Part I: The Top 150 and 2017-18 Recruiting
If you were following any Virginia basketball message boards in September or October, before our brains fully committed to the season at hand, you likely saw a lot of concern expressed over the state of basketball recruiting. Heck, that worry still materializes on those boards during the season. Virginia's recent recruiting is a long complex subject, and we've been using the slow December weeks to pull together our thoughts.
Those who only pay cursory attention to recruiting may be wondering, "what's got folks so worked up?" Not the "why" - not yet - just simply the "what." Specifically, who were the recruiting misses, and what's the overall trend, that got fans to be so verbal?
The short answer is that we have now gone two years without getting a commitment from a Top 150 player (as ranked by the major recruiting services) despite the coaches investing a lot of effort in wooing a number of top prospects in that timeframe, only to miss on them all. The debate is hot and heavy as to the underlying causes of this failure, how to fix it, and to some debating whether this is even a problem at all. We're going to break this debate down into a few sections, releasing them over the coming days:
Part I: The Top 150 and 2017-18 Recruiting
Part II: What's Affecting Recruiting?
Part III: Recommendations and Outlook
Section 1: Why Top 150?
Top 150 is a pretty healthy threshold for gauging if a player is going to be an ACC-level talent. Of course it isn't a guarantee, as both some lower-ranked players can overachieve (in our case, Akil Mitchell and Darion Atkins), and 4-stars can underachieve for a variety of reasons. But on the whole, talking strictly on the averages here, Top 150 prospects have a higher floor, a higher ceiling, and/or a shorter development timeframe than lower ranked recruits, who may be more limited physically, or be projects needing a few years to be brought along.
This is not, by the way, touching at all on character or coachability. I'm talking strictly about talent. Of course the intangibles matter as well, and those cannot be sacrificed when talking about Virginia's program. But at the end of the day, talent matters. It mattered when we won back-to-back ACC's with Top 150 talents Joe Harris (#132), Malcolm Brogdon (#99), Anthony Gill (#95), Justin Anderson (#50), Evan Nolte (#76), Mike Tobey (#78), and London Perrantes (#147). Our tournament runs continued as we cycled in players like Devon Hall (#122), Isaiah Wilkins (#146). [Note: 247Sports.com Composite ranking used for all players]
So when some contrarian says "we can win with anyone," it's worth remembering our best teams (the 2013-14, 14-15, and 15-16 squads) didn't win with "just anyone", they won with largely Top 150 players, and usually no more than 1 or maybe 2 sub-150 players counted in the primary rotation (again, such as Akil, or Darion). Also worth noting that any sub-150 players that did provide significant contributions to those teams were upperclassmen who had needed a few years to develop first.
Let's summarize the Success/Bust rate of our commitments from the 2011 - 2015 classes, broken out by Top/Sub 150, to support this argument. I chose 2011 as the start because 2010 was just a numbers exercise with Tony desperate for bodies, and arguably less discerning than he otherwise would've liked to have been. I consider a big success anyone who made an All-ACC team, a soft success was at least a rotation contributor for their entire eligibility, a soft bust a transfer who was arguably still a high D-1 level player, and a big bust anyone who flat out didn't belong in a high- or even mid-major conference. Obviously this is somewhat subjective.
