With a population of just over a million, Georgia is one of the smallest states in the SEC, but it may be the most impactful. It has four schools in the conference, and its hotbed of high school talent is second only to Florida, according to 247 Sports.
With the signing of five-star power forward Johnathan Williams, the Florida Gators have set the tone in the SEC in the 2017-18 season by recruiting one of the nation’s best players. As the Gators continue to build their roster for the future, we look at the top five players the Gators have offered and where they rank on the SEC’s recruiting trail.
Last month, we began our sales pitch series by ranking ACC schools based on their appeal to basketball recruits. Then we moved on to the Big East, where we looked to see if any of the League members could close the gap on Villanova. They were followed by the Big Ten, with the largest frontcourt of any conference we’ve ever seen, and the Pac-12, with UCLA and Arizona keeping the rest of the competition at bay. This week we continue our meetings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The SEC, long known as a football conference, is gathering basketball talent at a rate not seen anywhere else in the country. Five of the top nine transfers go to SEC schools, as well as seven five-star recruits, four more than any other league. Kentucky is clearly a strong point in the SEC, but the rest of the conference is trying to catch up. Reminder: ESPN spoke with several anonymous coaches from the top seven basketball leagues (according to KenPom and other relevant statistics), as well as programs of national importance outside of those conferences, for our Sales Pitch column. Over the next eight weeks, we will rank programs based on their ability to sell recruits and transfers.
Kentucky Wildcats There is a clear box to a team at the top of the conference. With the exception of access to homegrown talent, Kentucky is unmatched in competition in most categories. It is one of the bluest programs in college basketball and ranks among the best jobs in the sport alongside North Carolina. The Wildcats have the most wins of all time, won eight national championships and participated in 17 Final Four games. 2 Connected While this team will be the best recruiting team in the SEC no matter who is at the helm, it is important to note that John Calipari has had historic recruiting success in his first ten years in Lexington. In his first 10 seasons at Kentucky, Calipari had five top-ranked teams and five second-ranked teams. He has another #1 class in 2020, he was #3 in 2019 and #5 this year. The most important thing for kids right now is how they get into the NBA, an SEC coach said. And Cal has shown the ability to create a path to the NBA for many of his guys. Even some of his lower level players still stand out, because when you play against a program like Kentucky, they are ready to go pro. People look at you differently when you train pros regularly – and for Kentucky, that’s ten times better. Kentucky basketball traditions. When you enter this arena, things are different. How they travel. It is of a different level than the others. The lack of top talent from the state is not a problem for Kentucky, which recruits more nationally than any other program in the country. But according to coaches in the league, one of the Wildcats’ potential problems is expectation – both in terms of Final Four and national championships, but also in terms of preparing recruits from day one. Kentucky’s legacy puts tremendous pressure on Wildcat recruits. Mark Zerof/US Presswire Pressure is the only thing, one coach said. You’re not going to do anything there that someone else hasn’t already done, unless you go undefeated and win a national championship. So you can get lost in the folds. You move to another school in the league and create your legacy. We’ve been able to use it in the past. You won’t feel that pressure, you’ll be remembered on a much higher level. Calipari has expressed similar thoughts before, often repeating Kentucky’s mantra – not for everyone. There’s only a small group of players who can handle the pressure and expectations of playing at Kentucky, so you end up only recruiting a few guys, an SEC coach said. And you look at a guy like [Alex] Poythress [a five-star recruit who played at UK from 2012 to 2016]. He was considered a failure in college for several years, but he had a good [professional] career. But there are guys who, if not unique, are considered spoiled goods. Calipari changed its team methods this spring and used the transfer window to bring in four experienced players to form the core of the team next season: Kellan Grady (17.1 PPG at Davidson), Sahvir Wheeler (14 PPG at Georgia), Oscar Tshibwe (8.5 PPG at West Virginia) and CJ Fredrick (7.5 PPG at Iowa). Although No. 5 is Kentucky’s lowest-ranked recruiting class since Calipari took over, the Wildcats also have the best transfer class in the country coming to Lexington.
