This article is Brian Snow's fault. Snow, of Scout.com, pitched a theory to me last winter: The reason the Pac-10 was down was because the players in the league's recruiting "footprint" weren't as good as they used to be (say, fewer top-100 recruits coming out of California, Oregon, and everywhere else west of Texas). We took a look, and figured out it wasn't true. In fact only the ACC's footprint was stronger for recent classes. By this measure everyone except the ACC should have been "down."
But when I started looking at the best team recruiting classes since 2002 for a Dave Telep feature (which should show up at ESPN.com sometime near Signing Day -- there are a couple of references to those final rankings here), Snow had me thinking about conference recruiting. Because, really, we'd never looked that closely at whether the Pac-10's recruiting was actually getting worse, just whether it should have been getting worse based on talent and geography. Again, it turns out that recruiting was not the Pac-10's problem.
I graded conference recruiting classes on a curve that gives ten points for a No. 1 ranked player, seven for No. 10, five for No. 25, three for No. 50, and one for No. 100. For someone who committed but didn't play (for instance Enes Kanter), I give half credit -- this is about recruiting and not performance, after all.
Let's count down the best and worst major-conference recruiting classes since 2002.
Worst recruiting classes
5. 2005 Big East. The new blood from Conference USA (Louisville, Marquette, Cincinnati, and DePaul) came just in time for the Big East in 2005 after a couple of rough recruiting years. This ranking comes despite the half-credit given for UConn signing No. 9 Andrew Bynum. Top class probably goes to Notre Dame for No. 28 Luke Zeller and No. 91 Kyle McAlarney, while top-ranked player goes to Eric Devendorf (26) of Syracuse.
4. 2004 Big East. While 2005 can be chalked up to a bunch of teams having mediocre classes all at once, the 2004 Big East rates this poorly because everyone but UConn had a rough recruiting year. The Huskies came up with Rudy Gay (No. 4) and A.J. Price (27). The rest of the conference combined for one top-50 player (No. 37 Kyle Lowry to Villanova) and just four more in the top 90.
3. 2002 Big 12. The league's 12 teams combined for just seven top-100 signings, with the best class probably belonging to Oklahoma (No. 35 Kevin Bookout and No. 64 DeAngelo Alexander). The only other top-75 signings were Antoine Wright (Texas A&M), Brad Buckman (Texas), and Jimmy McKinney (Missouri).
2. 2008 Big 12. Despite a national title for Kansas, the conference managed to land just two top-50 players: No. 19 Willie Warren (Oklahoma) and No. 30 Anthony Jones (Baylor). The Jayhawks signed three top-100 players, with Travis Releford (57) being the highest-rated.
1. 2005 Big Ten. Two of the conference's top-100 recruits were No. 97 Jevohn Shepherd (Michigan) and No. 100 Maurice Joseph (Michigan State). The best class clearly belonged to Wisconsin, who added Joe Krabbenhoft (35), the Big Ten's top-rated newcomer, and Marcus Landry (63). The only other top-70 recruit was Iowa's Tyler Smith (39).
Best recruiting classes
5. 2006 ACC. North Carolina signed the best team class of the last 10 years: Brandan Wright (No. 3), Ty Lawson (5), Wayne Ellington (7), Deon Thompson (36), Alex Stepheson(55), and Will Graves (79). Duke did pretty well too: Gerald Henderson (15), Lance Thomas (18), Jon Scheyer (20), and Brian Zoubek (38). Seven other teams signed top-100 talents, but this was a charge led mostly by the Tobacco Road rivalry and Georgia Tech's additions of Thaddeus Young (6) and Javaris Crittenton (14).
4. 2011 SEC. Best non-ACC class of the last decade? This year's incoming SEC freshmen. John Calipari signed the second-best team class since 2002: Anthony Davis (No. 1), Michael Gilchrist (3), Marquis Teague (7), and Kyle Wiltjer (18). Arkansas also has a very strong class (B.J. Young, Rashad Madden, and Hunter Mickelson), while Alabama (Levi Randolph and Trevor Lacey), Mississippi State (Rodney Hood), Florida (Brad Beal), and Georgia (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) all added potential stars.
3. 2005 ACC. Only seven of the ACC's 12 teams signed top-100 players, but those seven had big-time hauls. Duke's class (No. 1 Josh McRoberts, 18 Greg Paulus, 36 Eric Boateng, 55 Marty Pocius, and No. 88 Jamal Boykin) was No. 10 of the past decade, while North Carolina's class (Tyler Hansbrough, Danny Green, Bobby Frasor, and Marcus Ginyard) checks in at No. 19. Florida State added four ranked players, and Miami and NC State added three apiece. Georgia Tech grabbed Lewis Clinch and Alade Aminu.
2. 2009 ACC. North Carolina's class (No. 4 John Henson, 33 Dexter Strickland, 53 Leslie McDonald, 55 David Wear, and No. 56 Travis Wear) rates as No. 14 since 2002, but this was a total conference effort. Only Boston College didn't ink a ranked player, and no fewer than seven teams signed top-30 guys: UNC, Clemson (Milton Jennings), Duke (Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee), Florida State (Michael Snaer), Georgia Tech (No. 1 Derrick Favors), Miami (Durand Scott), and NC State (Lorenzo Brown).
2. 2002 ACC. Only Clemson didn't sign a top-100 player and more than half the conference signed multiple top-60 players. Includes the decade's No. 4 class at Duke (Shelden Williams, Shavlik Randolph, J.J. Redick, Sean Dockery, and Michael Thompson) and its No. 11 class at North Carolina (Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants, and Sean May). Georgia Tech signed Chris Bosh and Jarrett Jack, Maryland signed four top-100 talents, and Wake Forest added Eric Williams and Justin Gray.
Interestingly, these rankings don't seem to correlate too well with the actual strength of the conference. There's some sign of a drop-off two years down the road with a bottom-five conference class, but there's not a very strong connection.
On the other hand the ACC was certainly the strongest conference for a good part of the decade, and we haven't yet had a chance to watch the ramifications of the SEC's new crop, so maybe there's something there. In all likelihood, though, "down" years probably have more to do with a lack of scholarships than anything else, and they get tangled up with solid surrounding years so it's tough to pick out their effects. The one exception here might be the Big East in 2004 and 2005. I suspect we would have seen a pretty clear gap develop temporarily between the other five conferences on the one hand and the Big East on the other if not for the league's timely addition of Louisville, Marquette and company.
Drew Cannon is a college student and a regular contributor to Basketball Prospectus. Follow him on Twitter at @DrewCannon1.
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