Top 150: Brogdon (Big Success), Jesperson (Soft Bust), Anderson (Big Success), Nolte (Soft Success), Tobey (Soft Success), Hall (Soft Success), Perrantes (Big Success), Gill (Big Success), Stith (Big Bust), Wilkins (Soft Success)... 80% Success Rate
Sub 150: Atkins (Soft Success), Barnette (Big Bust), Teven Jones (Big Bust), Shayok (Soft Bust), Salt (Soft Success), Reuter (Big Bust), Thompson (Soft Bust)... 29% Success Rate
The other argument against the contrarians is Tony's recruiting efforts themselves. He's a smart guy: he recognizes that while character is a non-negotiable, some level of talent is still going to be necessary to compete, and the more talent you start with the higher your potential becomes. It's the reason we celebrated a 2016 class that was littered with Top 100 players in Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, De'Andre Hunter, Mamadi Diakite, and Jay Huff, and can also be discussed with transfer signee (and 2013 Top 50 recruit) Austin Nichols. But that 2016 haul wasn't the beginning of it. Coach Bennett has spent years going after Top 50 and 100 recruits first and foremost. Some of them he identified before the rankings caught up to them, but almost all the recruits he was serious about ended up with a minimum of a four-star rating:
2013: Five stars Joel Embiid (UK), Austin Nichols (Memphis); Four star Cat Barber (NCSU)
2014: Five stars Justin Jackson (UNC), Isaac Copeland (Georgetown), Devonte Graham (KU), Robert Johnson (IU), Matthew Fisher-Davis (Vandy), Angel Delgado (SHU), Isaac Haas (Purdue)
2015: Five star Isaiah Briscoe (UK); Four stars Frank Howard (Syracuse), Kenny Williams (UNC), Noah Dickerson (UW)
Even when we get to the 2016 class, in addition to the four stars we landed, there were a number of others that Coach Bennett pursued before or at the same time as the ones that did come to Virginia. These include Sacha Killeya-Jones (5* - UK), VJ King (5* - Louisville), Tyus Battle (4* - Syracuse), Payton Pritchard (4* - Oregon), Temple Gibbs (4* - ND), Braxton Key (4* - Alabama), Sam Hauser (4* - Marquette), Thon Maker (5* - NBA), Wenyen Gabriel (5* - UK), Tyler Cook (4* - Iowa), Markelle Fultz (5* - UW), and Curtis Jones (4* - IU).
So what am I getting at? I'm pointing out that Tony Bennett pursues very talented basketball players, and while I don't think he cares about rankings per se, the rankings end up being a good reflection of the talent level Bennett views as "ACC level," and other coaches of similar high profile programs agree. Higher rankings of course don't guarantee success, nor does a lower ranking guarantee failure. Every player is different. But when playing the percentages, it's a helpful predictor. That's why I focus on the Top 150.
Section 2: The 2017 and 18 Classes
So that leads us into the 2017 and 2018 classes, which really is what this is all supposed to be about. In the past 28 months, starting in September 2015 with the commitment of De'Andre Hunter and the subsequent close of the 2016 class recruiting, UVA has gone through the bulk of two recruiting cycles with 7 or so (depending on your math) available scholarships. In those 27 months, UVA has landed four commitments ranked #242, #284, #350, and #477. This despite having hung multiple banners, making multiple 2nd weekend Tourney runs, and bringing home a number of individual player and coaching awards. Did I mention putting quite a few lower ranked players into the NBA as well? It's perplexing.
Spring and Summer 2016
The 2017 class was always going to be a tough sell, because as of the summer of 2016 (when most class of 2017 kids were making their choices), they were staring at a very deep roster their freshman year. The roster projected to feature seniors Hall, Wilkins, Austin Nichols, Darius Thompson, Marial Shayok, juniors Salt and Jarred Reuter, and the current sophomores and RS freshmen. That's twelve guys that were essentially scaring off any 2017 recruit who wanted Day 1 playing time.
As such, it's a little easier to understand the uphill battle we faced in losing out on coveted recruits like 5 star Lonnie Walker (Miami), and 4 stars Trae Young (Oklahoma), Alex Barcello (Arizona), or Chris Lykes (Miami), or why Virginia was unable to jump in on Aamir Simms (Clemson), all of whom committed in 2016 before the losses of Nichols to expulsion or Shayok, Thompson, and Reuter to transfer. The take of a prospect like Marco Anthony makes sense in that context; someone who was understood to be in development his freshman year while veterans held down the fort in the 2017-18 season.
Spring and Summer 2017
The 2017 spring signing period was a different story, in that we were now down to 9 projected players for the 2017-18 season, and one of them, true freshmen Marco Anthony (#242), wasn't expected to be an immediate contributor. We only had 8 rotation players we could reasonably count on, and given the everyday risks to depth like injury, that was a dangerous proposition. The same reason we had to go out and get a grad transfer is the same reason that someone like Matt Coleman (#51 - Texas) could've been a priority target. Additionally, Indiana native Musa Jallow, originally a guard/wing UVA highly targeted as part of the 2018 class, reclassified up a year; Virginia wasn't ready to give him playing time this year, so he went to Ohio State where he's playing college ball already. We ended up with Frankie Badocchi (#282), who was known from the start to need a redshirt year, and had to go the grad transfer route to patch over our guard depth issues until reinforcements could arrive in the 2018 class. About that 2018 class, however...
