- Adam Finkelstein
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Everyone loves a good Cinderella story in March, and glass slippers fit best on mid-major powerhouses that prove they can play with the big boys on college basketball’s biggest stage.
It’s a script that has played itself out several times over the past few years. In fact, last season Wichita State became the fourth mid-major team to advance to the Final Four in as many years, joining Butler in 2010 and 2011, as well as VCU in 2011.
When an incredibly rare occurrence starts to become a growing trend, it’s worth investigating, and so from a recruiting perspective we’re interested in two things:
First, how were these teams built? Was there something in the teams' recruiting philosophy or patterns in their personnel that could help create a template for mid-major success?
And second, what were the recruiting implications of their post-season success? Were the teams' automatically able to recruit higher-caliber prospects?
In Wichita State’s case, its Final Four roster was built with a heavy emphasis from the junior college ranks. Coach Gregg Marshall rebuilt the program from the ground up in his six seasons on the job, and a big part of that was his ability to mine the junior college ranks for immediate impact talent. Cleanthony Early, Carl Hall, and Malcolm Armstead, arguably the best three players from last season's team, all attended jucos prior to arriving at Wichita State, as did several of their teammates.
VCU’s 2011 run to the Final Four came with a roster that had similar age and experience, but almost no connection to the junior college ranks. In fact, virtually all of the team’s top performers were recruited by Shaka Smart’s predecessor, current Alabama coach Anthony Grant.
While the rosters, and even styles of play, varied significantly among these teams, what unified both Smart’s VCU program and Butler under former coach Brad Stevens was their understanding of how to maximize the national exposure that goes along with a trip to the Final Four, and specifically their understanding of how to brand both themselves and their programs when every camera in American was rolling.
Stevens coined the term "The Butler Way" to classify the combination of skill, intelligence, and toughness that characterized his most successful teams. "Havoc" became the calling card for Smart’s VCU team, as a term that was once intended to represent its defensive pressure grew into a symbol for the overall mindset and style of the entire program.
Those brands became synonymous with those respective coaches and programs, and they continued to grow in subsequent seasons along with the continued success that both programs had, despite the fact that neither has returned to the Final Four since 2011.
It’s no coincidence that while Smart’s 2012 recruiting class at VCU was an especially good one coming off its trip to the Final Four, its 2014 class is even better with three ESPN 100 products -- including No. 42 prospect Terry Larrier -- and a fourth prospect just on the cusp of the top 100 in point guard Jonathan Williams.
Butler was seeing similar recruiting success prior to Stevens’ departure for the Boston Celtics. The Bulldogs were staying true to their philosophies in the recruiting process, but were undeniably able to get involved with higher-caliber prospects like Trevon Bluiett, Riley Norris, and Riley LaChance, all of whom ended up elsewhere after Stevens’ exit.
Conversely, while Wichita State surpassed both Butler and VCU by following up its Final Four run with an undefeated regular season and No. 1 seed heading into the NCAA tournament, the Shockers have so far failed to capitalize on the opportunity to brand their program in a way that will survive the test of time.
Ask a recruit what Wichita State stands for as a basketball program and you will likely be met by an empty stare. That’s not unlike the vast majority of other programs in the country, but ultimately that was what made Stevens and Smart special -- not just the success they had on the court.
Instead, it was actually Florida Gulf Coast and Andy Enfield who capitalized on the opportunity to create a brand during last season’s tournament as “Dunk City” not only symbolized a style of play but a brand of basketball that perspective recruits could get excited about. That momentum shot him across the country, which would have been virtually inconceivable before the tournament started.
But branding isn’t just about recruiting and building toward the future; it’s also about creating an identity for your current program, and in so doing creating a mid-major template.
Smart, Stevens and even Enfield fueled their recruiting efforts with a brand that was consistent with the type of basketball that they wanted to play as coaches. Smart’s defensive system is a descendant of what he learned under Oliver Purnell at Clemson. Enfield plays a similarly up-tempo style and his brand reflects that. Stevens is a thinker and statistician who values efficiency on both ends of the floor and his brand reflected that. As a consequence, all three were not only able to market their programs to a higher caliber of recruit, they were also able to market their program to recruits who were uniquely qualified to flourish in their particular style. In so doing, they created a mid-major template for turning one magical run into a path toward something far more timeless.
As we prepare for the NCAA tournament, everyone wants to know who this season's version of Cinderella will be, but ultimately what could be far more important is whether or not Cinderella has a sense of marketing and brand management, since it will go a long way toward the teams' ability to live happily ever after.