ESPN continued its Sales Pitch (ESPN+) series this week, examining the men’s college basketball programs in the American Athletic Conference that have the most and fewest advantages in enticing recruits and transfers to campus. After seeing the results of our survey, ESPN.com’s writing team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi debated some of the finer details within the AAC recruiting landscape, including what Houston needs to do to continue its Final Four momentum, the toughest and easiest places to recruit within the conference, and the lower-tier school that has the best chance to make a name for itself on the hardwood.
Kelvin Sampson has the Houston program rolling again. What do you view as Sampson’s biggest challenge in constructing more nationally relevant Cougars rosters in the coming years?
Lunardi: Sampson is the best thing to happen to the AAC since UConn won its “rollover” national championship in 2014, the league’s first season. A Sweet 16 appearance, much less a Final Four berth, is something for the American to truly celebrate. Sampson has delivered one of each in the last two NCAA tournaments.
To take the next step — to play and win on the first Monday night in April — Sampson will likely need the one piece that has eluded him to this point. He needs the lottery pick, the early-entry NBA star or another comparable talent to lift the Cougars to the highest level of the sport. Think Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs as a freshman or Baylor’s Davion Mitchell as a transfer.
It’s easier said than done, of course, but the surefire pro (or more…) has been pretty much a constant on all recent national champions.
Medcalf: I think the Final Four run introduced the world to what college basketball fans had known in recent years: Sampson is one of the game’s top coaches and his program is legit. I think true national relevance will always be difficult to achieve outside the Power 5 leagues. Villanova has two championships since 2016 and it’s definitely a major brand in the game, but you could make the case that Jay Wright’s squad still hasn’t received the full attention it deserves. But I think consistency is always the most important factor to relevance.
Sampson’s biggest challenge to maintaining that consistency will be the fluidity within the game. He’s benefited from Quentin Grimes and other transfers. He has another star in Kyler Edwards. But the transfer exemption and name, image and likeness rules will make it more difficult for everyone to sustain any momentum. And I think non-Power 5 teams will feel that more than the rest of the field. But, at this point with Houston, a 20-win season is a down year. Says a lot about the Cougars’ standing and their potential to extend their success.
Borzello: I think Houston is pretty nationally relevant as is, and the Cougars have consistently rebuilt and reloaded over the last few years to remain that way. If Jordan Poole hadn’t made the desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat Houston in the second round back in 2018, we would be talking about a program that had been to three straight Sweet 16s. Moreover, this will be the third straight season that Sampson has had to replace four starters. So he’s not exactly walking into an unprecedented situation.
I think Sampson has done a good job balancing some under-the-radar recruits with transfers that fit Houston’s style of play. The Cougars had one of the more underrated spring transfer classes of anyone in the country this year, landing Edwards, Josh Carlton and Taze Moore. Edwards was a double-figure scorer at Texas Tech and Carlton is an elite offensive rebounder. For a team that bases its system around shooting 3s and getting second-chance opportunities, that’s a pretty good start.
Gasaway: Houston’s biggest challenge could be sustaining the momentum from the appearance in the 2021 Final Four. The Cougars lost both their featured scorer and their signature defender in Grimes and DeJon Jarreau, respectively. We know Houston will defend and crash the offensive glass in the coming season, of course, but even within the Sampson era last year’s 28-4 team was something special, statistically speaking.
Then again, “living up to the standard set by last year’s Final Four team” is a really good problem to have. There aren’t many observers of the game who predicted this version of events playing out when Sampson arrived in 2014. You can make a case that, in terms of where the new coach’s program was prior to his arrival, Sampson has been one of the most significant hires in the nation over that span.
Behind the Cougars on the American scale of national relevance are college basketball brand names including Wichita State, Memphis and Cincinnati, and others like SMU, Tulsa and Temple where expectations have been historically high. Which of these places would you consider the easiest to recruit? Which is the toughest?
Gasaway: My default “easiest to recruit” test asks quite simply which programs have enjoyed sustained and (relatively) recent success across more than one coach. By that standard, the answers here should be Memphis and Cincinnati. Alas, all heck seems to be breaking loose, relatively speaking, with the Bearcats. Head coach John Brannen was sacked in April after just two seasons following an investigation into the UC program. Within a matter of days, Cincinnati introduced UNC Greensboro head coach Wes Miller as Brannen’s successor. Perhaps Miller will get the program up to the standard set by former UC coaches like Mick Cronin and Bob Huggins. We’ll see.
The toughest spot to recruit from would appear to be Tulsa — which, actually, is something of a backhanded compliment. You don’t earn a reputation for being the “cradle of coaches” (Nolan Richardson, Tubby Smith, Bill Self) if McDonald’s All-Americans are queuing up at your door. The Golden Hurricane have the opportunity to write quite the comeback saga in 2021-22, as Frank Haith’s program is coming off its worst showing in four years.
