Part II: What's Affecting Recruiting?
Welcome back to our three-part series on Virginia Basketball recruiting; specifically where it concerns perceived difficulty over the last couple of years and what that means going forward. In the first installment, we talked about some ground rules evaluating recruiting success (Section 1: The Top 150) and recapped recent recruiting cycles, primarily focusing on the very difficult 2018 cycle that played out last summer (Section 2: The 2017 and 18 classes). Today, that discussion continues by exploring the question "why?"
Section 3: So What are the Factors at Play?
The non-answer is that when discussing any human-related topic of a large sample size, results are being driven by a large variety of factors. And frankly, for each specific recruit, the balance of factors at play is unique. So rather than trying to pin the problems on only one or two factors, or try to discuss the specifics of each individual recruiting miss, it's probably best if we just lay bare all the variables at play, and then circle back around at the end to talk about what that's doing to our recruiting fortunes.
Academics - UVA is not for everyone academically. Regardless of who our coach is, or what sport a kid plays, the player is always going to be expected to value education, go to class, and get a real degree. The staff and players are very forthcoming with recruits about the level of effort expected in the classroom as well as on the court: a level of effort that is simply more challenging that those they'll find at most other schools. That's simply going to rule out some kids who can't or won't succeed in our classroom environment.
Character - We hold our players to high standards. Period. That's not going to change. That began long before Tony Bennett started coaching here, and it goes beyond the Pillars. We expelled our best post player and capped our season's potential last year because the rules are the rules. Kids who don't want to be Pillar people are best suited looking elsewhere.
Bribery - Deep down, we all figured it happened to some degree. The FBI investigation brought it all out into the open. The amount of money, and the breadth of programs involved, shows us just how uphill a climb this is. And the investigation only scratched the surface. You're kidding yourself if you think other shoe companies and our their client schools that are our rivals aren't every bit as dirty as Louisville and Adidas were. Plus this only deals with shoe company money, leaving aside the issue of the money that boosters and coaches throw around.
Earned vs Given - Tony doesn't promise playing time. To anyone. This goes double for shot counts. He'll certainly be straight forward and tell a kid if he's got the talent to earn some early PT with the commensurate hard work. But for a lot of kids, that's not enough. We've seen players come right out and say they're only going somewhere they can start, and rival coaches are going to be all too willing to make those kinds of promises. If those promises truly matter to a prospect, then Tony is facing a steep uphill climb to get their interest.
NBA Delusions - One of the stories that frequently come out of recruits' visits to UVA is that Tony is very honest about who a player can be for him, and also what he feels the player's ceiling may be. He's not going to get a kid's hopes up about a future in the NBA when the player has some very real limitations to his physical makeup (height, athleticism) or skillset that are 99.9% going to prevent him from making the NBA. If a kid's ceiling is going to be "very good college player" or "make a nice living overseas," he'll be honest about that. Rival coaches, however, are going to flat out lie and tell the kid what he wants to hear. They'll say "sure, you're a short center now, but give me a couple years, we'll reinvent you as a wing and the NBA will love you!" before that player proceeds to spend four years as a pure post player than the NBA never even looks at. Of course every recruit dreams of playing in the NBA, so it's understandable that they'd be susceptible to a coach's optimistic projections; it comes down to how level-headed they're able to stay through the "empty promises" stage of recruiting.
Geography - Some kids simply want to play where their families can watch them play, meaning playing in a conference whose footprint includes their hometown. As national (and international) as the game has gotten, at the end of the day regional ties are still going to affect a few recruitments each year. Additionally, recruiting players who live long plane rides away is a time consuming logistical affair. It's a major time commitment to send staff members out to evaluate or do in-homes when traveling outside the mid-Atlantic, and when there are only so many hours in the day for our coaches to recruit, there are some players they just can't get to. That goes two ways, of course, as getting those same players to visit UVA is far more complicated than just having them drive up I-64 for a Saturday game.
