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March 14, 2012
Have Cinderella runs helped in recruiting?
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"We find ourselves more and more recruiting against BCS schools," Butler assistant coach Matthew Graves said. "Four or five years ago, you'd see different MAC schools and different types of Missouri Valley schools. Now when we're recruiting kids, you're looking at kids that might list Northwestern, Virginia, Michigan, Boston College. So you're seeing a different mix of schools that you're recruiting against than you were three or four years ago."VCU often had recruited against major-conference programs even before this Final Four run. Now the Rams hope to win more of those contests. VCU recruiting coordinator Will Wade discussed the possible change in fortune by mentioning a scenario in which the school targets five area players who fit the Rams' profile but also are receiving feelers from major-conference programs. "Maybe in the past, we could get one of those five," Wade said. "Now maybe we can get two or three of those five. It increases the odds, with our profile being raised." But it isn't as if these schools are now competing regularly for top-50 recruits. Butler's closest call with an elite prospect came when it pursued Washington (Ind.) forward Cody Zeller, the No. 15 overall prospect in the 2011 class. Butler was one of three finalists for the five-star prospect along with Indiana and North Carolina, but Zeller chose the Hoosiers and was named the Big Ten's co-freshman of the year this year. The Bulldogs had no regrets about going after Zeller. They believed they had a legitimate shot at him. Because he lived nearby, recruiting him heavily didn't come at a major expense. "With his recruitment, you weren't out a lot of time and energy because you weren't spending a lot of money flying all over the country," Graves said. "He was a kid who was in our own state. It was one of those calculated risks that just didn't work out. Certainly you have to try and go after some of those types of recruits because he fit the correct profile of the type of student-athlete we want here at Butler. We'd be selling ourselves and our university short if we didn't attempt to go after kids that fit our profile. "It's a calculated risk. You take the same kid, and let's say he's in California, where you can't get to see him as much. You're probably not going to spend as much time and resources if you're in an uphill battle with four or five high-major type schools. But for a local kid in the area, it certainly was worth the risk.'' The attempt to land Zeller didn't signal a permanent change in Butler's recruiting strategy. As much as Butler would like to pursue top-50 prospects on a regular basis, the Bulldogs are more intent on making sure they find guys who will work well within their system. For example, Butler's 2008 recruiting class didn't include a single Rivals150 player, yet it produced an NBA lottery pick (Gordon Hayward), a second-round draft choice (Shelvin Mack) and a four-year starter (Ronald Nored). All three were starters on the 2010 NCAA runners-up, while Mack and Nored played major roles on the 2011 team. Butler's coaches will talk to a prospect's high school coach, his school counselor and even some opposing coaches to get the best sense of whether a player is worth pursuing. No matter where a guy is ranked, Butler's coaches want to make sure he's a proper fit. "We're very big on watching kids during timeouts, their interaction in huddles and on the bench when they're not playing," Graves said. "When they're in a game and they're up 20, how do they act? And what if they're down 20 and things aren't going well? We're just taking into account all those things and coming up with the best analysis that we can. There's no perfect formula, but I think we can make an argument that we've done a pretty good job so far." Dunham represents one of the latest examples. The three-star prospect lives about 30 miles from Indianapolis and was considering Butler even before the Bulldogs began either of their Final Four runs. He committed to Butler the summer before his junior year of high school. He now has boosted his stock with a spectacular senior season in which he has averaged nearly 30 points per game while making 94 percent of his free throws and nearly half his 3-point attempts. "He was already looking at them as one of his strong contenders," Pendleton Heights coach Brian Hahn said. "The tournament success just pushed it over the top and made it the obvious choice." The Final Four runs also could enable Butler and VCU to broaden their geographic reach, though both schools continue to focus primarily on recruits within their own area. Butler had landed Marshall out of south Florida before its first Final Four run, but the Bulldogs returned to Florida this year to get a commitment from two-star guard Devonte Morgan of Tampa Prep. VCU also now should have more name recognition outside the East Coast. "It certainly raised our visibility," Smart said. "There's much more recognition when we call recruits. We get more calls back. Probably the best thing about it is they've all seen us play, so whereas everyone in recruiting typically says, 'Hey, we play fast, we press and you get to shoot a lot of threes and get to play your game,' some people back that up and some people don't. We don't even have to say that. They've seen that. They've seen it on the biggest stage. "That's probably the best part of what happened last year as it relates to recruiting." Yet Smart remains unsure about how much one huge NCAA tournament run can affect a team's recruiting fortunes. He wonders if top-level recruits want to see a longer period of excellence. He cited Gonzaga as an example. Gonzaga has signed six top-100 recruits - including 2007 five-star prospect Austin Daye - over the last seven years to pretty much shed its former status as a mid-major program. But that flurry didn't come until several years after Gonzaga burst onto the national scene with a Cinderella run to a regional final in 1999. On the other hand, George Mason of the CAA has experienced a modest upgrade in recruiting but has signed only one top-150 player (Erik Copes in 2011) since reaching the 2006 Final Four. George Mason has earned two NCAA bids (in 2008 and 2011) and has won only a single tournament game since that Final Four appearance. Copes was signed by new George Mason coach Paul Hewitt after Jim Larranaga - the coach who had led the Patriots to the Final Four - left for Miami. "I don't know if one year definitely makes a direct impact where you're now getting significantly better players," Smart said. "I think a sustained run of excellence - if you look at what Gonzaga has done the last 10-15 years - that obviously has an effect. I think a program like that is now able to recruit significantly better players than they were before.'' That makes the upcoming NCAA tournament particularly noteworthy for VCU. Just as Butler cemented its status as a national program last year by proving its run to the 2010 championship game was no fluke, VCU would love to show it can wreak havoc on a bracket in back-to-back seasons. VCU also must try hanging on to Smart, who is considered a prime candidate for Illinois' coaching vacancy. One trip to the Final Four already helped VCU raise its profile among recruits. A second straight productive postseason could have an even greater impact.