The Fall Of The “Blue Chips”

BY NIC JONES Ball State Football | Ball State Sports Link

What’s the first team that comes to mind when you think of college basketball dominance?

I can 100 percent guarantee you, that team is not at the top of the AP polls right now, nor among the top seeds in this year’s March Madness revealed Sunday night.

See, the thing about college sports is, talent dominates. The most consistently dominant teams over time have always been most talented.

While that doesn’t mean the team most loaded with pro talent will win the championship annually, it does show when we look at those schools synonymous with historical dominance.

Schools who top the leaderboards in players sent to the NBA like Duke, North Carolina, UCLA and Kentucky are all unranked this year.

So why are these revered “blue chip” programs having some of their worst seasons in recent memory? Simple. The one-and-done era of recruiting is coming to a crashing end, and they’re feeling the effects.

When you think of college basketball royalty, let me know if any of these teams come to mind: Gonzaga, Baylor, Illinois, Iowa.

Aside from the No. 3 ranked Michigan Wolverines, these are the top five ranked college basketball teams in America entering The Big Dance.

While every year is different and we’ve certainly seen historically middle-to-lower tier basketball programs make national championships runs, this year is different.

Aside from these schools are atop the rankings, the traditional “powerhouses” are at the bottom or left out altogether.

Duke missed the NCAA Tournament altogether. Kentucky finished with nine wins this season — none of John Calipari’s previous 11 teams at UK won fewer than 21.

The UCLA Bruins are atop the PAC-12 conference standings at 17-9, but are still unranked in the Top 25. North Carolina is an uncharacteristic 18-10 and also unranked.

So why is this season such a down year for these traditional powers? Talent is the dominant factor in college sports. 

It sounds crazy to think those schools don’t have tremendous talent, but it’s true. They don’t have their traditionally loaded rosters, due to the one-and-done era of recruits dying out.

Kentucky, North Carolina and Duke had the top three recruiting classes of 2020 in that order, so how do they not have an abundance of talent?

The answer is this: those kids never went to college. The typical five-star recruits go to college and play one season, hence the term “one-and-done”.

However, now there are alternatives to these recruits playing collegiate ball, and it comes with a salary.

The days of elite recruits teaming up at prestigious universities is dying. Prepsters Jalen Green and Johnathan Kuminga opted to play in the NBA’s developmental league (G-League, Team Ignite), while they spend their one mandated year removed from high school playing for a salary.

They were the No. 2 and No. 4 recruits in the country for 2020, respectively. It’s a crazy stat but of the Top 20 players from this 2020 class, only five total are at the four aforementioned schools (2 for UNC, 2 for Kentucky, 1 for Duke and 0 for UCLA).

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski talks to guard Jeremy Roach (3) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Miami, Monday, Feb. 1, 2021, in Coral Gables, Fla. MARTA LAVANDIER AP

While that doesn’t seem all too bad, in an off-season that was historically destroyed by way of the Coronavirus outbreak, it’s become hard to have your team built entirely from youngsters.

Due to the postponements and cancellations related to COVID-19, teams had to wait as long as 2-3 weeks in between games to play.

This disruption is problematic because inexperienced teams and players are hindered from building chemistry and playing experience.

While all of these schools except UCLA managed to pull in at least three 5-star recruits, they’re now being tasked with recruiting players outside of their usual stratosphere.

I know it’s absurd to say a 5-star recruit isn’t your usual choice, but when you snag all of the Top 10 NBA-ready players every year, it’s not ideal to have to mold and develop the tier of players you usually sit for a year under your one-and-dones. 

The schools at the top of the country — and at the top of the NCAA Tournament bracket — today are upperclassmen-led teams, who’ve been developing for seasons and are rising to dominance by way of their systems.

Teams that can keep players on campus longer and out of the NBA have been benefiting ahead of those with revolving doors of top talent.

Schools who thrive off of blue-chip talent, are dwindling in the middle tiers and standings this year. Two programs have embodied the one-and-done approach more than others: Kentucky and Duke.

Since 2015, neither Kentucky nor Duke – despite each having very good players — has reached a Final Four.

With schools recruiting and targeting kids who ultimately now are starting to lean pro, it opens up windows for other schools to prioritize top prospects and blend them with veteran rosters, as opposed to leaning on diaper dandies to lead the way to victory.

Living and dying off of Top 10 recruits is a huge talent investment and with more and more of that talent going various ways, the returns are proving to be less fruitful.

All of the worst factors happened to collide and fall onto the traditionally most talent-rich programs, so let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. But, mark this moment in history.

Let’s be real, the one-and-done era is ending. With six-figure salaries awaiting these kids straight out of high school, college ball is starting to seem very useless to the elite recruits. 

All in all, every top kid isn’t going to go straight to the G-League, as only 5 five-star recruits did last year. The effect it is having, however, is the recruitment of these blue-chip kids.

Does a school like Duke now have to ignore a Top 5 recruit in fear of him choosing to go pro and leave future recruiting classes depleted?

Nobody can say for certain, but the schools who recruit four-star recruits and lower-tiered five stars — and develop them for a season or two — will continue to dominate. It’s become the most effective way to put mass talent on the floor. It might not be NBA ready, fresh out of high school talent, but it’s clearly the best college ball is going to have to offer.

In awhile, surely the top of the top recruits will be opting to make money out of high school and leave the college ball to those who aren’t exactly NBA-ready, or simply want to get a semi-college experience.

That’s opening the way for those kids who usually sit early or don’t have the spotlight, to steal the show and join veteran-led teams and make big runs at championships.

The power scale in college basketball, to say the least is tipping, and the era of the traditional powers running the country with hoarded talent is ending. Everyone is getting a slice of the pie, and it’s looking like the fall of the “blue chips” has commenced.

Nic Jones

Author: Nic Jones