The Selling Points
Winning - Over the last four complete seasons, since the breakthrough, we've won: 114 games (28.5 a year), two ACC regular seasons, one ACC tournament, one ACC tournament runner up, and between 1 and 3 NCAA tournament games a year. We've been ranked essentially throughout that run. Nigel Johnson explicitly said he came to Virginia because he wants to win games. Kids who value winning will consider Virginia.
Fan Support - JPJ sells out. Often. The venue is raucous, even for the cupcakes. The Hoo Crew has won a national award for best student section. Our fans are rabid online. Shoot, we're the third most popular fan base amongst Ken Pomeroy's subscribers. What kid doesn't want to play in front of loud and passionate fans every night?
Athletics Facilities - John Paul Jones Arena, even a decade old, is still the class of the ACC. Only the Yum! Center rivals it on quality. (I don't count PNC because that isn't purely NC State's, they share it with the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes.) To entrench our building's supremacy, we recently installed an NBA-quality video board and renovated the locker rooms and training spaces to be among the nation's best.
Academics - Yes, I listed it above as a potential deal breaker for some kids. But for others, for the Malcolm Brogdons of the world, our academic pedigree is a strong selling point. To get the education quality rivaling the Ivies without sacrificing on quality of basketball? That's going to appeal to the right kinds of kids.
Player Development & NBA Success - If you correlate HS rankings to NBA Draft position, there's no denying Tony and his staff have been a miracle worker. Justin went from the #49 recruit to a #21 Draft Pick. Joe went from the #132 recruit to the #33 pick. Malcolm from #99 to the 34th pick. Mike Scott was #115 per Rivals out of high school, #43 in the 2012 Draft. All four of them are still playing. London, Tobey, and Atkins have all had cups of coffee in the league despite none being a Top 50 recruit. The track record speaks for itself: if a recruit isn't a sure-thing NBA prospect, few coaching staffs are more proven at making up the difference than Virginia's.
Grounds - Charlottesville and the Grounds are an awesome place, an awesome place to live for four years. People fall in love during visits and tours, and I can't say I blame them. It is the quintessential college town experience. Some recruits may prefer more urban campus environments, but for those that don't, Virginia has a lot to offer.
Family - Tony Bennett has done an unparalleled job creating a sense of family in and around the program. The players are like brothers. The alums come back to work out and hang out every chance they get. They're in each others' weddings, and travel back to each others' hometowns on breaks. Even the Green Team walk-ons are loved on - see the bench reactions every time Kastra makes a bucket or when Justice Bartley gets a scholarship.
Once a recruit gets a taste of how tight our players are, they can see themselves as part of that.
The ACC - I know the numbers favor the Big XII. But ESPN sure doesn't. The ACC has spent decades reigning supreme as the preeminent conference in college basketball. Its teams are on ESPN non-stop, and its games covered across the sports media landscape. With the collapse of the old Big East, there's no conference more desirable to play in than the ACC, and many recruits are drawn to that limelight.
The "Keep Knocking" Factors
NBA Lottery Success - Having success in the second round of the NBA draft is great, plus some UFA's in the D-League. But the program will get a little extra love when a player is taken in the Lottery, which is essentially the top 14 picks of the first round. Lottery picks are seen as the cream of the crop annually. It's a bit of a chicken and egg, where the Lottery is primarily made up of former five-star recruits, and five-star recruits go places that have a Lottery history, so it's not clear how UVA cracks this code without someone on the current roster having a blow-up kind of season. Huff, Diakite, Hunter, and Guy all have that potential in the coming years, so fingers crossed.
Final Fours - Regular season success is great. But a program has "made it" when they reach the Final Four, fair or not. This will be an additional stamp of approval on the staff on the recruiting trail once we make it. Until then, we're just another team that hasn't yet gotten over the hump. This also works for a national championship, of course, but one step at a time.
