Last week, we started our Sales Pitch series by ranking the schools in the ACC based on the quality of their enticements for men’s basketball recruits, also debating the schools that do the most with fewer resources and those our team would consider “sleeping giants.”
This week, we’ll continue our exercise by examining the Big East, where Villanova has owned a clear advantage over the league’s other schools but the recruiting climate is heated in a conference where 10 of 11 schools have made at least one of the past three NCAA tournaments.
By way of reminder, ESPN spoke with a wide variety of anonymous coaches across college basketball’s top seven leagues (as rated by KenPom and other relevant metrics systems), as well as the nationally relevant programs beyond those conferences, for our Sales Pitch feature. Over a seven-week period, we’ll rank the programs in order of which have the best sales pitches for recruits and transfers.
The Big East will be one of only two or three conferences with a single-team Tier 1 at the top of the rankings. Villanova has owned the Big East, winning at least a share of seven of the past eight regular-season titles — and the one year the Wildcats failed to finish atop the standings was 2018, when they won one of their two recent national championships.
While the program had past success, including a national championship in 1985, Jay Wright has turned it into a national power, one of the most consistent and successful programs in the past decade.
“I think a lot of it is Jay Wright,” one Big East coach said. “People identify with him, he’s got an incredible track record and history. Villanova’s been able to benefit from their success on the court, an incredibly fertile recruiting area, a city that’s passionate about Villanova basketball, with players that like to stay home. They have a great campus, academics. They check every box if you’re a high school basketball player. If you want to win, if you want to play for a Hall of Fame coach, if you want to go to a great school academically.”
Wright did have a stretch earlier in his tenure on the Main Line, where he admittedly began recruiting highly ranked prospects mostly because that group started showing increased interest in the Wildcats. Unfortunately, several players didn’t fit the culture he has built at Villanova and a couple of down years followed. But he’s found the right balance in recent years.
“He’s going to recruit kids that fit Villanova,” one coach said. “He’s taken a couple five-star kids recently that weren’t fits culturally or didn’t work out there. It’s not easy to play there. The expectations are high, you have to play great defense, you have to be committed to playing really fundamental basketball. There’s not a lot of room for [expletive] around. You’re not going to fall onto the court just because of your ranking.”
There’s a clear gap between Villanova and the rest of the conference now, and as one coach pointed out, despite its status as a program near the top of the college basketball food chain, the Wildcats are not often recruiting against the Kentuckys and Dukes of the world — they’re going against fellow Big East schools, where they consistently have an inherent advantage.
“I think Jay can get whoever he wants. If they need three players, they can recruit eight of the best players from the DMV to New England and they know they can get three of them,” one coach said. “They don’t waste time recruiting. They’ll mess around with a Trevor Keels every once in a while. But it’s a situation where, if they get him, great. If they don’t, they’re not losing sleep over it. When they lock in and want a kid, and truly want him, they get them. And if they lose, they’re losing to a school like Duke, not anybody in our league.”
Marquette Golden Eagles
While there was a clear drop-off from Villanova to this tier, the two teams at the top of this group can close the gap.
UConn was one of the best programs in college basketball for a 15-year stretch at the start of the 2000s. The Huskies won four national championships between 1999 and 2014, they were recruiting as well as any program in the country and were producing multiple NBA players every season. Jim Calhoun left before the 2012-13 season, Kevin Ollie won a title in 2014 and the program hasn’t returned to that same level since.
“They took a hit going to the American [Athletic Conference]. It lost a lot of cachet,” one Big East coach said. “Danny Hurley is in the process of building that back. I think people forget just how dominant they were. When Calhoun retired, this was a national power, right there with the Kentuckys and Dukes and North Carolinas. It’s not there now, but it’ll be interesting to see if it can get back to that.”
“They’re locked in at second,” another coach added. “Four national championships since 1999. They’ve had great pros. Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Kemba Walker. And I don’t think kids care about location. You can recruit from Philly to New England, and kids aren’t concerned it’s not a major city or there’s not a lot to do outside the campus. You’re in your own surrounding city.”
Some coaches in the Big East will tell you that Georgetown has everything needed to be the best job in the conference. It has terrific history and tradition, it’s produced several NBA greats, it has the resources and facilities and it’s right in the middle of an area that produces a dozen high-major prospects every year.
The issue? The Hoyas lost their grip on local recruiting, and before winning the Big East tournament to get into the NCAA tournament this past season, the Hoyas hadn’t gone dancing since 2015.