Florida Gators Arkansas Razorbacks Tennessee Volunteers Alabama Crimson Tide The gap between Kentucky and the rest of the league is significant, but the next level is very close, with three or four schools more or less. Florida clearly belongs in the second category, and the Gators can show that they are the second-best program in the league. Under Billy Donovan, the Gators won the national championship in 2006 and 2007 and only missed the NCAA Tournament four times in the last 22 years. They are the only SEC school in the state of Florida, a coach said. There’s so much talent out there. And that’s just Florida, Miami and the state of Florida. They are the figurehead for the SEC in this state. You’re very close to Atlanta. Gainesville is not that far from other places…. . And it’s not just a tradition, but a recent history. They are national titles from the last 15 years, they have guys playing in the NBA, that’s important. Your facilities are not so bad. And in the winter, it’s 60 degrees and the sun is shining. And for the children of the South, it cannot go unnoticed. The departure of top players, including Noah Lock, has caught the attention of Mike White this season. John Reed – USA TODAY Sports Some coaches in the league have noted that Donovan makes the program look better than it is, as UF has virtually no history outside of Donovan, Lon Kruger, and the recent modest success of Mike White. Fan support is not what it is at Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas or even Auburn, one coach said. Until they win a national championship, this place (the O’Connell Center) will not be filled. And they play in an old building, even though it’s been renovated. Arkansas has really solidified its position in the league in recent years. The Razorbacks have a lot of tradition from the Nolan Richardson era, and Eric Musselman rejuvenated the program after replacing Mike Anderson, leading the team to the Elite Eight last season. But even between Richardson and Musselman, the Razorbacks have recruited at a high level – and that’s largely due to the abundance of talent in the state. Before Musselman joined the team, the last ESPN 100 recruit to leave the state was Malik Monk, who transferred to Kentucky in 2016. Three ESPN 100 prospects went to Arkansas in 2017 and 2018, and Musselman has drafted all four prospects from the state in the 2020 class. The kids on the team and their parents grew up in the Nolan Richardson era and all the great teams they had, one coach said. Arkansas is king in this state. There’s not much competition in this state. It’s a big talent pool, and they all want to play the style of play that made Arkansas successful. One of Arkansas’ greatest assets is its status as a basketball school. This may not be important in other conferences, but it is unique in the SEC. Another advantage the Razorbacks have acquired under Musselman is their ability to attract transfers, something Musselman and his staff learned from Nevada. The fact that they are seen as a basketball school, I think, is a plus for them, the longtime assistant said. There are times when these things slip into a really good SEC [basketball] season for a team, like Signing Day [football] in winter or spring football. For Arkansas and Kentucky, it’s a different matter. Arkansas basketball is always the biggest story during basketball season. Texas A&M may be having a great basketball season, but if they contract seven stars and four stars in football, it will be a bigger story of the week. There are no professional teams, and no staff at all. Mississippi has Mississippi, Auburn has Alabama, not Arkansas. Tennessee doesn’t have as much experience as Florida and Arkansas in terms of national championships and Final Fours, but the Volunteers have had a lot of success over the past 15 years under Bruce Pearl and Rick Barnes, and reached the Sweet 16 in 2014 under Cuonzo Martin. They were also regular winners at the beginning of the century under Jerry Green. The Vols produce professionals, they have money and a very strong fan base. They have the best arena in college basketball [Thompson-Boling Arena]. This is an incredible gym. Everything looks rotten on the outside, but everything is beautiful on the inside, said one coach. As for the best atmosphere in college basketball, that’s not the case. But the fans are great. It’s crazy, maybe delirious, but it’s great. They introduce themselves. They have incredible facilities all over campus, the athletic department puts a lot of money into their program, into their facilities. They were successful under Coach Pearl, and Coach Barnes has maintained that level of success. Rick Barnes has been recruiting – and developing – players since he arrived in Knoxville. Mandatory credit : Wendell Cruz – USA TODAY Sports Barnes has recruited better than any school in the league outside of Kentucky in recent years, with five five-star recruits in his last three classes: Josiah – Jordan James, Jayden Springer, Keon Johnson, Kennedy Chandler and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield Knoxville is such a better city than the other places in these rankings, one coach said. And Tennessee has everything the blue-bloods have except history. Alabama stands out from the other three schools in these rankings primarily because of its status as a football powerhouse and a program that lacks some of the traditions of Florida, Arkansas and Tennessee. But Nate Oates won the regular season and the SEC Tournament last season, the Crimson Tide has one of the best local players in college athletics, and a lot of talent has come through Tuscaloosa. Since the ESPN database began in 2007, Alabama has received at least one ESPN 100 candidate in every class but one, and many of those candidates came from outside the state. I think Alabama football had a lot to do with it, one coach said. These things are important during weekends and visits. The fan base is there. Nate