Last month, we started our Sales Pitch series by ranking the schools in the ACC based on the quality of their enticements for men’s basketball recruits and then moved on to the Big East, where we examined whether anyone in the league can close the recruiting gap on Villanova. We followed that up with the Big Ten, and the biggest first tier we’ve seen of any conference so far, and the Pac-12, where UCLA and Arizona are keeping the rest of the league at arm’s length. Last week we continued with the SEC, where everyone continues to chase Kentucky on the recruiting trail.
This week, we continue our exercise with the American. Despite losing UConn back to the Big East in 2020-21, the league produced a Final Four team (Houston) and can also claim a top-ranked recruiting class and No. 1 pick in recent memory (Memphis, James Wiseman). The bottom of the league is weighing it down, both from a recruiting standpoint and in the standings, but the top half is consistently competitive. One school has separated itself with its sales pitch, however.
As a reminder, ESPN spoke with a wide variety of anonymous coaches across college basketball’s top seven leagues (as rated by KenPom and other relevant metrics systems), as well as nationally relevant programs beyond those conferences, for our Sales Pitch feature. Over an eight-week period, we’ll rank the programs in order of which have the best sales pitches for recruits and transfers.
While Memphis hasn’t had the most recent success in the AAC, the Tigers are widely considered the most established program in the league, and clearly the best recruiting program in the league. They landed the No. 1-ranked recruiting class in 2019, led by No. 1 recruit and eventual No. 1 NBA draft pick James Wiseman, as well as five-star prospects Precious Achiuwa and D.J. Jeffries.
We’ll get to Penny Hardaway shortly, but even removing him from the equation, Memphis still has a terrific pitch: The Tigers play their home games at FedExForum, it’s a basketball-rich city, and Memphis kids want to play at Memphis.
“It’s on a different shelf than everyone else in our league,” one AAC coach said. “It’s the access to local talent. One of the things about our league, 90% of us are in a metropolitan area. But that doesn’t mean the metropolitan area supports your school. But at Memphis, it does. And it’s known. If Memphis is on a Memphis kid, it’s a wrap. You better have a crazy hook to think you can go into Memphis and beat Memphis for a Memphis kid.”
“They’ve got the NBA arena, the history, the fan base, a really good recruiting pool there. They do have a leg up on the rest,” another coach said. “The NBA arena is a difference-maker and Memphis has players everywhere. Memphis has a different feel to it.”
Then there’s Penny. The former NBA All-Star Hardaway is a Memphis native who played at Memphis and then coached high school and AAU ball in Memphis following 14 years in the NBA. He has his own shoe line with Nike. Although his stewardship of the program has not been without its complications, Hardaway still has the “it” factor on the recruiting trail.
“Penny is just so connected,” one coach said. “In a recruiting battle, he is so persuasive. He understands it at a high level. He’s connected with agents, he’s connected with relationships that matter. He’s connected with AAU coaches, because he was an AAU coach. He’s got relationships with so many coaches across the country. And I think he’s really good at [recruiting]. There’s something to be said when he was a top-five high school player himself. He kind of understands that life, certainly better than I do. He’s pushing a really good product. Pro arena, great town, great city that loves basketball, they care about basketball.”
While Memphis-area prospects have provided the Tigers with an endless supply of talent over the years, there can be a negative for being so reliant on the home city for players — and that’s an issue for most schools that have to recruit one city so heavily. Navigating the different high school and grassroots programs sometimes leads to issues.
“I think one of their biggest recruiting knocks is they do rely heavily on Memphis,” one coach said. “If you’re a big-time national kid, but there’s a local Memphian already at your position, you might get caught in a political game. That could be a detriment. If all things are even or pretty even, they gotta play the Memphis kid.”
Memphis was the clear No. 1 for every coach polled, despite the Tigers not having the most recent on-court success in the league.
That title would clearly go to Houston, which is a miracle Jordan Poole buzzer-beater from reaching three consecutive Sweet 16s. Kelvin Sampson and the Cougars have been in the national conversation for four straight seasons, and reached the Final Four in 2021. There’s also history, highlighted by the Phi Slama Jama days in the 1980s and a pair of Final Four appearances in the 1960s.