Medcalf: At this point, if you’re a talented prospect in the area, the expectation is that you’ll go to Memphis. It’s certainly the easiest pitch in the league. A lot of teams positioned in major cities would love to enjoy that same allure, but it’s difficult to achieve. Just ask Marquette or DePaul or Georgia Tech. But Memphis is a brand. You hear people talk about “Memphis kids,” but it means more than just their location. It’s a style and approach a player has, something Penny Hardaway covets in recruits.
I think Temple is the most difficult place to recruit because of the choices every prospect in that region possesses. Philly’s Big 5 has schools in four different leagues. While Temple has a legacy and a strong history, it’s in the middle of a recruiting landscape where players have an abundance of nearby options. Aaron McKie does not have an easy job.
Borzello: Memphis is undoubtedly the easiest place to recruit in the league, or at least has the strongest sales pitch of any program in the league. The Tigers are in a city that loves basketball and supports the program, they have great facilities and play in an NBA arena. Moreover, it’s nearly impossible for opposing programs to go into Memphis and get a prospect that Memphis wants to keep home. And now you throw Penny Hardaway into the equation, and it cements the Tigers at the top of the recruiting pecking order within the league.
The hardest of that group has to be Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane aren’t getting the best players from the state of Oklahoma, and they aren’t getting the second-tier of players either. The program has tradition and a string of high-level coaches, and Frank Haith has actually done a pretty good job in the AAC, but they’re closer to the bottom of the league than the top of the league from a recruiting standpoint.
Lunardi: The top of the American’s recruiting pecking order would have to be Memphis. In terms of player rankings, at least, Hardaway has the Tigers rolling. Give his recent rosters to Kelvin Sampson and the conference would probably have another national title (a compliment to Sampson, by the way, not a knock on Penny).
At the other end of the spectrum, outside obvious bottom-dwellers such as Tulane and East Carolina, my choice for “toughest” recruiting destination would be Temple. If we’re being honest, the Owls have lost so much of their basketball relevance in the AAC. Their aggregate league record is under .500 (69-71) in eight seasons, and this after six consecutive NCAA bids from the Atlantic 10.
Temple once stood toe-to-toe with Villanova in the Philadelphia Big 5, on the court and in terms of recruiting. Nowadays, even with Philly hoops icon McKie at the helm, if Villanova wants the best local kid, he’s not going to North Broad Street.
The American is a good league with a national title and multiple Final Four appearances to its credit, but top-to-bottom strength has been a mark against it in the national discussion. Of the four schools that have not been a consistent factor (UCF, USF, East Carolina, Tulane), which do you think has the best chance to figure it out?
Borzello: I find it really hard to come up with an argument that East Carolina or Tulane is going to figure it out and become a consistent factor in the AAC anytime soon. The Pirates and Green Wave have been to a combined five NCAA tournaments in program history and haven’t been relevant in a long time.
UCF and USF are both located in fertile recruiting grounds and have been able to attract some talent to their programs. But since UCF has done it before and has a very successful football program (which shows its basketball program can at least be relevant given the resources), I’ll go with the Knights. Prior to 2019-20, they had won at least 19 games in six of the last nine seasons. Granted, some of that came in Conference USA, but the program has clearly shown signs of life.
Gasaway: The American happens to be where the boundary between major-conference basketball and something else can be found. What’s wrong with that? Vive la différence, I say. The top of the league is unquestionably major. The bottom of the conference is not, but there are inspirational tales of upward mobility in the not-so-distant past. UCF was one roll of the ball on the rim away from defeating Zion Williamson and Duke in the 2019 round of 32. USF (granted, back in its Big East days) came within a couple possessions of reaching the 2012 Sweet 16. Hope springs eternal in the American from top to bottom.
Medcalf: Yeah, I think it’s UCF. We’ll always wonder what might have happened if Johnny Dawkins and Co. had won that game against Zion and Duke. But I think the Knights have an edge within that group. They have an experienced coach. They play in a great facility. And I also think UCF gets a push of local support from a big city the other teams in that group don’t have. The “Orlando’s Hometown Team” label is a marketing thing but it’s also proof of the growing brand.
People can laugh at the football team claiming the 2017 national championship but it could only pull that off because it had enough local supporters to back it. There is still a buzz around that athletic department, which has also helped the basketball team. Last year wasn’t fun for UCF fans, but it was also the first sub-.500 season since Dawkins arrived in 2016.
Lunardi: UCF is the clear answer here. The Knights are as relevant in football as one can be outside the Power 5, which speaks to the commitment to athletics overall. And now that we know Johnny Dawkins isn’t going to succeed Coach K at Duke, the program should continue on a very stable path.
Plus, any program producing this guy is OK in my book: