities, a bad campus, virtually no kids grow up as Purdue fans,” one coach said. “From a recruiting standpoint, West Lafayette is … a whatever place.”
Illinois has been to the only Final Four twice since 1952, and this past season was the Fighting Illini’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2013. But it’s a basketball job with a strong fan base — with one of the country’s most talent-rich metro areas a couple hours up the road. Ironically, Chicago being the program’s primary recruiting ground was mentioned as the best and worst thing about the job.
“What makes it hard is the intense need to recruit Chicago,” one Big Ten coach said. “The constant juggling of relationships there. It’s a pain in the ass. What’s appealing is a great arena, a pretty strong tradition and passionate fans. And it’s a basketball school.”
“They’ve benefited from DePaul not being able to get anyone from Chicago. [Brad] Underwood made smart hires, opened up the [AAU power] Mac Irvin Fire pipeline,” another coach added.
Underwood has to revamp his coaching staff this offseason after assistant coaches Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman left for Kentucky. One coach wondered if the recent recruiting successes will tail off.
“Those assistants, you respected the job they did,” he said. “They exhausted every option possible to make sure they beat you.”
Minnesota was an interesting talking point for coaches in the league. There’s not an enormous amount of tradition, but from a pure recruiting standpoint, there are few programs in the league with the consistent pipeline of talent in the state.
“That state is a really, really deep state in terms of talent,” one coach said. “Richard [Pitino] won there recently. Went to the NCAA tournament, won a tournament game. Their recruiting situation is underrated in a lot of ways.”
The problem recently, however, has been the Golden Gophers’ inability to keep enough of those prospects home. That’s going to be the biggest key for new head coach Ben Johnson.
“They’ve demonstrated that they’re able to get that higher-level kid,” a Big Ten coach said. “They might not have the quantity they should have, but they have had quality. Tubby [Smith] kept Royce White, Trevor Mbakwe, Rodney Williams all in one class. To say they haven’t kept kids home is inaccurate. They’ve done it. Pitino kept Amir Coffey home. They’ve gotten quality, not quantity. They should have both.”
Wisconsin is another program with an interesting situation that generates very different opinions. On one hand, the Badgers have been one of the most consistently successful programs — if not the most successful — in the league over the past 25 years. They have an outstanding campus and a great location, and a very strong athletics brand.
“You look at the Wisconsin brand in the last 15 years and say, that’s a great example of recruiting,” one coach said. “They got pros, and when they got pros, Bo [Ryan]’s teams played for a national championship. And [in 2015] they probably had the league’s best chance of winning a national championship in the last 20 years.”
On the other hand, the Badgers don’t play a style that’s overly attractive to most top-100 caliber recruits, and they also don’t often get into recruiting battles for high-level talent due to the specific system for which they’re recruiting.
“It’s a job that gets elevated because they’ve been good and relevant for 20-plus years,” one coach said. “They’ve been the most successful team in our league the last 20 years, but it’s not a Tier 1 or 2 recruiting job.”
“I don’t think they maximize their brand. Wisconsin is a brand,” another coach added. “But they recruit their certain type of player and never waver or deter from that. They find what works for them. They’re putting a square in a square hole, every time. And they’ve made Final Fours! But now is going to be the big question for [coach] Greg Gard. They’ve never had to rebuild like this.”
Iowa was at the bottom of this tier for nearly every coach, and there’s a case to be made the Hawkeyes could be in the next tier.
“They have decent facilities, a decent fan base, just enough talent in the state — and they all want to go to your school,” one coach said.
For players outside the state, though, it’s not an easy sell. The facilities, resources and atmosphere all rank toward the bottom of the league, and there’s minimal tradition: The Hawkeyes haven’t advanced past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament since 1999.
“[Two-time Big Ten Player of the Year] Luka Garza saved [coach] Fran McCaffery’s ass. You take [Garza] from the equation, it’s basically the same Iowa team that makes the tournament once every three years,” a coach said. “Maybe they win a game and keep it moving. And I think they’re a football school. It’s not even remotely close.”