“They don’t have quite the hook in Houston as Memphis does in Memphis, but they’ve become really hard to beat for a Houston kid,” one coach said. “Louisiana has been really good to them. They’re right on I-10. Four-and-a-half hours to New Orleans, three hours to Baton Rouge. They got [DeJon] Jarreau, [Brison] Gresham, Corey Davis out of there. They’ve done a lot of work in Louisiana.”
The money the school has spent in upgrading the program is noticed by rival coaches in the league, too.
“Since they’ve been there, there’s been $85 million in facility upgrades, $60 million in renovations on their arena. They have a state-of-the-art practice facility, development center,” one coach said. “None of it was in place before Kelvin got there. It’s a total game-changer.”
“Houston has sold out to being really good in basketball,” another one added. “Charter flights, private planes for recruiting. They have everything they need to be really good at Houston.”
Texas is arguably the most fertile state for basketball talent in the country right now, which gives Houston a great talent pool to recruit from. With that said, the Cougars’ rivals within the state have something to say about it. Baylor just won a national championship, Texas Tech played in the previous national title game, and Texas just hired Chris Beard and a highly paid coaching staff.
The gap between Memphis and Houston also has to do with the latter’s struggles in the 1990s and early 2000s. The Cougars made one NCAA tournament between 1992 and 2018.
“Memphis is probably about 15 years ahead of Houston in terms of getting it going,” one coach said. “In 2003 they hit a different stride, and they didn’t quite go through the abyss that Houston did — the huge drought of NCAA tournaments. They’ve always stayed relevant. They had a couple lean years [in the] Tic Price [era], but they never totally bottomed out like Houston did.”
Under Mick Cronin, Cincinnati was one of the most consistent programs in college basketball. The Bearcats finished in the top three of the AAC standings every year under Cronin, winning two regular-season titles and reaching the NCAA tournament all six seasons Cronin coached in the American.
Since Cronin left, it hasn’t quite been the same. John Brannen won 20 games in 2020, but was fired this spring following an internal investigation into the program. New head coach Wes Miller is walking into a pretty good situation, though; Cincinnati still has outstanding history and tradition, great fan support and a pretty strong brand in the Midwest.
“I think it’s their brand and their commitment to facilities,” one coach said. “They probably have the best ‘athletic village’ setup in our league. Nobody has the setup that they do in our league, as far as football, baseball, everything. They’ve done a great job as an athletic department in terms of putting a really nice product together for all their sports. You get a kid on campus, you have the ability to raise some eyebrows.”
One thing that sometimes makes it difficult to gauge where Cincinnati stacks up as a recruiting program is that Cronin rarely went after a slew of top-100-caliber prospects. He pursued a certain type of player, one that fit his system at both ends of the floor.
“Mick Cronin was never landing ‘dudes.’ He was getting blue-collar, nasty, three-star guys. It’s not like [former AAC player of the Year Jarron] Cumberland was the No. 1 player in the country,” one coach said. “They kept finding Mick Cronin-type guys that fit him and made it easy. I think Wes is terrific. We’ll see what direction he goes.”
The Bearcats’ location in the middle of several college basketball powerhouses can pose problems on the recruiting trail, although Cronin consistently went to the Northeast to take a few players and Miller might have to do something similar.
“There’s so many kids in the Midwest. Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, Indiana. Cincinnati does yeoman’s work in that part of the world,” an AAC coach said. “It’s such a powerful brand. They’ve done a great job of getting kids off the East Coast. And now Wes Miller is so beloved in the state of North Carolina, he can run to Carolina and get some things done.
“But Cincinnati, anywhere you look — east, west, north south — programs have gotten it going,” the coach continued. “Xavier is in their own city, so you’re not even the local school. You don’t even get a Cincinnati kid without a local fight. That makes it tough for both programs. Both have had such awesome recent successes, but you don’t even get to dominate your city.”
There was a clear drop-off between Tier 2 and Tier 3, although all three programs in this tier were considered a step above the schools below.
Wichita State has the best fan base and atmosphere in the league, and the Shockers have the resources — as evidenced by the fact they were paying Gregg Marshall more than $3.5 million per year by the time the two sides parted ways. The Shockers have produced NBA players and they’ve had plenty of recent success, including a Final Four appearance in 2013.
