ESPN completed its Sales Pitch (ESPN+) series this week, examining the men’s college basketball programs beyond the top seven conferences 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 the high points of the recruiting landscape among college basketball’s best mid-majors, including the most impressive part of Gonzaga‘s ascension to the game’s top tier, the non-Gonzaga programs that have the most impressive roster construction and which new mid-major coaches figure to impress us with their ability to assemble a team and build a program.
Gonzaga has turned itself into an elite college basketball program over the past two decades, and has done so outside of the major-conference system. What has impressed you most about the construction of the Zags?
Borzello: From a roster-building and recruiting perspective, the most impressive thing to me is the way the Zags have transformed from a program that dominated the international market and landed a few under-recruited high schoolers to a program that started recruiting transfers as well as anyone in the country — and most recently, into a program that is recruiting high schoolers at a high, high level.
Mark Few has signed four five-star prospects in the last two classes, including a projected top-five pick in Jalen Suggs and the nation’s No. 1 recruit in Chet Holmgren. That’s on top of the transfers and the outrageously long list of top-notch international players they’ve signed in the last 20 years, dating back to Ronny Turiaf and Robert Sacre and more recently with guys like Domantas Sabonis and Rui Hachimura and Joel Ayayi. Gonzaga keeps evolving in its quest to become one of the best college basketball programs in the country, and that’s impressive.
Lunardi: Gonzaga’s path is unique and, by all accounts, impossible to duplicate. And the obvious lynchpin is Mark Few, combined with an administration that chose men’s basketball as the best way to market the university overall. It’s a risky strategy from an institutional standpoint, but we’re now seeing the peak of its upside on and off the court.
As a basketball program, the Bulldogs want for nothing. From salaries to scheduling to charters to infrastructure, the Zags equal or surpass the bluest of the blue bloods. As a university, a once-sleepy campus in Spokane is now a national and international draw (and not just for top basketball players). Gonzaga pushed all its chips to the center of the table and won.
And it started with paying — and then overpaying — Mark Few.
Medcalf: I think it’s the longevity. When Dan Monson made that inspiring run to the Elite Eight in 1999, it was an impressive feat that was also viewed as an anomaly. Gonzaga? It was supposed to be just another mid-major that found magic in the postseason and then disappeared. How many times has that happened in college basketball? Over the last 22 years, however, Gonzaga has reached the second weekend of the NCAA tournament 10 times under Mark Few. How many teams have had 10 legit chances to make a Final Four run during that span?
Every year, the Bulldogs face critics who swear “they don’t play anyone” in conference play and then they go out and make a run, silencing them. We’re impressed by programs that can do that for four or five years. Gonzaga has been doing this for two-plus decades. What Few has built in Spokane is awesome. What he has sustained there is borderline miraculous.
Gasaway: Perhaps the most miraculous part of what can rightly be called the Gonzaga miracle is that the Bulldogs have built one of the top programs in the nation while remaining a member of the West Coast Conference.
Other upwardly mobile programs have upgraded their conference affiliations during their ascents. Connecticut transitioned over a period of years from the Yankee Conference to the Big East (and then to the American and then back to the Big East). Butler went from the Horizon to the Big East by way of the Atlantic 10. But the Zags have done it their way. They’ve been members of the WCC, under the league’s various names, since 1979. You’re not supposed to be able to build a program that rivals Duke, Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky as a member of what is, the Bulldogs notwithstanding, a mid-major conference. No one’s ever pulled that off, except Gonzaga.
Apart from the Zags, name a team from the next tier of leagues — A-10, Missouri Valley, Mountain West and WCC — whose ability to attract recruits and transfers deserves credit.
Medcalf: Since Anthony Grant’s first season at VCU in 2006-07, the Rams have finished a season as a top-60 program, per KenPom, a dozen times. It’s easy to credit Shaka Smart’s fruitful run for the bulk of that success but the truth is four different VCU coaches all have teams on that top-60 list. That’s a healthy sign that the program itself — not just a coach — is playing a key role in attracting talent. VCU has also been able to mold so many players within that stretch, such as Eric Maynor, Larry Sanders, Mo Alie-Cox and now Nah’Shon Hyland. The school has a strong brand and, over time, it has continued to excel at identifying players who blossom into key contributors. That’s not easy to do.
