More powerful power conferences won’t change hoops (much)

His team had more talent. It didn't matter.

Weird things can happen to very talented teams.

Today the NCAA board of directors is expected to allow the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC to set their own rules and pass resolutions without the approval of the rest of Division I. It is widely anticipated that this so-called “big five” will move toward offering full cost-of-attendance scholarships to their athletes, thereby giving recruits an added incentive to play at one of these member institutions as opposed to any of the 280-odd schools outside the charmed circle.

This will lead to a good deal of “rich get richer” talk, and, to be sure, I don’t suppose if I were a fan of a non-big-five hoops powerhouse like Connecticut or Memphis I’d welcome this development with unalloyed euphoria. But is this really going to have a huge impact on the actual college basketball results we see on the court? 

I’m not so sure it will. To my eye, talent in basketball is: 1) already very, very imbalanced in the college game; 2) very difficult to measure reliably in teenagers; and 3) correlated quite strongly but not at all perfectly with winning, particularly not with winning repeatedly in a single-elimination tournament.

Here is a list of every top-100 recruit who’s signed with a program outside of the “big five” over the past five years:

bigfivehegemony

All player rankings are from ESPN. Recruits in boldface signed with programs outside the “big seven” (football’s big five plus the Big East and the American), what we in hoops call mid-majors. Note that I’ve used Drew Cannon’s trusty sliding-curve rating system from back in the day, the one where signing the No. 1 ranked recruit in the country is worth 10 points, the No. 10 player’s worth seven, No. 25 fetches you five, No. 50 nets you three, and landing the No. 100 recruit gets you one point. I’ll call these “talent points,” and this season Duke hauled in 10 points simply by signing the No. 1 player in the nation, Jahlil Okafor.

Think of each national recruiting class as comprised of 372 of these talent points. The “big five” conferences, representing just 19 percent of Division I’s population in basketball terms, reliably sign between 74 and 85 percent of the available top-100 talent points in any given year. Talent is not just imbalanced in college basketball, it’s hoarded, guarded, and reserved largely (though never entirely) for a precious few programs.

It is by no means clear to me that these very high percentages can be nudged much higher, even with cost-of-attendance scholarships in place in the major conferences. But for the sake of discussion let’s say that is precisely what happens, and players everywhere start shunning Georgetown and UNLV and opt instead for sweet cost-of-attendance deals from Oregon State and Rutgers.

So be it. The other point to be made about the teachably short list shown above is that the college basketball world would not be changed dramatically if literally every player here had chosen to sign with a big-five program.

Don’t get me wrong, there are obviously some great players listed here. Anthony Bennett was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft (though one might venture to say this was based more on potential than on actual college production), Otto Porter was a first-team All-American, and anyone who says they wouldn’t want Fred VanVleet playing for their team is clearly not paying attention.

But if every single one of these 117 guys had gone to a “big five” program, that would have freed up or forced 117 other guys to go elsewhere. True, maybe those displaced players would have fled to other major-conference schools, but — until “big five” schools get higher scholarship limits than the rest of Division I — at some point this game of zero-sum musical chairs will result in a corresponding number of players taking roster spots with programs outside the power conferences. And that population of players will contain its own VanVleet-level surprises.

It didn’t take an evaluative genius to point at Anthony Davis in high school and predict that he’d probably be a pretty good freshman, and history strongly suggests that a healthy share of the top five or 10 players nationally in any given class is very likely to go on to big things. But we should still remember that something as orderly and hierarchical as a top 100 list is little more than cognitive fast food. We really can’t measure future performance that precisely, and you can’t monopolize what you can’t always find. (Consequently the only caveat here is what this new cost-of-attendance world order might mean for transfers. If big schools can reel in proven mid-major stars with a better deal than what the players’ current schools can offer, that will indeed reflect a troubling new development.)

Outside the “big five” conferences there is a very small number of programs that choose to play in the sandbox where head coaches compete annually for top-100 talent. That list would include the top half of the current Big East, along with the likes of Connecticut, Memphis, UNLV, BYU, Gonzaga, San Diego State, New Mexico, and VCU. And that’s about it. Most of these schools will likely look to “opt in” to offering their athletes the same kind of grants-in-aid that players receive in the power conferences. In other words this entire discussion concerns what the top 19 percent of schools will do with regard to their athletes — and how the one percent of schools just on the other side of that boundary will respond.

As for the other four-fifths of Division I, they’ll keep doing what they’ve been doing. They’ll put a team on the floor in the hopes that some decade soon, even with a complete lack of top-100 talent, the March lightning may strike, just as it struck Mercer. And as long as we crown a champion based on the results of a single-elimination tournament comprised of 60-odd teams from across the breadth of D-I, the lighting will continue to strike. Thank goodness.