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Recruiting Miss Cleo

October 31, 2003 Columns No Comments

Miss Cleo and the Art of Recruiting

by Michael Ermitage

Miss Cleo has nothing on recruiting experts. As far as scams go, these guys rank up there with lead-pipe locks and interest-free loans. Yet every year, college basketball fans flock to their rankings and rejoice or despair at what they find. Recruiting is such a misunderstood entity in college basketball. It starts with the goal. For a lot of fans, and for every recruiting “expert” out there, the goal is to amass the most talent that you can. But for most coaches, this is not the modus operendi. Recruiting to smart, successful coaches is filling needs, and finding pieces that fit together.

I think it is inconceivable to some fans and to all experts that a coach would voluntarily recruit a role player. Some people find it unbelievable that a coach would not even target more athletically-gifted players at the same position because a coach is sold on another target’s moxie and determination. Perhaps the coach sees the player as an excellent four-year practice player and already has significant depth at the position. Perhaps the coach sees the kid as a heady emotional leader, even if his contributions on the court are minimal statistically. A recruiting expert sees that kid and slaps one-star next to him. Recruiting experts rely more heavily on gold stars than my wife, who’s a preschool teacher. Two stars to that kid, three stars to this one. Well, he can jump a little higher and he scored four more points in this defense-less AAU game, so he’s a four star kid. Well, wait, Van Coleman said he was only three starts, ok, then I better downgrade him.

The star system works great though for these guys to keep up the mirage. If they were to adopt more sophisticated systems that instead rated players on scales of 1-100 in different skill areas, these guys would actually be accountable for their evaluations. It’s like the carnival guy who guesses your weight, but gets 15 pounds of leeway on his “guess.”

Most recruiting experts base their opinions on two factors. The first one is seeing the player live at an AAU tournament. AAU tournaments are glorified all-star games. The competition can get a little fierce because these kids know that they’re being watched, but for that same reason, they often turn into the me-first mentality of every All-Star game played from here to Siberia. These experts see these players only a handful of times and for limited minutes, since they have such a high volume of players to watch. It is extremely disconcerting to me that these experts do not watch these players in their high school games. This is where you get the true barometer of a player because the setting insists that the team try and win, and that it follows the specifics of a plan laid out by a coach. Watching a player and how he interacts with his teammates, both on and off the court, is essential in valuing whether or not he is the right player to target.

The second criteria that these recruiting experts rely on is the rankings of other recruiting experts. Most people in the field have a geographical area that is their specialty, and in that area, they are able to make somewhat valuable and accurate evaluations of those players. Other experts know this, and pilfer, if you will, names and rankings to add to their own lists despite never having seen the kid play.

For the final recruiting rankings, these fools just add up the stars and presto, you have your rankings. No thought to if the coach filled needs. No thought to if the recruited players will mesh together. The most absurd part of the final rankings is that inherent in the preschool-inspired gold star system is that the teams with the most recruits have the best classes. School A could get two very nice four-star recruits that look like immediate starters and fill needed holes while School B gets five two-star guys, of which maybe two will be starters by their senior year. And the better class goes to . . . School B. Hey man, they’ve got 10 stars.

Fans, for their part, add to the phenomenon. It is impossible these days to peruse any fan web site, or to listen to any fan water-cooler conversation, without reference to the “superstar” recruits the old alma mater landed. Every fan takes the highest ranking they can find and attach to the kid. Meanwhile, the rival fans of that school are taking the lowest ranking of the kid and insulting the school. And for some players, rankings can range from Top 20 to 150, depending on where you look. There is, of course, and ironically so, no reliable “rating” on the experts. Each fan is privy to pick whatever ranking they want.

Fans even find ways to put a nice polish on low rankings. There’s always one guy that says “you are totally underestimating (insert name of lightly regarded recruit), he’s going to be a four-year starter, and probably a stud, maybe an All-American. I saw him play St. Augustus last year. Give him a redshirt year and our weight training program and he’s going to be awesome!!” Think again super-fan. It is probably more logical that the coach of your favorite team extended scholarships to guys that he fully expects to be role players. This is what smart coaches do. Not every recruit you bring in is the next superstar.

The other major fan faux pas, besides reading and relying on these rankings in the first place, is making the illogical leap from highly ranked players to championships. Sure, consistent great classes do usually yield good results (not always however, please see DePaul under Pat Kennedy), but there is so much more that goes into a good team. Superstar-laden teams often have numerous problems, from team chemistry to players leaving early, to players departing for better playing time elsewhere, to off-court issues, and on and on.

The early signing period for basketball is right around the corner and full-fledged recruit ranking talk is already underway. Some poor sap right now is dropping $9.99 to read an “expert” opinion. Give me a call at 1-900-Hoopville and for just $.99 a minute, I’ll tell you your fortune, guess your weight and give your school a recruiting ranking. “Oh let Miss Cleo do the ranking for you baby.”


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