One Big Ten coach summed up Nebraska’s dichotomy effectively: “They’re in the bottom tier when it comes to history and tradition. They’re in the top tier when it comes to facilities and resources.”
Depending on the coach who was polled and which aspects of the sales pitch he valued, Nebraska had a pretty wide array of rankings. As mentioned above, the Cornhuskers have several things going for them. They have elite facilities and consistently rank near the top of the nation in attendance despite going to one NCAA tournament in the past 23 years.
“They’re going to sell out every home game. They have incredible facilities, it’s an incredible basketball experience,” one head coach said. “In an age of transfers, Nebraska can be a hidden gem. You can pick guys up the second and third time around and it’s a phenomenal basketball experience. They care about hoops.”
“They can lose 100 games in a row and there will still be 15,000 people in there,” another coach said.
On the flip side, Nebraska isn’t known for producing high-major talent, and there’s very little tradition to attract recruits.
“I don’t think Nebraska is appealing,” one coach said. “Now, if anybody is going to be able to get it going, it is Fred [Hoiberg]. But it has to happen via transfers. I don’t think kids dream of playing Nebraska basketball.”
“There’s little to no talent in Nebraska,” another added. “The overwhelming challenge is it’s very difficult to get kids.”
While there was much debate about each of the first four tiers, the bottom tier was clear.
“Those three separate themselves more than any tier in the league,” one coach noted.
Steve Pikiell has done a good job at Rutgers, getting the Scarlet Knights to the NCAA tournament this past season for the first time since 1991. One coach said this would be the one school in this tier that could potentially push up over the next few years.
“You can make a case for Rutgers,” he said. “Just because of the fertile recruiting ground they have. And it’s a great atmosphere.”
The school also opened a new practice facility with a nine-figure price tag in 2019. In general, though, there’s no history, it’s hard to convince high-level New York and New Jersey prospects to leave the Big East and ACC to play in the Big Ten, and while the RAC is one of the best environments in the league, it’s not an arena that will blow away recruits.
“They don’t maximize their recruiting base,” one coach said. “There’s not a strong tradition. The RAC isn’t an elite facility. And they’re really struggling financially as a school.”
Penn State found some recent success under Pat Chambers before he was fired last fall, and much of that success came from the Nittany Lions dipping into Philadelphia in a big way on the recruiting trail. Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens, Shep Garner and Mike Watkins — regulars on Penn State’s 26-win NIT championship team in 2018 — all hailed from the Philadelphia area.
Will new head coach Micah Shrewsberry find the same success in Philadelphia? If he doesn’t, there’s not much for the program to hang its hat on when it comes to wooing recruits to State College.
“It’s a football school, the Bryce Jordan Center isn’t great,” one coach said. “It’s another school that has to deal with the politics of recruiting a big city — Philadelphia. Where else do they draw their players from? They feel the pressure to recruit a certain area. You shouldn’t have to put all your eggs in one basket.”
Lastly, there’s Northwestern.
“I think that’s the hardest job in the league,” one head coach said.
Chris Collins finally got the Wildcats to their first NCAA tournament appearance in 2017, but it has been a return to normalcy in Evanston since that run. The biggest hurdle for Northwestern’s basketball program is very clear: academics. It’s one of the best academic schools in the Power 5, and that severely restricts the players the Wildcats can recruit.
“Kids at the high-major level want to be NBA players,” one coach said. “They don’t want to deal with the hassle of perceived academic pressure. It’s harder to get someone into Northwestern than most Big Ten schools.”
“The type of kids they’re trying to get, you’re just not going to win at a high level,” another coach added.
That said, the academics are also the program’s biggest selling point.
“I believe there’s a trend of more and more parents putting a premium on academics,” another assistant coach said. “I think Chris Collins can sell that. I think Collins is really starting to figure out what’s going to make them successful at Northwestern, and they’re finding the right kind of player.”