“Why can’t they be just as successful as Villanova? It’s a beautiful area and campus, an even better school academically,” one coach said. “Stylistically, [the program] got hurt playing the Princeton offense, and they didn’t have great relationships with the premier high school and AAU programs in D.C. Villanova capitalized on that. The Kris Jenkinses and Josh Harts went to Villanova. It became the hot school. Now Georgetown is in a fight for their life. They have a nicer facility, they just lost that momentum. There’s an enormous amount of recruiting potential, but it’s going to take an effort to grab that back from Villanova.”
The lack of atmosphere and crowd support at games is noticeable, too.
“That’s the one thing they’re missing,” one coach said. “You play there on a Tuesday night in front of 6,000 people and it feels like 3,000 people.”
Marquette is the clear leader when it comes to schools in the Midwest branch of the Big East. The Golden Eagles have plenty of history, including a national championship under Al McGuire in 1977, and they also have one big advantage over everyone else in the league: resources. Marquette has one of the biggest budgets of any school in the country — something that helped woo Shaka Smart from Texas earlier this offseason.
“They’re there with Villanova and Georgetown, in terms of great basketball tradition, essentially no football tradition … Catholic school, great university in a big city, success with NBA players,” one coach said. “Marquette games mean everything in that area. They might be more popular than the Bucks. I think they have a top-five budget in college basketball. It’s a really invested program and university.”
“He is a relentless recruiter,” another coach said of Smart. “He will absolutely crush it at Marquette with their resources and facilities.”
St. John’s Red Storm
Seton Hall Pirates
This is the biggest tier in the rankings, and is essentially separated into two different geographical groups: three Northeast schools — St. John’s, Providence and Seton Hall — and two Midwest schools, Xavier and Creighton. It was also the tier that generated the biggest difference of opinion. Some coaches thought the two Midwest schools should be atop the group, while some thought the Northeast ones had the advantages. So we’ll include all five.
St. John’s has the most history and tradition of the group, seeing long stretches of success under Lou Carnesecca. The Red Storm went to a Final Four in 1985 and were regulars in the NCAA tournament in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Since an Elite Eight run in 1999, though, it’s been quiet on Utopia Parkway. St. John’s has been to just three NCAA tournaments in the past 19 years and the Red Storm haven’t won a tournament game since 2000.
But they have maybe the biggest single recruiting advantage in the league: Madison Square Garden.
“It’s the best of the group because of Madison Square Garden,” one coach said. “Mike Anderson has done a great job of getting relationships with guys in the city, high school programs. I’m sure he’ll start to mix in a couple southern kids as well, based on his experiences. But the tradition of the place, playing in MSG, New York City — that separates them.”
Providence received votes from coaches as high as No. 2 in the league and as low as No. 8. The Friars also received multiple mentions as the program in the league that consistently recruits above their weight class. Head coach Ed Cooley has landed 10 ESPN 100 prospects since taking over in 2011, starting with McDonald’s All-American Kris Dunn back in the Class of 2012.
“Their on-campus practice facility is one of the best,” one coach said. “They have access to all the prep schools in the region. It’s big-time. Ed’s been there a minute, too. And he’s an active recruiter. That’s in the equation.”
“Providence’s practice facility, it’s almost like an all-inclusive destination you feel like when you walk there,” another coach added. “It’s like an SEC football money type of facility.”
Seton Hall rounds out the trio of Northeast schools in this tier. Most coaches considered it a step below St. John’s and Providence, mostly due to MSG and the Red Storm’s tradition, as well as Providence’s facilities and recruiting base. But the Pirates have the most recent success of the three schools, by a considerable margin. Kevin Willard guided the Pirates to four straight NCAA tournaments from 2016-19, and they won a share of the Big East regular-season title in 2020.
Can they turn on-court wins into sustained recruiting success? The catalysts for many of those wins were local kids: Isaiah Whitehead, Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez, Angel Delgado, Myles Powell.
“They were able to ride that group even though the [assistant coaches that recruited them] were no longer there,” one Big East coach said. “But the best players in New Jersey want to go to Villanova or a big national brand like Duke or Kentucky, so they’re going to be fighting an uphill battle. It’s not a great campus, the degree isn’t like Villanova or Georgetown. They have to recruit tough kids that want to play hard.”
Then there are the two Midwest schools. Xavier was perceived by most coaches to be a step above Creighton, primarily due to location. There’s simply more talent in Ohio than there is in Nebraska on an annual basis. There’s also a tradition of talented basketball coaches and winning in the Musketeers’ program, dating back to Pete Gillen’s time in Cincinnati. It’s also one of just a couple schools in the league (Butler being the other) where every home game is played in an on-campus arena.
