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Zion Williamson a victory for Duke, but do top recruits translate to titles?

Zion Williamson’s highlight reel

Spartanburg Day senior Zion Williamson picks the Duke Blue Devils giving Coach K the top three high school recruits in 2018.
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Spartanburg Day senior Zion Williamson picks the Duke Blue Devils giving Coach K the top three high school recruits in 2018.

Only minutes passed after highly touted recruit Zion Williamson of Spartanburg, S.C., announced Saturday that he would join two other top recruits in committing to play basketball at Duke. Then came the Facebook post claiming Duke had just won the 2019 NCAA men’s basketball championship.

Not so fast.

The commitments from the 6-foot-6 power forward Williamson, generally believed to be the second-best player in the high school senior class, along with top-rated 6-7 small forward R.J. Barrett, third-rated 6-7 small forward Cam Reddish and 10th-rated 6-2 point guard Tre Jones, assure that Duke will again have the most-talented team in the country next season.

Having the team with the most talent also essentially guarantees that Duke will again be a national championship contender. But a top-ranked recruiting class does not guarantee a national championship.

Recruiting and winning

A study of ESPN’s national recruiting rankings from 2007 through the incoming class – essentially the one-and-done era in college basketball – shows a minimal correlation between top recruiting classes and national championships.

Duke has had five (2018, 2017, 2016, 2014, 2007) of the top-10 rated recruiting classes during that period, Kentucky (2013, 2011, 2016, 2009) has had four, and Kansas in 2013 has had one. During that period, Duke won the national championship in 2010 and 2015, Kentucky won the title in 2012 and Kansas captured the crown in 2008.

Duke Blue Devils men’s basketball commit Zion Williamson explains how Coach K secured the five-star from South Carolina.

Over that same period, UNC had one highly rated recruiting class in 2014 (although nowhere near the level of Duke’s and Kentucky’s top classes), yet the Tar Heels won national titles in 2009 and 2017. Connecticut has not had anywhere close to a top-rated recruiting class since 2007, yet the Huskies won national titles in 2011 and 2014.

Other national titles have been won by Florida (2007), Louisville (2013) and Villanova (2016) without a highly rated recruiting class.

Granted, there are all kinds of problems with using recruiting rankings in any study. The subjectivity of such rankings far outweighs other variables that play into what makes a recruit an outstanding college player, or not. Additionally, my formula for ranking the classes has flaws, not the least of which is a random determination to rank only the top 20 players from each class.

Zion Williamson’s mother Sharonda Simpson explained how South Carolina basketball pitched her son, how he ended up picking Duke.

Rating system

Even so, the ratings give us some idea of what has constituted the best recruiting classes since 2007. That year was selected as a starting point because ESPN’s rankings only go back that far, and also it corresponds with the NBA decision in 2006 to essentially require one year of college play before an entrant could be eligible for the pro draft. So that was the start of the one-and-done era in college basketball.

In using the 20 top players in each recruiting class as rated by ESPN, my system gives 20 points to the No. 1-rated player, 19 points to the next-highest rated player all the way down to 1 point for the No. 20-rated player. Then the points are added for each program in each recruiting class.

Despite many claims over the weekend to Duke’s newest class being the greatest collection of players in recruiting history, my system found otherwise. Kentucky’s 2013 class included the numbers 3 (power forward Julius Randle), 5 (point guard Andrew Harrison), 7 (center Dakari Johnson), 8 (small forward James Young) and 9 (shooting guard Aaron Harrison) rated players, resulting in 73 total points for the class.

That Kentucky team struggled through a 22-9 regular season, lost in the SEC tournament championship game, then charged to the national title game before falling to Connecticut.

Pressure defense

The next three highest-rated classes belong to Duke, with the incoming group garnering 68 points, followed by the 2017 class with 64 points and the 2016 class with 54 points. The Blue Devils went 23-8, including 11-7 in the ACC, during the 2016-17 regular season, captured the ACC tournament title and bowed out in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

The current Duke squad, which features national player of the year candidate Marvin Bagley, is clearly a contender for the ACC regular season and tournament titles and the national championship by starting four freshmen from that 2017 class and senior Grayson Allen.

If there has been a common denominator – besides outstanding talent – in Duke’s past two recruiting classes, it is an overall lack of ability to play the kind of pressure man-to-man defense that has been the hallmark of Blue Devil basketball under Mike Krzyzewski.

As a result, the overriding question about the incoming class should not be about its national recruiting ranking or its odds to win the national title, but rather about whether any of those top-10 rated players possess any defense skills.

Top 10 recruiting classes since 2007

Ranking year

Program

Points

2013

Kentucky

73

2018

Duke

68

2017

Duke

64

2016

Duke

54

2011

Kentucky

52

2016

Kentucky

50

2014

Duke 43

43

2013

Kansas

42

2009

Kentucky

41

2007

Duke

37

Source: ESPN

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