The Blue Bloods - We're not Duke, or Kentucky, or North Carolina, or Kansas. Not when it comes to pedigree. A young player who's spent 10-15 years watching the legends associated with those programs, who has developed a dream to rep those programs, is simply going to be a tough pull. We've lost kids to all of them over the years, simply because they are who they are. It sucks but sometimes a young man is just dead set on the Blue Bloods, and when they jump in, the story's been written. This goes to a lesser degree for 2nd-tier blue bloods like Arizona, Michigan State, Louisville, and Syracuse, as well.
Unite the Right - The White Supremacist rallies undeniably cast Charlottesville in a negative light, and introduced doubt into the minds of some players and their families around the landscape. Yes, it could've happened anywhere, but it didn't, and with threats that the organizers may return next year, you have to hope that recruits take the time to see the University and town for the welcoming places they are, and that with time those kinds of events will be just a bad memory that future recruits pay little or no mind to.
Charlottesville - This is the flip side of the coin from Grounds above. Kids looking for a college town environment are going to love Charlottesville. But we're recruiting a lot of players out of major metropolitan areas who look at a quiet bedroom town like the Hook and say "what am I going to do for fun here?" Obviously nothing the staff can do here, but it is something that runs through some recruits' minds. This goes double for kids who attend the NBPA Top 100 camp (see below) and see the town extra dead with all the students gone for the summer.
AAU Relationships - Top 150 players by and large spend their springs and summers on the AAU circuits. They develop relationships with coaches there, and those coaches can have an outsized influence on the recruitments of their players. Tony and company are, year by year, improving these relationships, but we're behind, and we don't hire a "recruiting assistant" with built in ties to these programs like many schools do. And, of course, see "Bribery", above.
The Role of Assistants - Assistant coaches at other programs have a lot more latitude in making offers than ours do. Our assistants are scouts and mouthpieces for Tony, but offers almost never come until our head coach has put his own eyes on a player. Sometimes this wait for Tony to give his seal of approval can damage a recruitment, especially if other programs are meanwhile recruiting the player hard. Wenyen Gabriel and Angel Delgado are instances of this that come to mind, where UVA assistants identified the future standout early in the process and began a relationship, only for our narrow window to be missed by the time Tony was able to perform his own evaluation and officially offer.
Tony's Faith - Twitter user @LibertyNFaith astutely identified this as a missing point from our first draft of this article. The Christian faith is not necessarily an overt aspect of the program, but it's not exactly a secret either that both Tony, members of his staff, and many players are all open about their beliefs. To some kids, the passionate Athletes in Action or Fellowship of Christin Athletes type, this is going to be a draw. To others, who maybe have a more skeptical view of vocal believers, this could be a turn off. And of course there are those in the middle for whom the needle moves neither way; we've heard that former Hoo Mustapha Farrakhan (grandson of Nation of Islam founder Louis Farrakhan) never had any issues being of a different faith background.
Pace - I'm not going to use this space to talk about whether our pace (currently dead last in raw tempo for the third straight year!) is a bad thing. Losing is a bad thing and winning is a good thing, and pace is just a talking point along the way. At least on the surface. But what a talking point our pace has become. National color commentators usually hit on a few major themes for any given team they're calling, and for Virginia, our glacial pace is right at the top of the list alongside our defense (did you know Tony learned it from his father at Wisconsin?!). It's a talking point in recruiting circles as well, and something Tony is forced to discuss with prospects who maybe are leery about playing the basketball equivalent of a pitcher's duel. Yes, it's a shallow argument, but when prospects are trying to sort through dozens of offers in a short period of time, sometimes shallow research is all they have time for before deciding whether to call a coach back.