did a great job. They may be third-rate, but in terms of resources, a public school, I think it has always had the potential to be very, very good. Time will tell. But every child in the state of Alabama wants to go to school in Alabama. Oats has also built a reputation for aggressive innovation. The Crimson Tide plays fast, shoots a lot of three-pointers, and ignores distance shots. Villanova transfer Jahwon Quinerly is one of the elite players that Nate Oates was able to lure to Tuscaloosa. Marvin Gentry – USA TODAY Sports They landed [J.D.] Davison. They have [Josh] Primo. That year they had a child, Charles Bediaco. They were on the lists of the most important people. They did very well, said the coach of the opposing team. I think Alabama secretly has very good inside basketball. Herb Jones, in condition. John Petty, in state. Alex Reese, upstate. Look at these guys: Petty will wear an nba jersey, Kiera Lewis last year, Herb Jones will wear an nba jersey, Reese was a very good player for four years. From a citizen’s point of view, this is pretty rich. And Nate is actively using analytics in recruiting. When a child looks at four commands, he adds them up using different analysis data. And they have their own niche with their own system, 3-ball, shooting and 4-point line in practice. That’s his speech. And I think they can say that they will recruit nationally because of their brand. It’s a football brand. And now they have had a very good year, which will help them reach the national level.
LSU Tigers Auburn Tigers This level changed significantly over the course of the study: Alabama was called so many times that it ended up at the bottom of level 2, and Missouri just barely made it into level 3. That leaves LSU and Auburn. Some national coaches and fans across the country will be cynical about LSU’s recruiting success because of the allegations surrounding Will Wade, including accusations from the NCAA that Wade arranged or offered improper payments to 11 potential recruits or people associated with those recruits last summer. But there are two factors to consider, even as we acknowledge the smoke surrounding LSU. First: The Tigers have also effectively recruited under coaches other than Wade. They have reached the Final Four four four times, had a long history of success under Dale Brown and have produced historically good college players from Pete Maravich to Chris Jackson to Shaquille O’Neal to Ben Simmons. It has a lot to do with the coaching staff they’ve had, one coach said. They are very good recruiters with very good connections who can convince guys to come play at a place that has been successful in the past. It’s also one of those schools that has helped football. And regionally, they had some very good players in Louisiana. The second factor is that LSU is not the only school accused of operating in gray areas (or worse) on the recruiting trail. The Tigers may be the best known of this group, but the coaches we contacted for this article either refused or found it difficult to rank the recruiting programs because of the SEC’s reputation for fraud. Auburn, which hasn’t had clean hands during the Bruce Pearl era, is part of that group. This is not recruitment. Some of these things are not recruiting, one coach said. That’s why it’s so hard for me. Despite the controversy surrounding Will Wade, LSU has long been considered an attractive target. Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports We’re all adults, we understand it’s a tough job, he continued. But I can’t seriously argue that some of these guys are innocent. One of the discussion topics in Rows 3 and 4 was a discussion about the football school versus the basketball school and how some programs – Alabama, LSU, Auburn – are better at using their football program’s brand to enhance the basketball program. You can use it as a tool, one trainer said. Good relationship with the football team. SEC football weekends are better than anywhere else in the country, and it’s not even close. Take a child to watch a football game; if you have kids on campus, all football fans know their recruits. Teams that deal with it in a positive way, instead of seeing it as a competition, can achieve real success. Auburn, Alabama, LSU use this as a recruiting advantage. The general fan base is already there. If you do a good job, people will come and support you. Of the coaches we interviewed, Auburn always ranked between 3rd and 4th, but under Pearl the Tigers recruited at a high level. Since his first full-time appointment in 2015, Pearl has recruited 12 ESPN 100 prospects and five five-star players – helping the Tigers reach their first Final Four in program history in 2019. The only reason they can be in the third row is because of Bruce Pearl, one coach said. The enthusiasm he brought, his ability to do well in Georgia, may have put them in that position. For him, it was a level 4 school. It’s very tiring. You don’t take children out of the state of Alabama because they will all go to Alabama. Basketball was not the top priority there. I will say that their fans really love their basketball. They have the best atmosphere in the league. Their proximity to Georgia also helps. They’ve brought in some very, very good players from there. Many coaches have commented that the atmosphere at Auburn is one of the best in the SEC, if not the best. The Tigers also have history and tradition, but it’s Pearl’s success in the Peach State, acquiring prospects like Jabari Smith, Sharif Cooper, Isaac Okoro, Chuma Okeke and Jared Harper, that has led to victories in the Plains. They also clearly have the most players above their weight class in the league. It was one of the worst positions in the league when they got there. According to one of the coaches, it was lifted somewhere in the middle. It was his closeness to Georgia and a large fan base …. Thanks to Georgia and the transfer portal, they found a way to have children.
Missouri Tigers Georgia Bulldogs Texas A&M Aggies In all three schools at this level, at least one coach has spoken up for that school as a potential Level 3 recruit. The favorite is Missouri, which is doing very well in a vacuum but is struggling to recruit in the league due to its geographic location. Think about the guys in this part of the country, all their friends, all their teammates go to Big 12 schools and they want to play with them or against them. It’s hard, one coach said. Missouri will struggle to attract Georgia, Alabama and Florida. It’s just easier to play for someone closer to home. This is a mistake. But Cuonzo [Martin] has done a good job of keeping them competitive. If you go to Colombia, there is snow on the ground and it is 25 degrees. You’re going to Athens, Georgia. It’s 50 degrees and the sun is shining. Missouri looks like a winter town, another coach added. I think there is talent in the state and surrounding areas that can reach them. They can come to Chicago, they can come to St. Louis. Louis. But with the exception of the Porters [Michael Porter Jr. and Jontay Porter], they recruited a bunch of four-year-old boys. The Tigers have a strong tradition and history, with five Elite Eight appearances to their credit. All of the current coaches, with the exception of Kim Anderson, have had decent success: Quin Snyder and Mike Anderson reached the Elite Eight, Frank Haith won 30 games in the Tigers’ final year in the Big 12, and Martin made it to two NCAA Tournaments in his first four seasons. They don’t really belong geographically in this league, but they have one of the best atmospheres, one coach said. If it rocks, it rocks. They don’t belong. Tom Crean convinced top recruits, including Anthony Edwards, to come to UGA, but winning in Athens proved more difficult. Dale Zanin – USA TODAY Sports That the Bulldogs have trouble recruiting students on their own is a side effect of the fact that Auburn (and Kentucky, Florida and other schools) consistently snatch students from Georgia State. Georgia is one of the most prolific talents in the entire country, and certainly the most prolific in the SEC. But the Bulldogs as a whole have failed to consistently keep their best players at home. Anthony Edwards was an exception, but Georgia struggled in his only season. Despite just three appearances in the NCAA Tournament since 2002, Georgia is still considered a sleeping giant by some coaches in the league. The task should be easier than that, an SEC coach said. But it’s a tough job because most kids in Georgia don’t want to go to Georgia. That was always his problem. Florida, Auburn and Kentucky come to this state and bring their best players. It has to be the right coach who has incredible relationships with the staff. It’s the only way to have children to go. Look at football, they keep getting better, can that help basketball? It’s a great town. And you’re 50 minutes from Atlanta, another coach added. But it’s a different job with a lot of local talent. We should just keep the kids at home and divide them up by region. Texas A&M deserves a lot of credit. The Aggies have lots of money and resources, great facilities, and they are a few hours away from Houston and Dallas. Texas State produces dozens of aspirants every year, and A&M should get its share of that group. On the negative side, not only does A&M have to deal with national programs for local prospects, but Texas, Baylor, Texas Tech and Houston have all had more success than the Aggies lately. Can Buzz Williams bring enough good candidates to College Station and take Texas A&M to the next level? Photo: Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire The state produces so many good players, it’s a great state, and they have tons of money, one coach said. They have much more access to recruits than Missouri, for example. However, the Aggies found themselves on the negative side of the previously mentioned discussion of football and basketball schools in regards to running a strong football program. You’re in the perfect place. But this is one of those schools where, no matter how good or bad the football is, the football prevails. A win against a top-15 SEC team would overshadow signing day, according to one coach. You are also well located to the major cities in the area, but College Station as a city is nothing. College Station and Starkville are probably the two worst cities in the league.
