Welcome to “Good Morning, Illini Nation,” your daily dose of college basketball news from Illini beat writer and AP Top 25 voter Scott Richey. He’ll offer up insights every morning until practice tips off.
First, a disclaimer. Brad Underwood doesn’t care about recruiting rankings. That’s not just conjecture on my part or summing up a thought the Illinois men’s basketball coach has expressed. Underwood has said multiple times that “star” rankings don’t matter in his opinion.
In fact, I just looked it up. He mentioned this topic during his introductory press conference on March 20, 2017, after being hired a couple days prior. Here’s what he said then:
“You all may care sometimes if they are four-stars or five-stars. I don’t. It’s about putting pieces of a puzzle together and the identity that you create.”
Underwood hasn’t really moved off this position. In fact, in his post-Italy trip media availability he further discussed his approach to building a roster. Under-the-radar recruits have become more prevalent in Underwood’s time at Illinois, and he’s hit big on guys like Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Andres Feliz (both three-star recruits).
“It’s easy to go identify four-star and five-star guys,” Underwood said Aug. 19. “Last time I checked, they’re not always winning national championships.”
That last line piqued my interest. What exactly has been the makeup of recent NCAA champions? What type of recruits made up those teams’ top players?
Diving into the data — based on the 247Sports Composite rankings for every national champ’s starting lineup and sixth man in the title game — I found that, well, four- and five-star recruits are typically helping teams win championships.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the data I compiled:
— Reigning champions Virginia had five four-star recruits out of their top six players, with Kihei Clark the only three-star.
— The highest six-player average of 247Sports Composite rankings was the 2015 Duke national champs. The Blue Devils had three five-star players (Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones) and then three four-star recruits to round out the top of their rotation.
— Close behind 2015 Duke was 2012 Kentucky (a full starting lineup of five-star recruits) and 2017 North Carolina (four five-star recruits out of the top six).
— For every national champion between 2018 Virginia and 2006 Florida (the span where 247Sports Composite rankings are fully available), just 10 unranked, two- or three-star recruits were in the starting lineup or played the most minutes off the bench.
— Both UConn national championship teams had the fewest four- and five-star recruits. The 2011 squad had five-stars Kemba Walker and Alex Oriahki but also three-star Charles Okwondu. The 2014 national champs had fewer with three-star forward Phillip Nolan and unranked wings Niels Giffey and Lasan Kromah part of the top six, but also four-star guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright and five-star center DeAndre Daniels.
So is it necessary to have four- and five-star recruits to win a national championship? Not necessarily. In fact, Texas Tech was one of the best teams in the country last season and started three players that were three-star recruits and two that were unranked in the 247Sports Composite (even though Davide Moretti was a four-star per 247Sports’ own individual ranking).
Of course, the Red Raiders also lost in overtime to Virginia. Top players certainly don’t hurt your chances.