Gasaway: San Diego State has impressed me by sustaining its success across the coaching tenures of Steve Fisher and now Brian Dutcher. In addition to current NBA players Malachi Flynn (a transfer from Washington State), Jalen McDaniels and, of course, Kawhi Leonard, the Aztecs have consistently finished at or near the top of the Mountain West thanks additionally to solid college players. Guys like Matt Mitchell, Jordan Schakel, Yanni Wetzell (a transfer from Vanderbilt), Devin Watson (transfer from San Francisco), Malik Pope, Trey Kell, J.J. O’Brien (transfer from Utah), Winston Shepard, Jamaal Franklin and Xavier Thames (transfer from Washington State) have done their bit to power SDSU over the last decade.
Lunardi: If you made a list of programs outside the Power 5/Big East that have the most going for them, I’m not sure second place behind Gonzaga wouldn’t be the Dayton Flyers. There’s a reason the NCAA continues to hold its First Four event in Dayton. It is a genuine major program in every respect: facilities, access to players, fan base, history and (with one giant asterisk) recent success.
Imagine if the 2020 NCAA tournament had been played. Imagine the No. 1 seed Flyers winning it all with Obi Toppin & Co. Dayton was more than good enough, but with an infrastructure and institutional commitment to sustain that success at a level greater than, say, Loyola Chicago or Butler (each of whom lost their version of Mark Few).
The Flyers get players and, with alum Anthony Grant in charge after flaming out in the SEC, have a likely long-term jockey. Even without an Obi Toppin, I’d buy low on Dayton.
Borzello: Because of Gonzaga’s success, I’m not sure BYU gets the credit it deserves for its ability to recruit at a high level. The Cougars have plenty of program history and tradition, they have a great home court, they have plenty of resources and they have recent success to sell as well. It’s a strong sales pitch. And it’s worked, both for high schoolers and transfers.
Under Dave Rose, BYU landed five ESPN 100 prospects from 2013 to 2016 and produced five NBA players in the last decade. Under Mark Pope, the Cougars have done most of their damage via the transfer route. Their top three scorers this past season were all transfers: Alex Barcello (Arizona), Brandon Averette (Utah Valley) and Matt Haarms (Purdue). Two seasons ago, Jake Toolson — one of the best shooters in college basketball — followed Pope from Utah Valley to BYU. San Diego State has done a terrific job and UNLV might have the strongest history of five-star prospects, but BYU is getting it done on the recruiting trail.
In what was a very active 2021-22 coaching carousel, name one new coach beyond the top seven leagues for whom you said, “That guy should be able to get the right players and win some games.”
Lunardi: Put me in the Richard Pitino camp at New Mexico. College basketball is better when the Lobos are relevant, and The Pit is rocking. It has been so long that most have forgotten what it was like when the Lobos were a real power in the West.
Pitino should be able to use his name and the program’s under-the-radar status to load up on transfers and junior college types. And the Mountain West is creeping back to regular multi-bid status behind San Diego State and Utah State, with additional ascending programs at Colorado State, Boise State, Nevada and ideally UNLV.
I like the hire and love the potential for a rebirth at New Mexico.
Gasaway: I realize that “win some games” and “Fordham” have been irreconcilable terms for, oh, the last half century. Nevertheless, Kyle Neptune has spent the past eight years working alongside Jay Wright at Villanova. If anyone can breathe life into the program in the Bronx, it could be Neptune. Put it this way, he knows what goes into building an East Coast Catholic program — and people forget that even the Wildcats had a “down” season (13-19) a decade ago. It won’t come easy for the Rams, but the Jesuits made what looks to be a good hire.
Medcalf: Prior to last year’s 10-18 stumble, Lamar had completed four consecutive seasons of .500 or better. Now, they bring in Alvin Brooks, a former Lamar star and the associate head coach under Kelvin Sampson who helped the team make last year’s run to the Final Four.
There aren’t many veteran coaches who know more about the Texas landscape than Brooks, who started his career as an assistant at Lamar in 1981 and served as head coach at Houston from 1993 to ’98. In Texas, the right second- and third-tier prospects can lead a team to the NCAA tournament. Brooks has a strong reputation and good relationships that should help him identify and attract those targets as he attempts to lead his alma mater to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2012.
Borzello: I think Kim English will be able to attract talent to George Mason. He was a key recruiter at the high-major level at multiple spots, most recently Tennessee, and he still has some name recognition from his playing days within the past decade. English is a Baltimore native, which should help in bringing DMV-area prospects to Mason, and he also has some ties to the New England prep schools.
I’ll throw out a sleeper name, too: Steve Lutz at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. Lutz was effective at Purdue and Creighton, but I think he’ll get it done in Texas due to his experience in the state — he spent time as an assistant at SMU, Incarnate Word and Stephen F. Austin — and his strong junior college ties.