"Man, you're REALLY a slave to recruiting rankings, aren't you?" is something I've heard maybe 150 times in my online life. If there's a sport, there are recruiting rankings, and if there are rankings, I can tell you which teams will be good. Coaching, sure, there's coaching, but over and above everything else, the team with the most talent has the best chance to win.
Look no further than Country Club U. Why are we so good at tennis and golf? Is it because Brad Dancer says "hit the tennis ball this certain way" and Mike Small says "hit the golf ball this way" and then regular, ordinary tennis players and golfers are suddenly great? Yes, coaching is a part of it - mentally more than "swing it this way", I'd argue - but both have been recently good/great because the recruiting is great. That, to me, is the biggest thing.
Take men's tennis. There was a dip there for a bit (by Illinois standards, at least), and as you may have heard, this year was the first time they advanced past the Sweet 16 since 2007. I believe they had gotten to the S16 six times over those 10 seasons but couldn't get over the hump. This year, they got there (only to lose to #1 Wake Forest).
How did they make a push back into the top-10 and past the Sweet 16? Recruiting improved. Dancer is still the same coach - he just went out and landed higher-level high school players.
Here is the tennis high school ranking site I follow. Before you say "who RANKS high school tennis players?", realize that for individual sports, it's ten times easier to be accurate in these rankings. There are national tournaments for tennis (and golf) where so many of the top players play each other, so you have head-to-head numbers for these players. Smith beat these 44 guys over the last year but lost to these six. Well, then you know where to rank Smith. Just write a simple formula and then spit out the top-100 players in the country.
And on that list, you can see where the uptick began. The tennis class was unranked in 2013, 18th in 2014, and 24th in 2015, and then the uptick. The #6 class in 2016 and the #4 class in 2017. Four of those players (plus two seniors) led the team to that Elite Eight appearance this year.
The specific numbers on those classes? Well, for the 2016 class, Zeke Clark was ranked as the #3 player in the country, Gui Gomes was #13, and Aleks Kovacevic was #24 (plus two unranked - by that site at least - players from overseas). In 2017, Dancer landed the #5 player in the country (Alex Brown) plus #35 (Caleb Chakravarthi) - the two freshmen who contributed on this Elite Eight team.
To me it's that easy. He had two great players (Vukic, from Australia, who quickly developed into his top guy, and Aron Hiltzik, the #1 player in the 2014 class) on the roster. To that he added #3 and #24 from 2016 and #5 and #35 from 2017 and went out and got past the Sweet 16. Up next? Get back to the Final Four. Can he get there? Well he has those two great classes plus the #27 and #78 kid coming in next year...
Golf is similar. Mike Small is a great coach - maybe the best "mental side" coach at Illinois in decades. But he didn't win the Big Ten until his 8th year as head coach. And now he's won it 9 of the last 10 years. What changed? He started to build a program and started to recruit a little better year after year. And now, his recruiting is elite.
This is the site I use for high school golf rankings. That and the World Amateur Golf Rankings (WAGR, which sounds like a gambling app). I check it to make sure Mike Small is maintaining his high-level recruiting. Answer: he is. The incoming class:
- Adrien Dumont De Chassart, the next great Belgian golfer in Champaign. With Dylan Meyer and Nick Hardy graduating, it's possible that ADDC is the top player on the team next season. The team will be led by juniors Michael Feagles, Bryan Baumgarten, and Giovanni Tadiotto, but on the WAGR, De Chassart is #176 in the world (which is amazing for a 17 year-old), Feagles is currently #250, Tadiotto is #388, and Baumgarten is #626. Again, that's ranking every amateur golfer in the world based on all the tournaments they've played, so having all of these players trending towards the top-500 means we'll have another great golf team.
- We also add Noah Gillard from Indiana who is the #27 high school senior on that Golfweek site. Consider him an Ayo Dosunmu recruit for the golf team.
- In-state phenom Tommy Kuhl from Morton also joins the golf team, fresh off a record-breaking score at the IHSA state tournament last fall. He comes in at #34 on the Golfweek ranking site.
- And don't forget that the sixth-man on the current team is freshman Brendan O'Reilly who was #22 on the Golfweek list for the 2017 class. He will factor in as well.
Again, it's never an exact science. There's one incoming freshman I didn't mention above - Luke Armbrust - because he wasn't ranked on the Golfweek site. But he was the state champion in Illinois in the fall of 2016, so there's always a chance that he's a surprise recruit. Just like there's always a chance that one of the highly-ranked kids is a bust. No ranking is exact.
But the reason Mike Small keeps winning the Big Ten and keeps qualifying for nationals is found in these numbers. Go look up the recruiting classes for Iowa or Michigan State or Maryland and they're nowhere close. We're the Ohio State football in this scenario - we recruit like they all wish they could recruit. All because Small built a program and now it's self-sustaining.
My point? Same point I've made for years. Sure, Urban Meyer is a great coach, but Ohio State wins because of recruiting and (pretty much) recruiting alone. Indiana basketball landed Romeo Langford and three other four-stars so Indiana basketball will (unfortunately) begin to return to where they were a long time ago. The top two men's programs at Illinois are tennis and golf... because the best recruiting at Illinois (by far) comes from Brad Dancer and Mike Small.
For Small, he built it, and now the recruiting sustains it. For Dancer, honestly, Craig Tiley built it, and then after he left, Dancer has sustained it (there was a dip, but it appears to be back). Build it and it recruits itself. That's always the plan.
And that's the focus for Lovie Smith and Brad Underwood. Build it and then watch the 4-star players knock down the door to get in. And when you have to hand it off to the next guy, it's a self-sustaining machine, not a tear-down rebuild.
Oh, right - and you need to win to get the recruits. But the recruits want you to win first and then they'll sign on. But you need them to sign on so you can win. But they usually don't sign up until you can prove they'll play for a winner. But you kind of need them to anyway.....