College Basketball: Performance of Top-5 Recruiting Classes Over the Last Decade

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Regardless of how the season went, the offseason is a chance for every college basketball team to change their fortunes. Whether it’s a complete rebuild or adding several missing pieces, recruiting is a beacon of hope every fan base uses to gauge their team’s potential heading into the new season. Signing a top-5 class evokes a ton of confidence, but does it automatically result in a trip to the Final Four or a deep tournament run? Over the last decade, that answer would be a quick and blunt ‘no.’ Teams are just as or more likely to miss the NCAA tournament altogether than winning a title after signing a top-5 class. Looking at the top recruiting classes since 2010, what expectations can fan-bases place upon these teams in the following season?

How Did Teams with Top-5 Recruiting Classes Perform vs. Top-3 Classes?

The chaos of the Big Dance provides us with a level playing field: a single-elimination, winner-take-all tournament of the best teams in the country. This is why we as fans love March Madness so much – no one is safe and anything can happen! Therefore it comes as no surprise that all top-5 recruiting classes experience a nearly equivalent chance of getting bounced in the first round. It’s not until after the first round that we begin to see differences in achievement between the two groups.

Teams with a top-3 class experience a significant increase in probability of reaching the second weekend, if they survive the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Despite having similar player potential, teams in the 4th or 5th spots of a top-5 class have a drastically smaller safety net to reach each round of the NCAA Tournament. These programs receive only a small boost (11% to 16%) in likelihood of reaching the Sweet 16, where as top-3 classes see a jump nearly 3.5x bigger (17% to 57%). Teams in the 4th and 5th spots only trend lower each subsequent round, after the start of the second weekend.

A top-3 class holds almost a 10% chance to cut the nets at the end of the tournament, while it has not been accomplished over the last decade by a team in the last two spots. Missing the madness altogether? Fans of one of the top-5 teams can surely relax, as only 1 of every 6 fail to make the tournament. If your team is lucky enough to secure a top-3 class, then it’s almost guaranteed that your program will make the tournament – although Memphis made sure to join that club this year.

Year:Top Class% FR Min/PtsNCAA Result2nd-Best Class% FR Min/PtsNCAA Result3rd-Best Class% FR Min/PtsNCAA Result4th-Best% FR Min/PtsNCAA Result5th-Best% FR Min/PtsNCAA Result
2020-21KentuckyIncoming ClassDukeIncoming ClassUNCIncoming ClassMichiganIncoming ClassTennesseeIncoming Class
2018-19Duke61.0/77.4Elite 8Kentucky65.7/60.5Elite 8Oregon38.3/38.9Sweet 16LSU43.5/44.8Sweet 16Kansas42.6/39.0Round of 32
2017-18Duke67.5/72.5Elite 8Kentucky81.2/86.8Sweet 16Arizona32.8/35.1Round of 64Missouri25.5/28.3Round of 64UCLA32.5/33.1First 4
2016-17Duke33.3/35.5Round of 32Kentucky55.7/64.3Elite 8Michigan St43.6/57.3Round of 32Florida St25.6/24.9Round of 32NC State40.3/38.3-
2015-16Kentucky48.2/48.5Round of 32Duke47.0/46.9Sweet 16Arizona15.5/18.2Round of 64Texas A&M31.5/33.1Sweet 16Ohio State37.5/30.0-
2014-15Duke50.0/57.0ChampionKentucky42.5/45.0Final FourArizona23.3/6.3Elite 8UNLV54.9/56.4-Louisville24.6/14.4Elite 8
2013-14Kentucky75.9/82.1Runner-UpKansas55.3/58.2Round of 32Memphis21.3/22.1Round of 32Indiana38.6/38.8-Louisville20.6/15.2Sweet 16
2012-13Kentucky50.3/47.2-UCLA45.7/57.5Round of 64Arizona31.0/27.4Sweet 16Baylor27.7/27.9-UNC27.5/23.1Round of 32
2011-12Kentucky54.0/53.3ChampionDuke23.8/26.9Round of 64Louisville17.3/17.5Final FourArizona30.3/25.2-Texas61.5/56.3Round of 64
2010-11Kentucky48.7/60.8Final FourMemphis62.6/64.0Round of 64Ohio State42.3/44.3Sweet 16Syracuse28.2/22.6Round of 32Florida22.9/11.0Elite 8
Probability of Advancing:
Top-3 ClassesTop-5 Classes4th/5th Spots
Not Selected:6.671630
1st Round Exit:17.8615.2211.11
Sweet 16:57.1445.6516.67
Elite 8:39.2928.2611.11
Final Four:21.4313.040
Minutes DistributionsPoints Distributions
Top-5 Min (Avg)Top-3 Minutes4th/5th SpotsTop-5 Pts (Avg)Top-3 Points4th/5th Spots
Final Four:0.48070.48070Final Four:0.52620.52620
Elite 8:0.45810.54640.2375Elite 8:0.43770.5620.127
Sweet 16:0.41930.47960.3187Sweet 16:0.42180.48860.3103
Round of 32:0.36180.40340.3098Round of 32:0.3680.44320.274
Round of 64:0.3820.36080.435Round of 64:0.4090.40340.423
Not Selected:0.42050.53550.3822Not Selected:0.41310.56950.361

Why are some teams able to overcome hurdles in the tournament and some are not?