Style - This goes part and parcel with pace. I'm not overly concerned about the defensive style. No defense is any sexier than any other, and they're all sexier than "no defense," or what I like to call the Gottfried defense. But as much as the grinding pace of our offense is a negative talking point on the trail, so is the style in which we run it, which is heavy on off-ball screens. This hurts us in two ways. One is that guards today want to make plays with the ball in their hands - this means ball screens and pick-and-rolls. Even worse are the implications for big men who worry about being turned into screeners first and foremost. How often this year have we heard Tony talk about what great screeners Jack and Wilkins are, whereas a gifted young big man wants to envision himself somewhere that he'll be praised for his ability to score buckets. This is largely about perception moreso than reality - we run a lot of ball screens for our guards, and our bigs are absolutely green lit to post up off an entry pass. But unfortunately, perception matters when Coach Bennett is trying to make Virginia stand out from a crowd of 100 other high major programs.
System Fit - Should you exclusively recruit players that fit your systems? Or should you tailor your systems to fit your players? The answer is obviously somewhere in between. Concerns over system fit have affected recruitments recently, especially where post players are concerned. The Pack Line asks our big men to defend in space, and true big men are worried to struggle in that sense. We've seen it affect the playing time of both Jack Salt and Mike Tobey against smaller lineups, and ultimately these concerns prevented us from going all-in on Norfolk center David McCormack until it was arguably too late. Similarly, on offense we ask each guard we bring in to have enough handle to be able to bring the ball up court and initiate the offense, so that we can have versatility in the back court, and that's limited our pursuit of certain wings who are more shooters and scorers than they are ball-handlers. Additionally, in today's game, no matter how much else a guard brings to the table, if he can't shoot the three enough to space the floor, he's going to be a liability.
Self Promotion - It's 2017. Our media presence matters. Kids are online on every kind of medium. Tony does a good job making the rounds on the traditional platforms of TV and radio (podcasts included). But are the 16 year olds we're targeting part of those platforms' audience? Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and probably other apps that my 30-something-ness isn't even aware of yet. Technology is everything to many of these kids, as it is to their friends. They want to hold up a digital product on their phones to show off to their friends and brag "yeah, these guys are recruiting me." Yet the only member of the staff with an active Twitter account is Jason Williford. The Virginia basketball IG and Twitter accounts are only putting out the standard fare about schedules and events. There is a lot of room for improvement here, in branding and marketing the program to the country. Even our Blue-White Scrimmage is a missed opportunity, as we go for family friendly and deconflict from football to the point that it's nowhere near as exciting an event as the Midnight Madnesses our peers put on.
In-Season Recruiting - Tony is on record as having said he de-emphasizes recruiting during the season. It's not that he doesn't recruit, it's just that he's primarily focused on the team he's got, coaching, game planning, etc, and there simply isn't a ton of time left to give to recruits. The rest of the year he's a recruiting animal like all the rest of the coaches. So while we'll still see our coaches recruiting during exam/holiday breaks, and hear about them in communication with recruits, even inviting them to games, it isn't the full court press other coaches maintain 12 months out of the year. It's purely a perception thing, of course, in that he's got a very good reason to be keeping his focus on his games at hand, but it still has to be acknowledged some recruits may feel a little unloved if Tony is less involved with them during the winter. There's reason to expect this is improving this season, but it's hurt us in the past.
Dorms and Dining - Other schools build "athletes only" living accommodations that skirt NCAA rules by admitting just enough non-athletes, but still being palaces that far outpace the quality of life most normal students get afforded. UVA doesn't play by those rules.
