How to build a championship college basketball roster
There may be more than one way to skin a cat.
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If you want to win a college football national championship…there’s really only one way to construct your roster. You need to stack as much blue-elite, elite talent as possible.
My friend Bud Elliott over at CBS/247Sports has been tracking something called the Blue Chip Ratio for several years. The BCR says that in order to win a national title, a team must recruit more four and five-star athletes than three-stars. At least 50% of your recruiting class needs to be blue-chip recruits.
Not only has every college football champion since 2013 recruited at a BCR level, but nearly every Playoff participant also has. I believe only two schools have ever won a playoff game without recruiting at a BCR level…2014 Oregon, who lost to Ohio State in the national title game, and 2022 TCU. We know what happened to TCU in the national title game.
You can win a lot of football games without elite recruiting, and you can recruit at an elite level and never win anything more prestigious than the Outback Bowl, but if you want to win a title, you need dozens and dozens of future NFL players on the roster. Perhaps that changes in a post-NIL, post-Portal and post-expanded Playoff world…but that’s not where we are now.
But men’s college basketball isn’t college football.
This year’s Final Four might not be great if you’re a CBS executive or a fan who only cares about future NBA all-pros or massive brands. But if you’re interested in underdogs or in how championship rosters are built, it’s a fascinating story.
Usually, at least some of the Final Four teams are built like something closer to an Alabama or Georgia football roster….five-stars stacked with four-stars. That’s mostly how programs like Kansas, Kentucky, Alabama, Duke and Texas are configured right now.
But this year, we ended up with three teams who had never played in a Final Four before, San Diego State, Florida Atlantic and Miami. Shoot, FAU had never even won an NCAA Tournament game before.
One of these teams was the off-season poster child for building a roster through NIL (even if that reputation wasn’t completely deserved). One is a team full of 22-year-olds and lesser-regarded transfers. One built a roster that the recruiting industry barely bothered to scout. And then there’s UConn.
Is there more than one way to build a championship-caliber roster in college basketball? Did COVID, NIL and the transfer portal completely change our previous misconceptions? Or is this just a fun anomaly before the sport reverts to big-budget chalk?
I don’t know. But let’s take a closer look anyway!
Let’s consider San Diego State’s roster for a moment.
According to KenPom, here are the highest usage players on the SDSU roster, along with their recruiting profile (via 247Sports):
Matt Bradley (Cal transfer, .9508 rating, 112th ranked recruit)
Jaedon LeDee (Ohio State and TCU transfer, .9584 rating, 103rd recruit)
Darrion Trammell (Seattle transfer, JUCO prospect, unranked)
LaMont Butler Jr. (HS recruit, .8873 rating, 243rd recruit)
KeShad Johnson (HS recruit, .8785 rating, 300th recruit)
One unique thing about this roster? It is really old. Bradley, LeDee, Trammell and Johnson are all seniors. Butler is a junior. By my count, the roster has eight seniors, and every single player who averaged at least ten minutes a game over the course of the season is an upperclassman.
That’s uncommon in high-level college basketball because typically, elite athletes will leave to pursue a professional career before their eligibility is completed. The Aztecs appear to have assembled a roster full of a unique kind of player…somebody good enough to play college basketball at a very high level, but maybe not quite big, fast or skilled enough to immediately command a high salary playing professionally. That level of depth and experience can be a competitive asset.
SDSU’s top three players by usage are all transfers, and the team has accepted transfers every season. But they’re not exactly fishing in the same transfer pool as Duke, UNC or Kentucky. San Diego State’s NIL collective is only paying out around $2,000 a month, hardly what the big boys in the sport are distributing.
Trammell didn’t even have any college offers at all coming out of high school and had just one after he finished a year at a JUCO. LeeDee bounced around multiple programs and took a while to really figure out his positional fit on the basketball court.
The Aztecs recruit good basketball players out of high school, but typically aren’t competing for no-doubt pros. This is a team of experienced players, transfers that maybe didn’t fit in elsewhere, and elite defense. That’s a blueprint that, at least on paper, could potentially be replicated elsewhere.
First, I think it’s worth mentioning that FAU wasn’t just some scrappy underdog that backed into the NCAA Tournament. They kicked ass the entire season. KenPom has them ranked 17th, above teams like Duke, Kansas State, Arkansas and Miami. They were top 40 in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. They won 35 games and played in a very competitive mid-major conference. The Owls were Capital G Good, not Good For A Mid-Major. That’s not always the case for teams that make deep Cinderella runs. 2018 Loyola-Chicago, for example, finished 31st, and 2014 Dayton was 42nd.
Johnell Davis (HS recruit, unranked)
Alijah Martin (HS recruit, no ranking or offer data, late flip from McNeese State)
Vladislav Goldin (Texas Tech transfer, .8950 rating, 211th recruit)
Michael Forrest (HS recruit, unranked)
Bryan Greenlee (Minnesota transfer, .8566 rating, 467th recruit)
The way FAU has built a roster is fascinating to me, because this is not the profile of a typical Final Four team. At all.
It isn’t a particularly experienced squad. FAU’s three highest usage players are all sophomores, and there’s only one senior among their top seven players. There are transfers, sure, but the bulk of the team’s scoring comes from high school players. At the start of 2023, FAU’s NIL collective had a whopping zero dollars in it. It’s not like they were playing the bagman game.