Their biggest advantage — the talent-rich surrounding area — is also a drawback, though. As one coach pointed out, they’re recruiting against Louisville, Kentucky, Indiana, Purdue and Ohio State for local prospects.
Creighton doesn’t have that same problem, but it does have an issue with the lack of high-major talent consistently coming out of the state of Nebraska. Greg McDermott regularly has to look elsewhere to recruit. The Bluejays’ starting five this past season consisted of a player from Massachusetts, a player from Kansas, a player from Missouri, a New Mexico transfer from Indiana and a Southeast Missouri State transfer from Florida. In an era of transfers and rebuilding rosters every spring, it’s not as big a disadvantage as it appears, though.
“I think that helps them because it’s made them unique. They’re not necessarily recruiting against other Big East schools,” one coach said. “Xavier isn’t battling Seton Hall for a New Jersey kid. In Ohio, if it’s a kid that Ohio State doesn’t want, Xavier is the next-best option. Xavier can battle Purdue for a kid. Ohio and Indiana have great basketball. Creighton’s the same way. Nebraska hasn’t been good, so they’re the dominant team outside of Kansas in that area. And they’ve done a really good job identifying players in other areas. They play a style they can recruit to: play fast, shoot 3s. That’s different from most Big East teams.”
Xavier and Creighton might have the best game-day atmosphere in the conference, too.
“Creighton, that place gets rowdy,” a Big East coach said. “That’s the one place, when you play there, you feel like it’s a different environment. It can catch you off-guard. It’s different than playing at UConn or Providence or St. John’s or Georgetown. It can mess you up. It’s a different feel to it. It’s more like when we’ve played at a Big 12 school.”
“Creighton has an incredibly passionate fan base,” another coach said. “A lot of people in the Northeast don’t realize it, but you have 18,000 people there every single night. Xavier is sold out every single night. The fan bases are really, really passionate about their programs. Both schools have had success in the NCAA tournament. There’s a real investment level. Taking Creighton from the Missouri Valley to the Big East or in Xavier’s case, taking them from the Atlantic 10 to the Big East, they’ve had to really invest. You talk to their athletic directors, and they’re going to tell you their men’s basketball program drives this university. That’s different than St. John’s and Providence.”
DePaul Blue Demons
These were the bottom two schools for nearly every coach we polled. Some had Butler a tier above, but still at the bottom of the schools in Tier 3, while only one coach didn’t have DePaul at the bottom of the rankings.
Butler does have some positives. Hinkle Fieldhouse is one of the historic venues in college basketball, and the Bulldogs went to back-to-back national championship games in 2010 and 2011. They’ve had some of the best coaches in the sport over the past two decades, with Brad Stevens the obvious top name. But it’s a coaching group that has also included Thad Matta and Chris Holtmann.
And the Bulldogs have had more on-court success than most schools in the conference, going to the NCAA tournament in 10 of 12 seasons from 2007-2018, and then winning 22 games in 2020 before the tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think it’s a hard place to recruit to,” one coach said. “These kids like the shiny objects, the new stuff. I love Hinkle, but that’s the reality of it. And there’s a lot of competition. It’s right in the middle of Big Ten country. Kids grow up wanting to go to Indiana or Purdue or Michigan State.”
Butler is perceived to be far and away last in the conference when it comes to resources and budget.
“They’re fighting an uphill battle from a resources standpoint, the finances,” a Big East coach said. “They had great success with Brad Stevens, the Final Fours. But if you’re a kid from outside the state of Indiana, and it’s down to Butler or anywhere else in the Big East, you’re picking another school. The resources, the NBA players, Butler doesn’t really have that.”
DePaul has finished last in the Big East in five straight seasons, and the Blue Demons finish last here too. The Blue Demons haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2004, when they were still in Conference USA. They haven’t finished above .500 in the Big East since 2007, their second year after joining the conference.
“Chicago is a really challenging recruiting landscape,” one coach said. “There’s a lot that factors into that. Chicago kids have left home for so long. Either for Illinois or a national school. Quentin Richardson might be the last big-time kid that stayed home. That’s just not in the fabric of these kids right now. The excitement level isn’t there. It’s been too many years of losing. The fan base wasn’t excited about going to Rosemont for games, 45 minutes away. Now it’s closer, but still not on campus. So it’s not the easiest thing for students. Chicago has so much going on in the winter. DePaul basketball has fallen down the rungs of importance.”
New head coach Tony Stubblefield has a difficult task ahead.
“They have no atmosphere at their games,” one Big East coach said. “I think we’ve played there one time where they’ve had a pretty good crowd. Playing at DePaul this year [with no fans] was like playing there all the other years.”