College Basketball Recruiting

One of my (Lewis) favorite things in sports is college basketball recruiting.  Given the growth of the recruiting guru industry, it’s safe to say that I’m not alone in my fascinations.  For example in the case of the University of Illinois, If you took a look at the message boards you might think there is as much interest and speculation about the recruitment of Cliff Alexander (the number 3 ranked player in the 2014 class) as there is in the this year’s team.

Over the next couple of weeks, our plan is to take an in-depth, data-based look at the world of college basketball recruiting.  Our emphasis will be on judging how well teams really recruit and whether players make rational decisions about where to play ball.  As always, the key to these analyses will be that we will use statistics and data to go beyond the conventional wisdom and drill down to the fundamental issues.

As a starting point for our series, we are re-running anearlier analysis that looked at fan support across teams.  This study is important for two reasons.  First, intuitively we expect that players will be more attracted to programs that have strong support.  This is a rational criterion because support likely translates to plentiful resources and television exposure.  Second, this study highlights the nature of our approach to these studies.  Rather than rely on simple metrics such as attendance, that are a function of team performance we examine fan support after controlling for short-term fluctuations in team performance.  In other words, we control for the fact that it is easy to be a Duke or Kansas fan, while it takes real character to support a team that may struggle on the court (e.g. Maryland & Illinois).

We have four analyses planned.  As noted the first one focuses on the “fan equity” enjoyed by each teams.  These rankings provide a sense of the customer or brand equity of each team.  The second analysis will take a look at each school’s ability to produce NBA draft picks as a function of their recruiting rankings.  This is something that recruits should definitely consider.  The third analysis will examine draft pick production as a measure of team success.  This analysis really gets at the value of choosing a high profile, blue blood program.

The fourth analysis is probably the one that we are most enthusiastic about.  In the fourth study, we examine recruiting success after controlling for a myriad of factors such as current winning percentage, markers of historical success and financial investment.  As we will discuss later this analysis as some significant implications for how we should evaluated coaches and may even provide some evidence that some teams recruit “too” well.

Mike Lewis & Manish Tripathi, Emory University 2013.

4) What Schools Recruit the Best, the Worst and Perhaps a Bit too Well?

For the final entry in our college basketball recruiting series we have taken a look at how well different schools recruited for the period from 2002 to 2011.This is the culmination of our other analyses that looked at factors that are expected to affect recruiting such as a team’s fan base support and ability to convert recruiting hauls into draft picks.  In this last entry we take a look at how schools recruit versus how we would expect schools to recruit.

What do we mean by “expect schools to recruit?”  Basically, our premise is that recruits are interested in playing for teams that have supportive fan bases, play in high profile conferences, are successful on the court, have significant financial resources, produce NBA players and have storied histories.  Our analysis begins with a model that predicts recruiting results (we use Rivals recruiting points as the dependent variable) as a function of these factors (revenues, last season winning rates, previous NCAA tourney appearances, previous final fours, recruit conversion into draft picks, conference, etc…).

We then compare a school’s actual recruiting results with the model’s prediction for each year in the data.  We then look at the ten year average of the difference between the actual and the predicted results (the residuals) to classify schools as over and underachievers. Because our results have the potential to stir up emotions, before we get into specific results we should make a couple of points clear.  First, the meanings of over achieving and under achieving recruiting results can be interpreted in multiple ways.  One interpretation is that schools (and coaches) that “over” achieve do a great job in attracting recruits.  However, given that the model controls for factors such as winning rates, being on the list of over achievers can also imply that the school underachieves on the court with the given talent.  Likewise, at the bottom of the list, “under” achieving can be interpreted as either lousy recruiting or an ability to get the most out of recruits.

The Top 10 list for the high majors is led by Texas at number one (I can almost hear Texas fans saying that this proves that Rick Barnes is a poor game coach), UCONN at 2, Florida at 3, Villanova at 4 and Memphis at 5.  Duke was number 10.