“They have an awesome atmosphere,” one coach said. “They give a s—. They really care about basketball.”
“Their fan base is ridiculous,” another coach added. “Their facilities are great. It’s not like Kansas has a trillion dudes, but the Midwest has some players in that Kansas-Missouri wheelhouse. And they can go down to Texas and get kids.”
Location was the biggest negative for Wichita State. Kansas isn’t a hotbed producing dozens of high-major prospects annually, and the best players that stay close to home will play at Kansas, Kansas State or Missouri. The Shockers have found ways around that, though.
“There’s just not a tremendous amount of local or in-state talent for them to pull from. They do have the advantage of Sunrise Christian to pull from, one of the top three or four prep schools,” one AAC assistant said. “But the reality is that most of those kids have made a decision or are pretty far down the tracks with their recruitment before they get to town. Under Marshall, they were a monster at putting kids in there. But they always grab somebody who signs early somewhere else, the coach gets fired, and then in the spring, now … they had a chance to experience Shocker Nation. Grant Sherfield did that, he obviously transferred [to Nevada]. This year they did it with Kenny Pohto. Every year they’re grabbing somebody.”
On the surface, SMU could arguably be higher than the middle of Tier 3. The Mustangs have plenty of money, they have perhaps the strongest recruiting base, they have great facilities and the place is rocking when they’re winning.
But it hasn’t translated to consistent success outside of an NCAA tournament appearance under Larry Brown and a 30-win campaign in Tim Jankovich’s first year at the helm.
“There’s nothing infrastructure-wise holding them back,” one coach said. “They should kill it.”
“They’re the best academic school in the league,” another coach said. “They can get most kids in. It’s not like an Ivy League school, but they do have to be more selective about the type of kid they bring. Some of the other schools can get anyone in there and be fine.”
While the location is great and the area produces countless high-major prospects, SMU is also battling the likes of Baylor, Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, TCU and Houston for them — plus national programs that dip into Dallas for prospects.
“The facilities are great, the school does have money and backs them. And the recruiting pool in Dallas is amazing, but you need to keep in mind the Big 12 and SEC and whoever else is going down there,” one coach said. “You look at the top 10 rankings in Texas and those cats are all high, high-major. You have to find guys early and get it rolling early. If you don’t recognize it early, you might be losing him.”
SMU has had success in the transfer portal, however, and the Dallas talent base has been a big reason.
“They do a really good job with transfers,” an AAC coach said. “A lot of that goes back to the players in Texas. If the top 15 players in Texas go to a Power 5, SMU can get them on the way back when they want to go back home. It’s a sexy option for a kid leaving a Power 5 school.”
Temple doesn’t exactly fit with most of the rest of the league given its location, but the Owls were a Tier 3 program for every coach polled. They have a tremendous amount of history and tradition from the John Chaney era; under Chaney and successor Fran Dunphy, the school made 25 NCAA tournament appearances.
And while the Philadelphia location seems outside the AAC’s geographic wheelhouse, opposing coaches pointed to geography as Temple’s biggest recruiting advantage.
“The Northeast is all theirs,” one coach said. “You have the ACC and the Big East there, but Dunphy made a living with those Northeast dudes. They have tradition. It’s the sixth-winningest program in NCAA history or something like that.” [actually fifth in Division I, behind only Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina and Duke].
“They’re outside the league’s footprint,” another coach added. “They don’t deal with anybody in our league for Philly or New Jersey [players]. Cincinnati recruited there under Cronin a little bit, but Baltimore, South Jersey, Philly, that’s not really our brand.”
Over the last decade or so, Temple has consistently landed three- and four-star prospects from the region — although the Owls rarely dip into the top 100. They’ve signed just one ESPN prospect since our recruiting database started in 2007: Shizz Alston Jr., who was ranked No. 96 in 2015.
Wichita State and SMU have done that a bit more consistently. The other area those two schools are perceived to have an edge is in terms of atmosphere and fan base.
“They just don’t draw like SMU or Wichita can. I haven’t felt that,” one coach said of Temple. “They don’t have the consistent fan support.”
