Fran's 2020 Hoops Recruiting Class Is A Big Gamble

By RossWB on October 22, 2019 at 10:30 am
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© Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
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Entering Sunday morning, Iowa had just one commitment for its 2020 hoops recruiting class, Ahron Ulis. Less than 48 hours later, Iowa's class has ballooned to four, with commitments from shooting guard Tony Perkins and legacy wings Kris and Keegan Murray. Now that the dust has settled on the bang-bang commitments of Perkins and the Murrays, we can take a look at the big picture for Iowa basketball, which is... puzzling, if you're feeling more charitable, and downright concerning if you're not. 

I want to start by noting that I hope for nothing but tremendous success for Perkins and the Murrays at Iowa. I always want to see future Hawkeyes flourish in Iowa City, so I'm rooting for Perkins and the Murrays to blossom in Iowa City and become key contributors for Hawkeye teams that can contend in the Big Ten and make noise in the NCAA Tournament. That would be immensely satisfying, particularly in the case of the Murrays, whose legacy ties through Kenyon Murray add another wrinkle to their decision to play at Iowa. It would certainly be a tremendous story if they were able to follow in their dad's footsteps and have good careers here as well. 

That said, we can't ignore the elephant in the room with this recruiting class: it's completely off the map in terms of recruiting hype. Ulis is the only player of the four to receive a star rating from Rivals: 

Rivals 2020 recruiting class

247 has ratings for Ulis and Perkins, but that's it. 

247 Iowa 2020 class

As Iowa fans, we know as well as anyone that star ratings from recruiting services aren't the be-all, end-all. But they're not nothing, either, and there's a not-insubstantial correlation between star ratings and success, especially in college basketball. Not all highly-rated prospects develop into standout players, but their odds of doing so are better than those of lightly-rated prospects.

More alarming than the issue of star ratings, though, is probably the offer sheets. Star ratings are the work of third party recruiting services; they reflect the opinions of the analysts and employees of those services. Offer sheets reflect the opinions of actual college basketball coaches. The combined number of offers from high major programs for Iowa's four 2020 commits? One -- DePaul, who offered Ulis. Perkins' best offer was probably Toledo. The Murrays' only other offer was Western Illinois. Perhaps these players will all have sensational senior seasons and generate far more attention and garner offers from some other notable programs; their commitments to Iowa would take on a different tenor then. (One problem with that scenario is that with so much recruiting done prior to the beginning of a prospect's senior season there are usually fewer scholarship offers to be had for late-bloomers.)

This class looks like a significant gamble for Fran. One read of this class would be that Iowa's not able to effectively sell itself to higher-rated prospects, which would be pretty concerning for a team in the Big Ten. Fran's entering his 10th year at Iowa, with a mostly unchanged coaching staff, so he ought to be able to sell stability and continuity to recruits. Iowa's also been a solid-or-better program in terms of results for most of Fran's run at Iowa, with three NCAA Tournament appearances (and three wins) in the last five seasons. 

Fran has been able to recruit more highly-rated players in recent years, though many of them slept down the hall from him (Connor and Patrick) or were die hard Iowa fans who grew up less than an hour away from Iowa City -- and who played AAU ball with Connor and Patrick (Wieskamp). He did land Tyler Cook and Luka Garza in 2016 and 2017, both of whom were 4* prospects with a host of high-major offers and no family or local ties to the Iowa program.

Another read of this class is that Fran is betting on his own judgment when it comes to talent assessment and player development. That's understandable, but this is also where the offer sheet issue rears its head. It's one thing to argue that you know more than the scouting services -- it's another thing to argue that you know better than so many of your peers in the coaching world. The other issue with that is that Iowa's track record when it comes to assessing and developing lightly-regarded talent is shaky, particularly lately.

Fran did have some notable hits with off-the-radar talents early in his career -- Devyn Marble (who technically committed to Iowa when Todd Lickliter was in charge, though Fran did retain his commitment when he replaced Lickliter), Melshan Basabe, Gabe Olaseni, and of course Aaron White were all players with little or no recruiting interest who became some of the pillars who helped restore Iowa basketball (and White even managed to become a genuine star player). 

The problem is that it's hard to maintain a developmental rate with prospects like that and Iowa's success rate at doing so has gone down in recent years. His hit rate on prospects outside the Top 100/150 from 2012-2016 is less rosy (I omitted recruits from 2017 on because they still have a fair amount of time for their careers to play out). 

  • 2012: Anthony Clemmons, Patrick Ingram, Kyle Meyer
  • 2013: Peter Jok
  • 2014: Trey Dickerson, Dom Uhl, Brady Ellingson
  • 2015: Dale Jones, Christian Williams, Ahmad Wagner, Isaiah Moss, Andrew Fleming, Brandon Hutton
  • 2016: Maishe Dailey, Jordan Bohannon, Ryan Kriener, Cordell Pemsl

Jordan Bohannon and Peter Jok are unquestioned success stories from that group. (Although Jok's situation is a little unusual in that he was a major prospect with a lot of recruiting buzz and interest from high major programs prior to a major knee injury in high school; Iowa was richly rewarded for sticking with him during his recovery process, but he had certainly shown signs that he was a high-level talent as a prospect.) Anthony Clemmons developed into a wonderful sixth man and a tenacious perimeter defender. Ryan Kriener, Cordell Pemsl, and Ahmad Wagner all became solid complementary pieces and useful players off the bench. But the rest...?

Recruits like this are essentially lottery scratch tickets, especially at the Big Ten level. For the most part, you may hit it big on one of them every now and then, but you're going to be left with very little a lot of the time. Even some of the relative success stories come with a word of caution -- it's nice to have a guy like Kriener or Pemsl or Wagner, but it's hard to contend in the Big Ten with a team full of role players.

One of the bigger questions about this class has to do with the timing. That is, why offer these prospects now? As we already discussed, their offer sheets are not teeming with scholarships from other high major programs. For all of them Iowa is far and away their biggest and best offer. Was there a need to offer them now, knowing that an offer now is almost certainly going to be accepted and thus limit your options for the rest of this class? In other words, if Iowa waited until January or February to offer, what are the odds that an Iowa offer wouldn't still be the biggest and best offer on the table for them -- and one that they would jump at? (One caveat: the first National Signing Day for the Class of 2020 is coming up in November, so it's possible that they may have signed with a smaller program then, which would have prevented Iowa from adding them in the spring.) 

The additions of Perkins and the Murrays technically leave Iowa with no available scholarships for next season. And if Jordan Bohannon does opt to redshirt this year and return next year, there would be a scholarship crunch that would need to be solved. That said, the scholarship math is something that will likely work itself out. Riley Till could return to being a walk-on. Connor McCaffery could decide to play baseball full-time. Joe Wieskamp could decide to leave Iowa early to pursue a professional basketball career. And, as we saw this past offseason, we could (and likely will) see a few players decide to transfer elsewhere. In any event, stuff will happen and scholarships will likely become available. Chances are pretty good that there will be another scholarship or two available to use for the Class of 2020. 

Iowa is still pursuing other 2020 targets as well, most notably Oskaloosa's Xavier Foster, a 4* big man with plenty of interest (and offers) from other high majors. Securing a commitment from Foster would change the complexion of this class and give it some much-needed star power. That said, even adding Foster isn't going to change the bottom line for the majority of this class, which is that it's a gamble Fran is making -- that he sees something the scouting services and other coaches don't and that he and his staff can turn them into success stories for Iowa. I hope he's right. But history suggests it's hard to strike it rich with so many off-the-radar prospects. 

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