At the very bottom of the list of high majors we have Boston College, Houston and Arkansas.  In the cases of Boston College and Arkansas, these are fascinating results.  These schools regularly make the tournament and win games.  They just don’t seem to be able to draw elite recruits.  If I am a college AD looking for a new coach, I would take a close look at the coaches at these schools.  Perhaps these are coaches that if surrounded by super start recruiters could build elite programs.

While we aren’t going to spend much time on the mid majors in this analysis, our analysis did yield one very interesting finding for this group.  The school at the very bottom of the list is Butler.  Again, this is a result that can be spun in either direction.  Perhaps Brad Stevens is truly a basketball savant who can succeed with any players.  Alternatively, maybe schools like Illinois and UCLA dodged a bullet because Stevens would not have been able to recruit at the high major level.

Finally, maybe the most interesting element of our analysis is that we are able to identify recruiting results that are statistically unlikely.  If we agree that our model captures the key drivers of recruiting (expenditures, revenues, past success, current success, conference affiliation, conversion of recruits to NBA picks, etc…) then exceptional recruiting hauls should be a bit troubling.  These unusual results mean that either a given coach or program have a “specialness” not included in the model.  We will let readers speculate as to what this “specialness” might be. Our list includes three programs: Kentucky, Texas and Villanova.

The Kentucky results are especially dramatic.  Our calculations (which are a bit of the back of the envelope variety) suggest that the probability of Kentucky’s results occurring by chance is just 1%.  But again, we do acknowledge that there may be something special about this program that our model doesn’t capture.  However, we should also note that we do not find a similar “specialness” for schools such as North Carolina, Kansas, Duke and UCLA.  And to take things just a step farther if we just look at John Calipari’s results across Memphis and Kentucky our estimated probability of his recruiting results is less than .1%.  As before we acknowledge that we may be omitted a variable or two that captures coach Calipari’s recruiting gifts, but our model doesn’t identify other high powered recruiters such as Thad Matta, Bill Self or Coach K as outliers.

3) Winning & Draft Success

Another factor that effects recruiting is recruit expectations about whether teams will be winners in the future.  The rational is simple.  Playing on a winning team is more enjoyable than playing for a loser.  For our next analysis we looked at how schools compared in terms of draft picks versus on-court success (These analyses reflect data from 2002-2011).

As a first look at the data we simply divided draft picks by total wins for a ten year period.  This analysis was somewhat surprising in that it was totally unsurprising.  The top 5 teams in terms of highest ratios of draft picks to wins were Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas, UCONN and Texas.  This list makes sense as winning rates and draft picks are both largely driven by recruiting success.  Duke was number 11.  The top three schools from the non-power conferences were Memphis, Nevada, and BYU (these schools did not crack the overall top 10).

Second we looked at which schools from the major conferences had the highest ratio of draft picks to NCAA appearances (over a ten year period).  To qualify for the list we required that a team qualified for at least one NCAA tourney.  This list is interesting because it identifies schools that may be “basketball” factories without being dominant on the court.  Number one on the list is Iowa State.  For example, Iowa State produced 6 draft picks from 2002 to 2011 while appearing in only 1 NCAA tournament.  Over this period the Cyclones 6 draft picks compares favorably to higher profile teams’ results such as Arizona with 7, Indiana with 6, Michigan State with 6 and Georgetown with 5.  We realize that we need to add data from 2012 to our analysis (we’ve been busy teaching this semester, we apologize).

On the flip side, we also looked at the bottom of the draft picks per wins ratio for the AQ conferences.  At the bottom of the list we have Nebraska and Iowa from the Big Ten.  These are schools that win a decent amount of games but don’t produce pros.  The bottom ten also include schools from major football schools such as Tennessee, Notre Dame and Penn State.