The 2018 recruits, or transfers coming eligible in 2018, were always looking at availiable playing time. By the time they would've been set to suit up, the roster projected to have only 8 guys on it: senior Salt, juniors Guy, Jerome, and Diakite, sophomores Hunter, Huff, and Anthony, and RS freshman Badocchi. If we take a conservative position on Anthony and Badocchi, who were tagged at being a developmental role player and a high upside international project, respectively, that means it's unlikely either was likely to be a major player in the 2018-19 season. So any incoming freshman was only staring at an established starting five (Guy, Jerome, Hunter, Diakite, Salt) with one reserve big man (Huff). Give each of those players 25 minutes per game, and that still leaves 50 minutes per game that needed to be filled. Playing time was staring every recruit, at nearly any position, in the face, and 5 vacant scholarships were burning holes in coach Bennett's pocket. We ended up with international SF Kody Stattmann (#473) and 5'9" PG Kihei Clark (#346). Both had opportunities to showcase against elite travel competition (Stattmann at two Adidas Nations events, Clark on the Nike EYBL and Peach Jam) but despite drawing reports of some notional interest from the likes of Arizona (Stattmann) or UCLA (Clark), neither is known to have scored other high major offers.
I want to be clear. This is not intended to be an indictment of the talent or ceiling of any of the four 2017/2018 commitments. Obviously coach Bennett saw something in them, and each of them seems to have some attributes that project well to the ACC, whether it's Anthony's physicality, Badocchi's raw athleticism, Stattmann's 3-point stroke, or Clark's quickness and vision. Additionally all seem to have the requisite edge, that blue collar approach, required to hang in the ACC. This is purely about immediate readiness. Each of these players has a higher likelihood to need 2-3 years in the program to be ready for major ACC minutes. International players are notorious, even at places like Kansas and Kentucky, for spending their first year or two simply getting up to speed for the US game. So when you only have 13 scholarships to work with, and arguably need 8 or 9 ready to play in big games in any given year, you have to pay close attention to the number of players on your roster occupying a more developmental role.
This is why we would've liked to have seen a couple of 2018 commitments from more "high probability Day 1 Ready" guys. The thing is: it's not for lack of trying to recruit more high profile, higher ranked players. The coaching staff went hard after a Who's Who of the 2018 Top 150. The commitments of Stattmann in September and Clark in October happened only after our coaching staff had failed to secure commitments from dozens of other high priority, highly sought after targets. These are summarized for informational purposes, to demonstrate the full scope of the high number of top recruits our staff spent considerable time pursuing. The caveat, of course, is that this does not suggest that we should've done better with any one of these in particular; some just weren't going to happen for numerous reasons fully out of Virginia's control. Again, we're going to get into the "Why" in the subsequent entries in this series, this is merely the "Who:"
Immanuel Quickley (5* #11) - Calipari put him on the U19 national squad and took him to Cairo, we were never luring him away from Kentucky.
Darius Garland (5* #13) - Long thought to be a Duke lean, he's reported to be eyeing the fastest path to the NBA. He's staying home at Vandy for his one college year.
Devon Dotson (5* #19) - The Charlotte product spoke a lot with Virginia early on, though didn't include us in his Top 8. Eventually went the Blue Blood route with Kansas
Jahvon Quinerly (5* #23) - No recruiting miss stings like Quinerly, who was thought to be down to Virginia and Villanova before a late pivot to Arizona. Quinerly decommitted from Arizona after being implicated in the FBI investigation.
Andrew Nembhard (4* #33) - A former 2019 five-star, the tea leaves looked good when he reclassified to 2018. But for unknown reasons, Virginia's recruitment of the academically-oriented Canadian never took off and he ultimately committed to Florida.
Elijah Weaver (4* #36) - Concerns over his jumper kept UVA from pushing in this Florida native's recruitment, and he committed to Southern Cal.
Brandon Williams (4* #41) - Starting at London Perrantes' old HS of Crespi, Virginia briefly tried to woo the L.A. native east, but he stayed in Pac-12 country by selecting Arizona.
Will Richardson (4* #49) - A very quiet recruitment, the Georgia native was offered by Virginia and started his senior year at Oak Hill before ultimately selecting Oregon.