Redshirts - Watch UVA on the national broadcasts this year, and you hear the color commentators talk about our use of redshirts. I could write an entire piece on this, but or now ... There are three kinds of redshirts: transfer, injury, and freshman. The first two are unavoidable and not really up for debate. But the freshman redshirts? Tony's used them now 6 times recently, for Devon Hall, Jack Salt, Mamadi Diakite, Jay Huff, De'Andre Hunter, and now Frankie Badocchi. Three of those (Salt, Diakite, and Badocchi) can be put into an "international player" bucket, which address both the eligibility concerns (international credits are notoriously hard to get the NCAA to accept, and Diakite's year may have been similar to the one the NCAA mandated for Villanova's Omari Spellman) and the developmental concerns (giving players who didn't grow up in US ball a full year to get up to adjust to the speed and technique of the US game). But Hall, Huff, and Hunter were all Top 150 domestic players, who had no NCAA issues, had plenty of experience playing against top peers, and all could've played as true freshmen at a number of power conference programs. Each of these three ultimately chose to trust the process that Tony and Mike Curtis laid out for them, and ultimately it will work out fine for them if they stick to the plan, as Devon Hall has done. The perception, however, among the grassroots recruiting community is that even top players risk coming to UVA and getting buried for a year or two; these kids are gamers and want to play. It's one thing to tell them they may be a backup to some veterans off the bat. It's another to say you might not even suit up for a year. So while redshirting is often in the player's best interest as well as the program's, we have to acknowledge the second order effect this has in giving recruits some doubts.
Depth Chart - This ties in to some degree about playing time already discussed above. But while "playing time is earned, not given" is a non-negotiable year over year, in some years a player can look at the depth chart and do the math himself on just how likely he is to crack the rotation. We talked about this in relation to 2017 recruits staring at 12 men in front of them, and also with 2018 recruits seeing nothing but projects on the bench. This is going to vary year to year, and if recruits are being scared off by good players already in place, well then, yeah, that's a good problem to have, but it's a problem nonetheless.
Tony's Cautious Approach - This partly goes along with system fit and the role of assistants, both mentioned above, but also speaks to Tony's conservatism in extending scholarship offers. He sits at the opposite end of the spectrum from Buzz "shotgun method" Williams, needing to see guys personally multiple times often before deciding whether a player is truly worthy of an offer. And he'll waffle too, being all in on a kid for months before cooling as he second-guesses the roster's needs or a player's weaknesses and fit. This can come across as a cool feeling to recruits, who are getting shown unabashed loved from numerous other coaching staffs, but wonder if Virginia is truly "all in."
The Top 100 Camp - The more the years go by, the more I wonder just how much of a hindrance hosting the NBPA Top 100 camp has become. The draconian rules they've put in place about a player's inability to visit our coaches while at the camp mean that over the years we've seen numerous targets come to town and leave without any improvement in our standing. Maybe their parents meet with coaches, maybe the kids tour Grounds. But it's not even 10% a substitute for a real visit weekend, where the prospect can spend hours upon hours with our coaches and players, falling in love with our program. Frankly, a lot of kids may be hesitant to come back, preferring to use their limited travel weekends to go someplace they've never been before, meaning we'd have been better off if they never attended the camp at all.
Looking over these couple dozen variables, we immediately notice there are a few barriers to entry that quite simply are immediately going to rule out a majority of the Top 50 types (the ones with legit NBA aspirations), and another good chunk of the rest of the Top 150. Our gateway to success, therefore, lies in the ability to (a) identify which kids are going to be okay with, or even attracted to, the program characteristics we described, (b) close on enough of those recruits to maintain our level of success, and (c) continually improve the program in ways that also continually improve our recruiting appeal.
If there's one takeaway from this section that I hope readers get, it's that when it comes to recruiting struggles, we need to appreciate the massive uphill climb our staff is facing. I went into this research exercise fairly frustrated and ready to start pointing fingers when it came to recruiting the 2018 class. And while I'm not saying there aren't growth areas (there is a Part III, after all), jeez there are a lot of reasons to cut our staff some slack. The fact that the coaches will not, nor would the administration tolerate, either (a) give improper benefits, (b) make playing time promises, (c) take a player with attitude issues, or (d) make life comfortable for athletes (dorms / academics) immediately takes a staggering percentage of players off the table, and geography eliminates a lot more. It's simply unfair to judge the staff by the same rules as most other programs, and it makes the 2016 class even more of a success story.
In the next and final installment, we'll unpack the ways in which the program can evolve, all UVA- and Pillar-compliant of course, to bounce back from the recent recruiting struggles and position itself for continued success. We'll also look at our outlook for recruiting going forward. Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion!