The Blue Blood Struggle: Is a Shift Happening in College Basketball?

A quick glance at the top 25 in college basketball, and many fans are left wondering, where are the so-called “Blue Bloods”? Kentucky, Duke, Michigan State and North Carolina are nowhere to be found, and Kansas has the most losses of any team in the rankings. So, it begs the question, is there a shift happening in the college basketball landscape? 

The quick answer is no. The Blue Bloods will obviously be back, but there may be a shift happening in regards to what is the most effective strategy to win in college basketball. 

Recruiting top “one-and-done” prospects may be too risky of a strategy. It puts immense pressure on coaches to turn in top recruiting classes year after year. Whereas programs that are able to retain and develop players for 4 years have a better chance at remaining at the top of college basketball, year after year.

Villanova and Gonzaga should be considered the new age Blue Bloods because their system is proven to work time and time again. The Wildcats and the Bulldogs don’t rely on top recruits each season. Instead, they usually have a few players that stay for all 4 years, consistently improve and keep their programs near the top of college basketball. Gonzaga and Villanova don’t need top recruits each season to stay at the top. Then, when a team like Villanova or Gonzaga land a top recruit, like the Bulldogs did this season with Jalen Suggs, it just puts them that much more over the top. Recruiting consistent 4-year players and excelling at player development is the key to winning. Then, when you snag a few top recruits you make a run at the chip.

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Recruiting will always be a primary factor in college basketball success. Yes, sometimes 1 or 2 players can immediately make your program a title contender, but those “once in a generation” players may no longer be playing for the NCAA. 

It is not a requirement to play college basketball in order to make it to the pros. So, while top prospects wait to become draft eligible, they will most likely want to get paid. Recruits can do this by playing overseas or by entering the new NBA/G League development program, which offers prospects $500,000. The number 1 recruit in the class of 2020, Jalen Green, decided to opt in to the NBA’s development program. If he makes a splash in the NBA, expect more top recruits to follow suit.

LaMelo Ball’s early success in the NBA after playing overseas and the league’s revamped development program could lead to watered down talent in the NCAA. The “once in a generation” prospects won’t be playing college basketball anymore, and it could become harder for Blue Blood schools to separate themselves from the pack. The talent gap between the so-called Blue Bloods and the rest of college basketball is narrowing.

Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, Michigan State and North Carolina can’t rely on recruiting as much as they once did to remain on top of the college basketball landscape. College basketball is slowly shifting towards player development and the transfer portal, and away from recruiting players out of high school. High school recruiting is no longer a dominant factor in determining the top programs in college basketball. More and more, schools are remaining at the top of college basketball without top 10 recruiting classes. 

Traditional Blue Bloods vs. New Era Blue Bloods in 2020-2021:

SchoolRecordNET Rating (Source: Recruiting Ranking (Source: 247 Sports)
North Carolina10-5#51#2
Michigan State8-4#84#48
Gonzaga15-0#2#6 (First ever top 10 recruiting class)

Coaching is the key to winning in the NCAA. So, the traditional Blue Bloods will surely be back as long as they keep their legendary coaches. But moving forward, fans should be accustomed to the occasional down season for these traditionally dominant programs. This season, it looks like it’s a down year for all of the Blue Bloods, which has only exaggerated the fact there may be a shift happening. It’s not because John Calipari, Mike Krzyzewski, Tom Izzo, Bill Self and Roy Williams are getting worse at coaching. It’s because the top of the talent pool isn’t as dominant as it once was, and the prospects that are dominant are more likely to chase the bag and skip out on the college experience. 

I’m not saying these schools shouldn’t be going after top recruits. Yes, if you have a chance to get a player like Zion Williamson, you get him. However, not every recruit is as sure fire as Zion. Schools need to back up their top recruits with players that fit their system and can be great role players for 4 years. This will allow schools to remain at the top even if a top recruit doesn’t pan out. 

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It’s a huge risk to rely on freshmen and expect them to dominate right when they step on campus. It may take a few years for that recruit to develop. However if the recruit shows enough potential, like Harry Giles or Skal Labissiere, he could get drafted into the NBA after 1 collegiate season. The recruit hardly benefits the school that recruited him and decides to develop in the G-league while making money. As a result, the school that recruited him got an average player for 1 season and is left with a gap in their roster that will most likely be filled with another freshman. 

If a coach is asked to completely reload with top recruits every season, it’s only a matter of time until a class of recruits is a bust and the program has a down year. In Blue Blood country, down years are unacceptable. However, Kentucky, Duke, Michigan St., North Carolina and Kansas fans may have to get used to down seasons becoming more common if they only keep targeting top recruits that usually leave after 1 season. 

You can’t blame the recruits who are tantalized with a multi-million dollar check for leaving. You can only blame the all-or-nothing recruiting strategies these programs employ. A balance of top recruits and consistent 4-year players is the way to ensure you remain on top every season. Recruiting only one-and-dones, like Kentucky and Duke, is a massive gamble. Not every recruit is ready to come in and dominate. So, a down year is bound to happen when you fill your roster with freshmen. 

New Blue Blood?

So, if a shift is happening in college basketball, who will the new era of Blue Bloods be? I already mentioned Villanova and Gonzaga as teams that are here to stay, as long as they keep their current coaches. I would also like to add Virginia to that mix.

Tony Bennett and Virginia basketball have grabbed a hold of the ACC over the past 8 seasons without relying on top recruits. Bennett’s Cavaliers finished as ACC regular season champions 4 out of the past 8 years and won a Natty during that span. Virginia has done it with stellar defense and players that consistently improve. Malcolm Brogden, Ty Jerome and now Kihei Clark have each led Virginia as upperclassman guards that improved each season. It’s a model that is proven to work without relying on top 10 recruiting classes. As long as Bennett is with the Cavaliers, Virginia should consistently be a top 15 school in college basketball. 

Virginia Recruiting Class rankings:

  • 2020: #18
  • 2019: #23
  • 2018: #65
  • 2017: #98
  • 2016: #7
  • 2015: #62
  • 2014: #32
  • 2013: #53

Source: 247 Sports

Top recruits are flashy. They help you win and put butts in the seats (when we aren’t in a global pandemic). However, just relying on 18-year-olds year after year is risky, and the talent gap is narrowing. There is more parody in college basketball and the traditional Blue Bloods have to do more than just recruit. So, while the Blue Blood schools are always going to bring in top recruits because of their pedigree, will they always turn into wins on the court? Not only do coaches have to be great recruiters, but they have to be great at player development. Year by year it seems like player development is becoming more important than recruiting. The coaches that are best at player development, not recruiting, are rising to the top and taking over college basketball.

A.Scott, Deputy Editor for The Challenge. Lifelong Jets, Mets, Nuggets and Flyers fan still looking to celebrate his first pro sports championship. Retired degenerate sports gambler who likes to come out of retirement. Learned how to count cards at the age of 18, but has yet to put the skill to good use. Primarily writes about the MLB, but will dip his toes into the NFL, NBA, college basketball and UFC. When I’m not writing for The Challenge or for a local news station in Syracuse, you can catch me either on the golf course or pounding brews with bros. “Don’t worry, be happy!” R.I.P. Mac Miller

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