David Duke (4* #46) - UVA at one point stood the best chance of any to sway the Rhode Island native away from presumed favorite, and eventual selection, Providence. The Unite the Right rallies reportedly greatly affected his willingness to come to Charlottesville.
Noah Locke (4* #70) - The Baltimore shooting guard was arguably the best 3-point shooter on the EYBL. He visited in June, included UVA in his Final 8, but it never felt like Tony felt Noah was the right fit for this class, he didn't push, and Locke committed to Florida.
Michael Devoe (4* #57) - Virginia evaluated the combo guard from Florida but never seemed to push, and Devoe committed to Georgia Tech.
Prentiss Hubb (4* #76) - Part of the DC-Three that UVA got involved with early (along with PF Jalen Sticks and SF Brandon Slater), Virginia seemed to feel he wasn't enough of a PG nor big enough to play off-ball with another small PG, so they never pushed as he committed to Notre Dame.
AJ Green (4* #75) - Tony offered and we were heavily discussed but he ended up going to play for his dad at Northern Iowa.
Luther Muhammed (4* #85) - Another one that stings, UVA felt like they led for the New Jersey combo guard after he visited in September. But the post-visit high cooled, and a few weeks later he visited Ohio State, and that was that.
Jared Butler (4* #91) - A protracted recruitment that saw Butler visit and UVA become the favorite ended in disappointment as his dad fell sway to Alabama coach Avery Johnson's hollow promises of making his kid an NBA star.
Jaelin Llewellyn (4* #94) - The Canadian prepping at Virginia Episcopal School, and playing travel ball for Richmond-based Team Loaded VA, loved Virginia. But after a few bad weekends over the summer saw his stock drop, he decided to commit to Princeton.
James Akinjo (4* #96) - The California AAU teammate of Kihei Clark, UVA offered after a big Peach Jam weekend. UVA was a finalist, but couldn't secure an official visit before Akinjo committed to UConn.
Marcus Zegarowski (3* #110) - Virginia reached out to the New England PG and their seemed to be mutual interest, but it never went anywhere. He's going to Creighton.
Robert Phinisee (3* #130) - The Indiana floor general liked UVA but it never felt like Virginia was in love back, and after waiting a while he chose hometown IU.
Bryce Wills (4* #145) - A former 2019 recruit at Ty Jerome's old HS of Iona Prep, Virginia was in communication though it never seemed to gain traction, for unknown reasons. He committed to Stanford.
Zion Williamson (5* #2) - Virginia was heavily involved with the SC combo forward built like a D-End. But that was early, before his stock soared to Blue Blood levels, and now he's deciding between the likes of Kentucky and Duke.
Cam Reddish (5* #3) - Another long wing, from PA, that Virginia was in early contact with before he exploded onto the national scene and ended up with Duke.
Nassir Little (5* #7) - The staff was on him very early, but momentum slowed. He was eventually alleged to be the subject of a $100,000 payoff to attend Miami. Of course he ended up at UNC.
Keldon Johnson (5* #14) - The local product built a strong relationship with Virginia and even attended games, but eventually was looking for the kinds of promises Kentucky could make and Tony couldn't.
Aaron Wiggins (4* #39) - Another one that stings, the NC product allegedly loved UVA and could've easily been the first member of our 2018 class, but Under Armour's AAU influences prevailed and he ultimately chose Maryland.
AJ Reeves (4* #45) - Like his AAU teammate David Duke, Providence was always the hometown favorite, but he did have nice things to say about Virginia. He committed as soon as Providence put the hard sell on him, before he could OV Charlottesville.
Brandon Slater (4* #54) - UVA was on the Maryland native early, but his star lost some shine during the AAU season. It's reported UVA may have backed off before he committed to Villanova
Landers Nolley (4* #64) - Virginia evaluated, and he seemed receptive, even wearing a UVA shirt during his HS game warmups! But he wanted guaranteed playing time and had a "look at me" approach to his recruiting; he's a much better personality fit for Buzz Williams and VT.
Kaden Archie (4* #90) - Virginia offered the strong wing out of Dallas, but he was never going to go so far from home. He ended up at TCU
Saddiq Bey (4* #103) - The DC native always felt like a strong fit for Virginia, but our staff never offered, despite routine communication. He's slated to attend NC State.
