In recruiting, winning still matters

Based on the actions of today's elite players, who frequently spend less than one calendar year on a college campus, it's easy to assume that the quickest path to the NBA is the factor that always weighs heavily in recruiting decisions.

And that's definitely true for many prospects. Even less than a decade ago, high school players typically paid lip service to tradition, academics and the like, but behind closed doors they spoke more comfortably about their immediate professional aspirations.

Today, many top players overtly declare a plan to exit college for the NBA as quickly as reasonably possible. For that reason, then, the thinking goes that modern grassroots stars choose a college primarily — or exclusively — on the basis of how successfully they can attain that goal. One and done, play for pay, and many fans have complained that the college game has become diminished.

But a closer examination at this week's signing period suggests that the conventional wisdom fails to paint a complete picture. Though a track record for one-and-done success does top the criteria for many prospects, winning big — and the opportunity to capture a national title — still matters as well.

Consider this: When Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones announce for either Duke or Kansas on Friday, that will mean that nine of the top 25 seniors signed with a team that won a national championship within the past seven seasons. Not over the past 10 or 15 years, only seven. And depending on what Cliff Alexander, Myles Turner and others do, that number could soar further.

In addition to those nine, a whopping 16 of the top 44 will have chosen those seven championship schools.

You could make the reflexive argument that players aren't choosing elite programs for the on-court triumphs, but rather their ability to catapult players to the NBA. And in Kentucky's case, that perspective may be compelling.

But look at the entirety of that list: Louisville, Kentucky, Connecticut, Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and Florida.

Apart from John Calipari's Wildcats, which of those programs has become synonymous with one-and-done players?

The Cardinals last season prevailed due to immense experience, not because of their young pups. And Rick Pitino has discussed publicly his aversion to targeting an abundance of one-year recruits, yet as of today (they'll drop tomorrow) U-L holds the country's No. 10 fall class.

Connecticut captured a title in 2011 thanks to junior guard Kemba Walker's wizardry and, following Jim Calhoun's retirement, also have not become a one-and-done specialist during the Kevin Ollie regime to this point.

Last season, Duke had two McDonald's All-American seniors starting in its frontcourt — Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly — a rarity in the modern age. So if Okafor commits to the Blue Devils, as most analysts predict, he obviously won't be stepping into a program that regularly churns out freshmen big men to the NBA.

The package deal's other finalist, Kansas, also hasn't sent legions of freshmen big guys to the NBA. Senior Jeff Withey patrolled the lane for the Jayhawks last season, and the 2011-12 team featured a junior All-American in Thomas Robinson.

Given that Duke and Kansas fended off effectively every other major school, including Kentucky, there has to be something else Okafor likes about those programs, right?

North Carolina hasn't sent a freshman to the NBA since Brandan Wright back in 2007. The Tar Heels landed former No. 1 prospect Harrison Barnes since that time, and he spent two years in Chapel Hill. Barnes also joined senior Tyler Zeller and junior John Henson two years ago in forestalling a certain opportunity in the NBA, yet even those abnormally lengthy campus stays didn't prevent Roy Williams from inking the country's No. 2 signing class (as with Louisville, it will drop tomorrow) this week.

Billy Donovan has inked consecutive elite classes despite criticizing the one-and-done rule currently in place. The Gators haven't been hostile toward their freshmen's aspirations, mind you — Brad Beal recently made the leap after one season — but clearly they haven't signed these great classes on the basis of marketing themselves as an immediate NBA factory.

You might compose a counterargument pointing to Kentucky's success — the Wildcats continue to throttle everyone in recruiting — and note that, while there are other ways, UK's is the best way. Clearly, some of the schools appearing in this column have missed on players due to their less committed embrace of NBA fast-tracking.

But Kentucky will not have the top-rated class after tomorrow, nor are the Wildcats getting every player they want (e.g., Okafor, Emmanuel Mudiay, Andrew Wiggins).

Realistically, every elite prospect calculates his career path with a professional future in mind. That said, despite the increasing number of players leaving college after one season and the current dominance of the one-and-climate, recruiting decisions have remained more complex and dynamic than many assume.

These elite prospects aren't just athletes; they are competitors. And while we'll continue to see the NBA bandied about as the sole criterion for every top player, the truth is that championships, leadership, infrastructure and tradition have retained significant influence as well.

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