Regardless of these numbers, it’s fairly easy to show that all teams in the top-5 follows their own unique path in the NCAA Tournament. There are many external influences that determine how well a recruiting class meshes with existing rotations. While there are difficulties deciphering where teams excel, there are some stats, such as minutes played or points contributed, providing a glimpse into a team’s effectiveness or reliance on freshman. The average minutes and points contributed by freshman accounted for 40.82% of the minutes and 41.53% of the points over the last decade.  

Even in this example, there are large discrepancies between the performances of freshman in top-3 classes and the 4th/5th spots. Teams in the latter two spots of their class have had significantly less reliance on their freshman to produce on the court than the top-3 have. This could be due to strong upperclassmen ahead of them on the depth chart, ineffective play when given a chance, or any combination of factors that delayed their growth.

Programs like Duke and Kentucky have been mainstays in the top-3 classes for the majority of the last decade, but have also played big roles in the one-and-done movement. As a result of the way Coach K and Coach Cal have decided to recruit and build their rosters, they would be expected to have a larger usage of freshman in their rotation. These decisions have not hindered either the Wildcats or Blue Devils from losing any kind of production as a result of giving freshman extended minutes.

Successful teams with predominant one-and-done talent have had inherent balance within the roster. Specifically freshman talent ready to break into the rotation or starting lineup have been bolstered by productive upperclassmen and sophomores creating a well-rounded roster. A majority of teams reaching the Elite 8 or further received an above average amount of minutes and points from their freshman class, but were not solely handcuffed to their production to succeed.

Conversely, teams in the bottom portion of the top-5 have been less successful in recruiting one-and-done talent and more productive in keeping and developing upperclassmen. This method of roster construction has made the path more difficult for freshman to crack the starting lineup or receiving significant minutes in the rotation. In this situation, we would have to dig deeper as to why each team was unable to move further in their respective tournament field.

Is a specific school from the 2020-21 class positioned well to make a run?

The top 5 recruiting classes for next year’s college basketball season (Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, Michigan and Tennessee) sit atop the 2020 rankings.  Each of these programs are likely to have an above average balance of freshman talent and returning production to make strong impacts in the NCAA Tournament.

The 5th place class belongs to the Volunteers and Rick Barnes. Tennessee had a down year, after losing productive seniors Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams from the program. Lamonte Turner was injured early in the year and will likely receive a medical redshirt before returning to the team. The frontcourt trio of Yves Pons, Jordan Fulkerson and Josiah Jordan-James should return as well, giving the Vols a nearly intact roster. 5-star combo guards Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson join the fold and give this team a lot of punch on their way back to the Big Dance. Trying to book a ticket to the Final Four may be a little steep for this group though.

The Tar Heels reload after a disappointing season, but also project to have the least amount of depth returning of the group. North Carolina had to play most of their season without star point guard Cole Anthony and never got to fully realize what could have been. Next year’s incoming class is much deeper than it was this season and will give UNC a formidable quintet in the frontcourt. Caleb Love and RJ Davis come to Chapel Hill with a chance to improve the shooting and balance of a backcourt that struggled with continuity and injuries. Look for Carolina to have a good mix of elite talent and proven experience to return to the NCAA Tournament and make a very deep run.

Michigan was led to a strong season in Juwan Howard’s first year as head coach and will return a lot of depth in both the front and backcourts. Already with a strong class signed for next season highlighted by athletic phenom Isaiah Todd, the Wolverines could still add an elite scoring prospect in Josh Christopher. Howard’s incoming group is bound to make some noise and could lift Michigan into a high performing squad outside of the top-3 classes. Balance of experience in upperclassmen and raw talent of incoming freshman was a defining trait of multiple top-3 teams over the last decade. Michigan could seemingly join that group next season and become an outlier knocking on the door of the Final Four.

Kentucky and Duke however are expected to be the class of the nation again this season. The Wildcats will bring home the top recruiting class for 6th time in the last 11 seasons, while Duke will be in the top-2 for the 7th time in the same span. Coach Calipari is bringing in an extremely dynamic and proven group at the high school level led by a trio of combo guards – Brandon Boston, Terrance Clarke and Devin Askew. The incoming class will be joined by multiple members of this year’s team (E.J. Montgomery, Johnny Juzang and Dontaie Allen) lightening the pressure on their production this season.

Coach K’s class is just as dynamic, led by a very balanced and athletic group. Jeremy Roach, Jalen Johnson, Jaemyn Brakefield and DJ Steward make up Duke’s own outstanding backcourt group that will potentially be joined by returning sophomores Wendell Moore Jr and Matthew Hurt. This year’s Blue Devils team will focus much more on perimeter play than in the last several seasons, but with freshman Mark Williams and Henry Coleman this team will be strong and busy on the glass. The Blue Devils and Wildcats are definitively the most likely programs next season to have effective freshman and all-around rosters capable of reaching the Championship, let alone the Final Four.

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