This week, ESPN completed its Sales Pitch (ESPN+) series, which looked at the men’s college basketball programmes outside of the top seven conferences that have the most and least advantages in attracting recruits and transfers. Following the release of the survey results, ESPN.com’s writing staff of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway, and Joe Lunardi debated the high points of the recruiting landscape among college basketball’s best mid-majors, including the most impressive part of Gonzaga’s ascension to the game’s top tier, the non-Gonzaga programmes with the most impressive roster construction, and which new mid-majors are emerging.
Over the last two decades, Gonzaga has established itself as an elite college basketball programme outside of the major-conference system. What has most impressed you about the Zags’ construction?
Borzello: From a roster-building and recruiting standpoint, the most impressive thing to me is the Zags’ transformation from a programme that dominated the international market and landed a few under-recruited high schoolers to a programme that began recruiting transfers as well as anyone in the country – and, most recently, into a programme that is recruiting high schoolers at a high, high level.
In the last two classes, Mark Few has signed four five-star prospects, including a projected top-five pick in Jalen Suggs and the nation’s top recruit in Chet Holmgren. That’s in addition to the transfers and an absurdly long list of top-tier international players they’ve signed in the last 20 years, dating back to Ronny Turiaf and Robert Sacre and more recently with Domantas Sabonis, Rui Hachimura, and Joel Ayayi. Gonzaga continues to improve in its quest to become one of the best college basketball programmes in the country, which is commendable.
Lunardi: Gonzaga’s journey is one-of-a-kind and, by all accounts, impossible to replicate. And the obvious lynchpin is Mark Few, along with an administration that chose men’s basketball as the best way to market the university as a whole. From an institutional standpoint, it’s a risky strategy, but we’ve reached the pinnacle of its upside on and off the court.
The Bulldogs have nothing to complain about as a basketball programme. From salaries to scheduling to charters to infrastructure, the Zags match or outperform the best of the best. A once-sleepy Spokane campus is now a national and international draw as a university (and not just for top basketball players). Gonzaga won by pushing all of its chips to the centre of the table.
And it started with paying — and then overpaying — Mark Few.
Medcalf: I believe it is due to longevity. Dan Monson’s inspirational run to the Elite Eight in 1999 was an impressive feat that was also viewed as an anomaly. Gonzaga? It was supposed to be just another mid-major that found postseason success and then vanished. How many times has something like that happened in college basketball? Under Mark Few, Gonzaga has reached the second weekend of the NCAA tournament ten times in the last 22 years. How many teams have had ten legitimate chances to reach the Final Four during that time?
Every year, the Bulldogs face critics who claim “they don’t play anyone” in conference play, only to go on a run and silence them. Programs that can do that for four or five years impress us. Gonzaga has been doing this for more than two decades. Few has done an amazing job in Spokane. What he’s managed to keep going there is almost miraculous.
Gasaway: Perhaps the most miraculous aspect of the Gonzaga miracle is that the Bulldogs have built one of the top programmes in the country while remaining a member of the West Coast Conference.
During their ascension, other programmes have upgraded their conference affiliations. Connecticut moved from the Yankee Conference to the Big East over a number of years (and then to the American and then back to the Big East). Butler transferred from the Horizon to the Big East via the Atlantic 10. The Zags, on the other hand, have done things their way. They’ve been a member of the WCC, under various names, since 1979. You’re not supposed to be able to build a programme that can compete with Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, and Kentucky as a member of what is, despite the Bulldogs, a mid-major conference. Except for Gonzaga, no one has ever done it.
Aside from the Zags, name a team from the next tier of conferences (A-10, Missouri Valley, Mountain West, and WCC) whose ability to attract recruits and transfers deserves to be lauded.
Medcalf: Since Anthony Grant’s first season at VCU in 2006-07, the Rams have finished as a top-60 programme a dozen times, according to KenPom. It’s easy to attribute the majority of that success to Shaka Smart’s successful tenure, but the truth is that four different VCU coaches all have teams in the top-60. That’s a good sign that the programme, not just the coach, is important in attracting talent. Within that time frame, VCU has also developed many players, including Eric Maynor, Larry Sanders, Mo Alie-Cox, and now Nah’Shon Hyland. The school has a strong brand and has consistently excelled at identifying players who develop into key contributors over time. That is not an easy task.