Vanderbilt Commodores Ole Miss Rebels South Carolina Gamecocks Mississippi State Bulldogs This group formed a clear top 4, although Vanderbilt received one vote as being in the top half of the league in recruiting. Commodores have many positive qualities. The location, the amount of talent on staff, the national brand of the institution make it a different category from other schools at this level. This is the best city in the SEC, Nashville. What more can you ask for the city? said one of the SEC coaches. Good school performance can be a plus if it’s the right child. Jeffrey Taylor, John Jenkins. This team had three top-32 selections in 2012. That’s it. They have some very good players there. The attraction is the quality of the city, the quality of education, the presence of a very cool arena. At the same time, Vanderbilt cannot consistently recruit prospects at the same level as the rest of the SEC because of academic requirements. Vanderbilt can recruit more players nationally because of his academic preparation, a coach said. But it’s hard to get kids into this school. This makes it difficult. It is good academic preparation amidst one of the poorest education systems in the country, another coach added. Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee consistently rank last in education. [Editor’s note: The five states listed were all in the bottom 20 of U.S. News & World Report’s most recent education rankings, although Tennessee ranked highest (33rd). It’s hard to attract players. That can be difficult. And his story is bad. Jerry Stackhouse has yet to find the formula for success in a tough environment at Vanderbilt. AP Photo/Mark Humphrey Ole Miss ranks last in the SEC in most basketball-related categories. The Rebels have virtually no history, with just nine NCAA Tournament appearances in program history, with their biggest accomplishment being reaching the Sweet 16. The basketball fans aren’t great, the atmosphere isn’t optimal and the program has produced two NBA players in the last 23 years. But the Rebels can recruit students in Memphis and are usually one of two schools competing for the best talent in the state of Mississippi. They are the best of this group, one of the assistant coaches said. You’re in a better city than Mississippi State, so you should have a talent advantage. Oxford is a big campus. You’re a long way from Memphis. They’re near Birmingham. Two big cities with players. They have everything to do with the state. There aren’t many NBA players here, but every few years there is a team that goes to the NCAA tournament. Football-wise they are not very good, but there is a nice atmosphere there and a visit on match-day would be interesting for a recruit. They have pretty good facilities and they are all on the same property. The campus is beautiful. The area is not crowded, but not dead either. South Carolina has reached the Final Four more times than any other team in the league except Auburn, and head coach Frank Martin just finished his ninth season at Columbia – only one other SEC coach has a longer tenure at his current school. Three Gamecocks players have also played in the NBA in the past four years: Sindarius Thornwell, P.J. Dozier and Chris Silva. This is one of the few schools in the league where the current coach has led the program to its greatest success. The Final Four banner, Frank made it. And the parents love Frank, a coach said. The conditions are better, they are not as good as others in the league, but they have improved. The fan base is very good. If they win, they’ll be there. If they don’t win, they’re not as helpful. But that’s the case with most schools in the league except Kentucky. Two main issues were cited as problems for South Carolina: its perception as a football school and its location in ACC country. They have some good local players, but not as good as other places in the league, the opposing coach said. In the 1990s, they also joined the SEC to play football, but the school’s main athletic achievements have nothing to do with football. Most kids think it’s a football school, even though it’s not. Kids need to be reminded that they have a basketball history. They don’t have a story to sell, they don’t have the best assets. Ben Howland has a tough job ahead of him…. and maybe a good team at Mississippi State in 2021-22. Jim Brown/USA TODAY Sports The league is rounded out by Mississippi State, which faces challenges in the NBA due to its geographic location and relative lack of top players. It’s the worst city in the league, one coach said. Their stadium hasn’t improved for years, and they’ve only delivered a lot of pros in the last two years. The team, ranked second nationally behind Ole Miss, has made the NCAA Tournament once in the last 12 years. At the same time, the same coach said that Ben Howland and the Bulldogs have recruited players above their weight class like no other in the league in recent years. They have produced three NBA players in the last two years: Quindary Weatherspoon, Robert Woodard II and Reggie Perry. Since taking office in 2015, Howland has drafted 10 ESPN 100 prospects and one five-star recruit. It is not an easy task to recruit new players, but they have done a commendable job of attracting good players, he said. They have a number of top 100 players. And without looking at the recruiting rankings, look at who they have on the portal. They’ve gotten some talented transfers, especially this year. Harrison Brooks, D.J. Jeffries, another guy I liked in Rocket Watts. They have made great progress in recruiting.
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