NCB On The Trail: Shaka Smart

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.

[+] EnlargeGregg Marshall
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall/FileCoach Gregg Marshall and the Shockers have yet to see recruiting take off as a result of last season's Final Four run.
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.

Butler’s initial Final Four run came with a much younger team as sophomores Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack were two of the team’s most important contributors, along with junior Matt Howard.

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.

[+] EnlargeShaka Smart
AP Photo/Clement BrittVCU coach Shaka Smart has signed three ESPN 100 prospects in the Class of 2014.
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.

The early signing period arrives Wednesday, marking the first time 2014 prospects can officially sign their national letters of intent, turning previously unbinding verbal commitments into contractually binding scholarship agreements.

Here are 10 storylines to watch for during the eight-day signing period:

Jahlil Okafor
AP Photo/Damen Jackson via Triple Play New MediaJahlil Okafor is hoping to sign during the early signing period. Where will he end up?
1. Package-deal decision day
Word is that Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones are both hoping to sign during the early period, and that means the country’s biggest package deal should have a decision within days. All indications are that the duo still intends to go to school together, but the final destination has become unclear of late. Duke has long since been considered the front-runner, but there’s been growing chatter for Kansas, especially as it pertains to Okafor. Baylor is the dark horse, and while nobody seems to be talking about the Bears anymore, neither prospect has said they’re out of the running just yet.

2. Awaiting word from Alexander
We’re anticipating an announcement from Cliff Alexander, the nation’s third-ranked prospect. The 6-foot-8 big man took the nation by storm during the recent EYBL season and picked up offers from some of college basketball’s most prestigious programs in the process. Four of those remain in the hunt for his services. While Illinois and DePaul have been the perceived favorites, Kansas and Memphis are in the mix as well. Look for Alexander to trim one of those four off his list before his announcement -- and ultimately make his choice from a list of three final schools.

3. Early or late? That is the question
While Okafor, Jones, and Alexander are all expected to make their decisions in time to sign during the early signing period (that is, on or before Nov. 20), there is another group of prospects we still don’t know what to expect from. Justise Winslow just took his last visit, and he could be ready to decide. William Lee is another ESPN 100 prospect who could very well be ready in the coming days. Stanley Johnson was once targeting a January decision, but he now appears to be on the fence, as there has been mounting speculation that he could abandon those original plans in time to sign early.

4. What’s left for the spring?
With 87 players in the current ESPN 100 already committed and at least four more expected to make their decisions in time to sign early, we’re expecting over 90 percent of the current ESPN 100 to officially be off the board within the next 10 days. That’s an almost unprecedented percentage, leaving very little left on the table for the spring’s late signing period. The big prizes for those playing the waiting game are likely to be Myles Turner, Rashad Vaughn and JaQuan Lyle, along with any of the previously mentioned top prospects who ultimately decide against early signatures.

5. Care for a contingency plan
With so few prospects remaining on the board following this period, the major question is what happens to the programs that have gone the distance with top remaining prospects -- only to end up missing out on them. The best examples are Duke and Kansas. The Blue Devils and Jayhawks have gone head-to-head for Okafor and Jones and have passed on other talented guys as a result. Now they’re in a spot where the consequences of losing out on Okafor and Jones could be especially high, with no good contingency plans left on the board unless they’re able to score Turner, who isn’t likely to be excited about being perceived as anybody’s runner-up.

6. Competition for Kentucky
Kentucky currently has the top-ranked recruiting class in the country. If the Wildcats can hold on to that spot, it would be the fifth time in John Calipari’s six years in Lexington he has secured that distinction. The reality, however, is that it may be unlikely. And while Kentucky’s class is undeniably loaded, the 2014 group will be remembered as much for the guys who passed on the Wildcats -- Okafor, Alexander, Jones, Emmanuel Mudiay, Kelly Oubre and James Blackmon Jr. among others -- perhaps signaling a decline in what has been one of the most dominant recruiting periods for any program in recent history.

7. The Big East is back (or never left)
If this season's recruiting class is any indication, the demise of the Big East has been somewhat exaggerated. While conference realignment might have forever changed one of the country’s most historic conferences, it apparently has not done much to hurt the brand. Xavier, Seton Hall and Georgetown have all put together top-10 classes, and Marquette and Providence are not far behind. With five different programs among the top-20 classes in the country and a total of 15 ESPN 100 prospects having already popped for the Big East, the league is recruiting as well as any in the country.

8. What’s the Matta with this class?
Ohio State has the second-ranked recruiting class in the country, a group loaded with four ESPN 100 prospects and another big man who is just on the cusp of that list. Yet nobody seems to be talking about the Buckeyes. With so much attention being paid to the potential classes at Kansas, Duke and Kentucky, Ohio State has flown under the radar. The reality is that coach Thad Matta did his work early and did it well. D’Angelo Russell, Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate are all coming in next year, and Payton Dastrup is essentially joining the Class of 2016 after he takes a two-year Mormon mission. The Buckeyes have solidified their future as well as any program in America.

9. Talking about the Tar Heels
Roy Williams and North Carolina are in a similar situation. They have a trio of ESPN 100 prospects on board for next season, all ranked among the top 15 prospects in the country. However, because all three were already committed by last May, the Tar Heels haven’t been at the forefront of any recent recruiting headlines. It’s a mistake to sleep on them, though, as they have one of the country’s best scorers on the wing in Justin Jackson, a swingman with elite athleticism; an alpha-male mentality in Theo Pinson; and one of the most dependable point guards in the country in Joel Berry.

10. Mid-major impact
A quick glance at the class rankings will show that the mid-majors are once again well-represented among this year’s top recruiting classes. San Diego State, VCU and UNLV have all asserted themselves as national recruiters. Steve Fisher’s four-man class is headlined by a trio of ESPN 100 products in Malik Pope, Trey Kell and Zylan Cheatham, while Terry Larrier and Mike Gilmore lead a similar four-man group for Shaka Smart and VCU. Dave Rice and the Rebels have one of the best incoming frontcourt tandems in the country in Goodluck Okonoboh and Dwayne Morgan.

Under-the-radar recruiting powers 

October, 22, 2013
When it comes to recruiting, there are certain superpower programs that are simply on a different playing field from everyone else in college basketball. Programs such as Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina and Kansas are the most obvious there. Those teams are national brands with Hall of Fame coaches, rabid fan bases and a history of success at the highest levels.

But there are always surprising teams that can rise up and compete with the big boys. Change and evolution are inevitable in the world of recruiting. Whether that’s thanks to a dynamic coach, a deep run in the NCAA tournament or an impressive crop of local prospects, teams can quickly establish themselves as forces on the recruiting trail.

With that in mind, we asked our team of RecruitingNation experts to predict which under-the-radar team could become a recruiting power in the next few years.