Gasaway: San Diego State has impressed me by sustaining its success under Steve Fisher and now Brian Dutcher. Aside from current NBA players Malachi Flynn (a transfer from Washington State), Jalen McDaniels, and, of course, Kawhi Leonard, the Aztecs have consistently finished at or near the top of the Mountain West thanks to solid college players. Over the last decade, players such as Matt Mitchell, Jordan Schakel, Yanni Wetzell (a transfer from Vanderbilt), Devin Watson (transfer from San Francisco), Malik Pope, Tre Kell, J.J. O’Brien (transfer from Utah), Winston Shepard, Jamaal Franklin, and Xavier Thames (transfer from Washington State) have contributed to SDSU’s success.
Lunardi: If you made a list of programmes outside the Power 5/Big East that have the most going for them, I’m not sure the Dayton Flyers wouldn’t come in second place behind Gonzaga. There’s a reason the NCAA keeps its First Four event in Dayton. It is a genuine major programme in every way: facilities, player access, fan base, history, and (with one big asterisk) recent success.
Consider what would have happened if the 2020 NCAA tournament had been held. Imagine the Flyers, the No. 1 seed, winning it all with Obi Toppin and company. Dayton was more than adequate, but it lacked the infrastructure and institutional commitment to sustain its success at a higher level than, say, Loyola Chicago or Butler (each of whom lost their version of Mark Few).
The Flyers acquire players and, with alum Anthony Grant in charge after a disastrous season in the SEC, have a likely long-term jockey. Even if I didn’t have an Obi Toppin, I’d buy Dayton on the cheap.
Borzello: Because of Gonzaga’s success, I don’t think BYU gets enough credit for its ability to recruit at a high level. The Cougars have a rich programme history and tradition, a fantastic home court, a plethora of resources, and recent success to sell. It’s an effective sales pitch. And it’s worked for both high school students and transfers.
From 2013 to 2016, BYU landed five ESPN 100 prospects and produced five NBA players under Dave Rose. Under Mark Pope, the Cougars have done the majority of their damage through transfers. This past season, their top three scorers were all transfers: Alex Barcello (Arizona), Brandon Averette (Utah Valley), and Matt Haarms (Purdue). Jake Toolson, one of the best shooters in college basketball, transferred from Utah Valley to BYU two years ago. San Diego State has done an excellent job, and UNLV may have the most five-star prospects in its history, but BYU is making a name for itself on the recruiting trail.
Name one new coach outside the top seven leagues in what was a very active 2021-22 coaching carousel for whom you said, “That guy should be able to get the right players and win some games.”
Lunardi: Put me in the camp of Richard Pitino in New Mexico. When the Lobos are relevant and The Pit is packed, college basketball is at its best. Most people have forgotten what it was like when the Lobos were a true power in the West.
Pitino should be able to recruit transfers and junior college players using his name and the program’s under-the-radar status. And the Mountain West is slowly returning to regular multi-bid status, trailing only San Diego State and Utah State, with aspirant programmes at Colorado State, Boise State, Nevada, and, ideally, UNLV.
I like the hire and am excited about the possibility of a rebirth at New Mexico.
Gasaway: I understand that “win some games” and “Fordham” have been inseparable for, oh, the last half-century. Nonetheless, Kyle Neptune has spent the last eight years at Villanova working alongside Jay Wright. If anyone can bring the programme back to life in the Bronx, it could be Neptune. To put it another way, he understands what it takes to build an East Coast Catholic programme – and it’s easy to forget that even the Wildcats had a “down” season (13-19) a decade ago. It won’t be easy for the Rams, but the Jesuits appear to have made a good hire.
Medcalf: Prior to last year’s 10-18 slump, Lamar had four straight seasons of.500 or better. Now, they’ve hired Alvin Brooks, a former Lamar star and the associate head coach under Kelvin Sampson who helped the team reach the Final Four last year.
There aren’t many veteran coaches who know the Texas landscape better than Brooks, who began his coaching career as an assistant at Lamar in 1981 and was the head coach at Houston from 1993 to 1998. The right second- and third-tier prospects in Texas can propel a team to the NCAA tournament. Brooks has a solid reputation and a network of contacts that should help him identify and attract those targets as he attempts to lead his alma mater to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2012.
Borzello: I believe Kim English will be successful in attracting talent to George Mason. He was a key recruiter at multiple high-major schools, most recently Tennessee, and he still has some name recognition from his playing days within the last decade. English is a native of Baltimore, which should help bring DMV prospects to Mason, and he also has ties to New England prep schools.
I’ll also throw out a sleeper: Steve Lutz of Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. Lutz was successful at Purdue and Creighton, but I believe he’ll be successful in Texas because of his experience in the state (he worked as an assistant at SMU, Incarnate Word, and Stephen F. Austin) and his strong junior college ties.