Aaron Nesmith (4* #109) - Virginia extensively scouted the South Carolina prospect but never formally oferred, he committed to Vanderbilt.
Keyontae Johnson (3* #127) - Virginia extensively evaluated the local wing but never offered before he committed to Florida.
Noah Kirkwood (3* #131) - Another Canadian import, UVA recruited him in 2016 but interest cooled this year and he chose Harvard.
Jeenathan Williams (3* #149) - The New England guard was evaluated but no offer came; he committed to Buffalo.
Noah Dickerson - Transfer from Washington, visited same weekend as Nigel Johnson. Was thought to be a lock to join the Virginia bench for the 2018-19 season, but ultimately got wooed back to Seattle by new coach Mike Hopkins.
Jalen "Sticks" Smith (5* #22) - The Maryland native was always considering Virginia, but the DC AAU mafia ensured he went to hometown "player friendly" Maryland.
David McCormack (4* #35) - Virginia started a relationship with the Norfolk product early but failed to offer over concerns about system fit. By the time Tony decided to offer, he had caught the attention of Blue Bloods and ended up with Kansas.
Joey Hauser (4* #44) - He was always going to be a tough pull out of B1G country. He had hoped to visit UVA coinciding with the Top 100 camp, but an injury held him home. Never visited and thus ended up with his older brother at Marquette.
Darius Days (4* #60) - Virginia was an early suitor but rumors are that, for whatever reason, he wouldn't be a great fit for our program. He's committed to LSU.
Nate Laszewski (4* #69) - Virginia was on him early but didn't offer because "they needed to see more." Well, this summer, he showed a lot more, and the offers came flooding in, and UVA's early position was lost. He's headed to Notre Dame.
J'Raan Brooks (4* #77) - Virginia was in love with Brooks over the summer and had good early position before a surprising June commitment to USC. He went back on the market and UVA reached out, but failed to jump in with both feet and he recently committed to St Johns.
Manny Bates (4* #100) - Virginia extensively evaluated Bates and reportedly offered, but no real momentum was ever achieved. Bates is going to NC State.
Filip Petrusev (4* #116) - This late-blooming European import blew up in the fall, and Virginia tried to get in the door but was unsuccessful. He's slated to go to Gonzaga.
Ian Steere (3* #126) - The NC native decommitted from Creighton late in the process, but UVA was unable to get a foot in the door before he committed again, this time to NC State's new coach.
Jake Forrester (3* #141) - The wing-turned-stretch four garnered attention for his potential but the staff never really fell in love. He's committed to Indiana.
Doing the math, that's 20 guards, 14 wings, and 10 posts from the 2018 Top 150 that UVA was, in some shape, involved with, and exactly zero ended up committed to the Hoos. Forty-four (44) out of 150, or just about 30%. That's a staggering statistic. It also doesn't include additional targets just outside the Top 150 that the staff also pursued to varying degrees, such as Rasir Bolton (#155 - Penn State), Emmanuel Dowuona (#157 - Purdue), Lukas Kisunas (#159 - UConn), Samba Diallo (#160 - UMass), or John Newman (#197 - Clemson).
The story of the 2018 class must be told in the context of Jahvon Quinerly. He was intended to be the cornerstone of the class, and Tony was as all-in as he's ever been. He let other guard interests come and go as long as Quinerly was still a viable option, which stretched into August before he broke things off with Bennett; those missed opportunities arguably include Locke, Llewellyn, Nembhard, Hubb, and Phinisee. That cost us with a lot of players, and then all of a sudden recruits started to wonder why no one else had picked us.
If I had to select a handful that we just got flat out beat for, where Bennett had truly invested himself and we arguably could've, or should've closed, I would choose PG Quinerly (never should've stayed uncommitted long enough for Arizona and the shoe $$ to get involved), CG's Muhammed and Butler, SF Wiggins, and PF Dickerson.
A few others where I see our chances affected by the staff's slow movement to offer and/or fully engage include guards Nembhard, Devoe, and Zegarowski, wings Bey, Nesmith, Keyontae Johnson, and Kirkwood, and posts McCormack, Laszewski, Bates, and Forrester.
But this is starting to get into discussion of what went wrong, of the actions, inactions, undercurrents, and such that are shaping Virginia's recruiting fortunes, and that's another deep dive. We'll tackle that in the next installment, so stay tuned, Hoo die hards...