As best as I can tell, FAU’s major competitive advantage seems to have been with scouting, particularly with their “COVID sophomores”, prospects who may have been under-recruited as a result of COVID restrictions and roster crunches. While it’s (hopefully) unlikely another global pandemic will blow up recruiting, it’s possible that doubling down on high school recruiting and development could pay dividends if major programs increasingly focus on recruiting through the transfer portal.
Of course, you also need to be able to have a strong enough culture to retain those diamond-in-the-rough recruits you found, but that’s a different newsletter.
Here are the top players on Miami, per KenPom:
Isaiah Wong (HS recruit, .9695 rating, 79th recruit)
Nijel Pack (Kansas State transfer, .9437 rating, 126th recruit)
Norchad Omier (Arkansas State transfer, unranked)
Jordan Miller (George Mason transfer, unranked)
Wooga Poplar (HS recruit, .9378 rating, 128th recruit)
I’m sure you remember the story. Last April, Nijel Pack was seen as one of the best available players in the transfer portal, and many elite programs were interested. Miami businessman John Ruiz would later announce that he signed Pack to a two-year, $400,000 NIL deal, perhaps the first NIL deal to go public with how much big money was involved. Then, Wong’s agent threatened to have Wong transfer unless he started earning more NIL money.
Eventually, the dust settled, everybody got what they needed, and by all accounts, there are no team chemistry problems with the squad at all. I’ve seen this Miami team held up as an example of how to build a roster in the “NIL era”, especially if you are, uh, prepared to have quite a payroll.
I mean…maybe? Miami has signed plenty of other national recruits, kids who were top 100, high-four star guys…and they’re not contributing as much as some unranked prospects from George Mason and Arkansas State. Miami was far from the only team to carry a roster heavy with players earning big NIL deals, and high earnings were certainly no guarantee of success. Just look at North Carolina.
I don’t think NIL really tells the full story here. For what it’s worth, the math says Miami was good, but hardly a championship-caliber team during the regular season (especially on defense), with efficiency metrics closer to Maryland and Utah State than say, UConn. But they had an excellent coach, an experienced roster, and played their best basketball on the biggest stage.
And finally, the Huskies:
Adama Sanogo (HS recruit, .9696 rating, 85th overall)
Donovan Clingan (HS recruit, .9800 rating, 56th overall)
Tristen Newton (ECU transfer, unranked)
Jordan Hawkins (HS recruit, .9800 rating, 51st overall)
Andre Jackson (HS recruit, .9809 rating, 53rd overall)
This looks like a much more traditional roster makeup for a national power, which makes sense, because that’s what UConn is. They’re the top-ranked team in KenPom, and have been at or near the top of many efficiency rankings for most of the season. The Huskies started 14-0, and have won 13 of their last 15 games. They had a terrible three-week stretch in January, which is why the Huskies had a four-seed instead of a one or a two. That they’re playing in the Final Four is not a massive shock.
Their major contributors lean towards the more experienced (five upperclassmen in the top seven players by usage), with star power supplemented by transfers (another important player, Joey Calcaterra, is a transfer from San Diego). But almost all of their key players were very high-level recruits.
There isn’t a McDonald’s All-American on the roster, but there are almost certainly some professional basketball players on this team. As their coach said last night:
Dan Hurley: “This isn’t that hard. I have three NBA players and we put the right pieces around them.” https://t.co/GxwBCqt363
— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanHoops)
Apr 2, 2023
So what’s my takeaway?
We have to be honest about something. This is just one season. Last year, the Final Four was perhaps the most blue-blood heavy ever, with Duke, UNC, Kansas and Villanova. All four rosters were loaded with elite recruits. I’m not even really sure what to make of the 2021 single-site COVID tournament, and then we’re looking at the pre-portal, pre-NIL era.
There’s an element of randomness to college basketball, where rosters are small and unpredictability is high. Every year, some team of future NBA players will lose to a team of Future Regional Sales Managers for Enterprise Rent-A-Car, and that will change up the bracket trajectory for five other teams.
I’m not a college basketball analyst professionally, but I’m confident enough to stake out a potentially controversial claim here. I think it is better to have the best recruits you can possibly get. If a school has the chance to sign a top-50 recruit, they should do that. Top 50 recruits are usually very good at college basketball, and teams that make deep postseason runs typically have several of those players.
But nobody everybody has the history, geography, resources or bagme-er, ahem, NIL collectives, to recruit those kinds of players. In college football. That means those teams are functionally shut out of championship contention before the opening kickoff.
But in college basketball, I don’t think that’s automatically true. The data in the post-COVID, post-portal world is limited, sure, but there’s enough here to suggest that a team can be nationally competitive with elite coaching, elite development, elite scouting, and the right fit. Being extra experienced doesn’t hurt either.
Not many teams can build a roster like UConn did this year, or Duke did last year. Most schools, even in the P5, don’t have a John Ruiz to write checks and tweet like he’s constantly cutting a wrestling promo.
But a lot of schools, with the right coach and the right locker room leaders and the right bracket, just might be able to do what San Diego State or FAU did this season.
Maybe that’s not a TV executive’s dream scenario for April. But boy, that world sure makes January, February and March a whole lot more fun.
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