1) Ranking College Basketball “Fan Equity”

Brand equity is a common concept in marketing.  The basic idea is that well known and well thought of brands provide value to organizations.  Examples of high brand equity brands include companies such as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Apple.  These brands have value because consumers may have significant loyalty to the brand, or may be willing to pay a price premium.  There are a wide variety of methods for calculating brand equity.  Most methods involve surveys of consumers, and focus on data such as awareness levels, loyalty rates or consumer associations.

For our  College Basketball brand equity or “fan equity” analysis we use a “Revenue Premium” method.  The intuition of this approach is that brand equity is reflected in a school’s men’s basketball revenue relative to the team’s quality.  To accomplish our analysis, we use a statistical model that predicts team revenues as a function of the team’s performance, as measured by winning rates and post season success.  The key insight is that when a team achieves revenues that greatly exceed what would be expected based on team performance, it is an indication of significant brand equity.  The analysis therefore avoids bandwagon effects and gets at the core loyal fan bases.

There are, of course, other possible measures of fan equity.  Consumer surveys could assess fan awareness, or we could look at a school’s ability to recruit five-star student athletes.  The advantage of a revenue premium approach is that the brand equity measure is directly determined by market performance.  This is not to say that a revenue premium approach is not without faults.  Schools may face short- or medium-term constraints that prevent them from fully exploiting the value of their brands.  For example, while the Duke Blue Devils score very well in our analysis, Duke University could likely increase overall revenue by replacing Cameron Indoor Stadium with a larger facility.

Here are our overall rankings:

For Big Ten rankings and a note on our methodology please click here.

For PAC-12 rankings please click here.

For ACC rankings please click here.

For Big 12 rankings please click here.

For SEC rankings please click here.

For Big East rankings please click here.

For the Best of the Rest click here.

2) Ranking NBA Draft Pick Production

In our first entry in our college basketball recruiting series we discussed an analysis of fan loyalty.  Fan loyalty matters because fans are the ultimate source of the resources that teams require.  Players also generally prefer to play in front of large, enthusiastic crowds than in half empty arenas.  Our fan equity findings had results that were both expected and surprising.  As expected teams like Louisville, Arizona and Duke ended up near the top.  Last year these teams had the 7th, 4th and 5th ranked recruiting hauls.

But while an exciting arena is nice, the real goal for the elite recruits is to make it to the next level.  Around the time of the NBA draft we took a look at how successful teams have been in converting incoming talent to NBA draft picks.  As part of this analysis we took a quick look at 10 years of data for Illinois and Duke and developed the following table and text…

“Now back to my second motive.  As an aside, I thought about titling this piece “Why Jabari Parker, Cliff Alexander and Jahlil Okafor Don’t Need to Travel Far from Home.”  In our rankings of the ACC, the Duke Blue Devils finished in the middle of the pack.  What I’d like to do (and I know this is self-indulgent) is to compare the Illini with Duke.  In the table below I give the rankings of members of Duke’s and Illinois’ recruiting classes from 2001 to 2002 (I collected these by hand so please excuse any omissions).


Over the relevant drafts, Duke had 11 players selected compared to 4 for Illinois.  While this may seem to be a reason for a student athlete to choose Duke, when we look at the input, things are much less clear.  From 2002 to 2010 Illinois had 1 top twenty recruit.  In contrast, Duke had 13.  If we look at top thirty recruits, Illinois still had 1 while Duke had 15.”

The comparison of Duke and Illinois highlights our key point.  When a player is looking at making it to the next level it is too simplistic to look at raw numbers.  If teams like Kansas and Duke regularly bring in top ten talent then they SHOULD produce a disproportionate percentage of drafted players.  Below, we provide links for ranking the ability to turn recruits into NBA draft picks by conference.

For Big Ten rankings please click here.

For PAC-12 rankings please click here.

For ACC rankings please click here.

For Big 12 rankings please click here.

For SEC rankings please click here.

For Big East rankings please click here.

For the Best of the Rest click here.