Some coaches polled openly considered these schools to be in Tier 3, but the gap was too wide to overcome. With that said, there was arguably an even bigger step down to Tier 5.
UCF is an interesting one. The Knights have a terrific football program, one that has grown into a national brand. They’re in a great location in Orlando with a huge student body, and they went to the NCAA tournament in 2019. Some coaches in the AAC think UCF can be a factor in the coming years, but there are caveats.
“They’re just in such an awesome area for players,” one coach said. “Florida is just so loaded. There are some things they gotta get figured out. How powerful their football brand has become helps them in recruiting, because there’s name recognition. But most dollars are put into football.”
“I like UCF as a program. When you’re down there, you get the feeling that it’s a sleeping giant,” another coach said. “It’s a huge school, it’s like 60,000 people — but it has a commuter feel to it. It’s not like you’re on a campus where there’s students everywhere and it feels alive. I don’t think they get the advantage of having 60,000 students. I think they just take their football a lot more seriously down in Florida.”
The “sleeping giant” moniker is one that has generated plenty of disagreement, as it’s been used to describe UCF for the better part of a decade.
“They’re not a sleeping giant. Not until they care more,” one AAC coach said. “Like their practice facility, it checks a box. They have one. But it’s not particularly nice. They haven’t had a continued investment in basketball at UCF.”
South Florida runs into a lot of the same problems — and benefits — as UCF. The Bulls are in a fertile location for recruits and the school has had some football success, which brought some name recognition athletically.
“From a recruiting standpoint, they’re above Tulsa. … Tulsa is a better job, but not for recruiting,” one coach said. “Tampa is right there in the area with IMG Academy, Oldsmar Christian, Montverde. You have all the public schools there, but you’re right there in all those prep leagues. Potter’s House, Victory Rock. There’s so many right there in the Tampa area.”
There isn’t much success for Brian Gregory to sell right now, however. USF has been to three NCAA tournaments in program history, with only one coming since 1992. The Bulls haven’t been dancing in almost a decade.
“The area is good, the weather is amazing. But they don’t get fans,” one coach said. “You never feel a crowd there like you do at some other places. But I can see why a kid would go there for a visit and decide to go there.”
South Florida is one of two schools that received a mention as a program recruiting above its weight class. The Bulls have landed ESPN 100 prospects in the past, most recently when guard Caleb Murphy committed in the 2020 class. But Gregory has had massive problems with attrition, including this spring, when five of his top six players went elsewhere. Their destinations reflected pretty favorably on Gregory’s recruiting ability, though.
“The school every year you look up and they’ve got good players is South Florida,” one coach said. “Their 4-man [Alexis Yetna] went to Seton Hall, [Michael] Durr went to Indiana, their 2-guard [David Collins] went to Clemson. And none of those are a stretch. Another starter [Justin Brown] went to UAB. They lost the roster, but their whole roster was pretty talented. You prepare for them, and you’re like, they’re talented. They’ve done a good job of getting them.”
Tulsa was the other school to generate positive feedback for punching above its weight class on the recruiting trail. It might surprise some people, but Frank Haith and the Golden Hurricane have produced two NBA players — DaQuan Jeffries and Shaquille Harrison — since he took over in 2014.
There’s also a long tradition of successful coaches coming through Tulsa, from Nolan Richardson to J.D. Barnett to Tubby Smith to Bill Self to Danny Manning. And while Haith has done relatively well, his contract has been a question every offseason and he had to take a pay cut a couple years ago, even before the pandemic hit.
“Frank has consistently put players in there that’s way above what they should be getting,” one coach said. “He’s done a heck of a job getting some players in there and I don’t think his administration has supported him in the slightest. Every year they’re picked whatever and end up better than what they’re picked. The contract stuff has been a recruiting grenade. But every year, he’s got some dudes. He’s recruiting way above the output of what the university is putting in.”
“Tulsa hasn’t invested past that mid-major level, but they want the same results they had with Self and Smith, etc.,” another coach said. “None of those guys were in a high-major league. Give Haith what he needs. Every other school in the state of Oklahoma [allowed] fans last year, Tulsa didn’t. For 25% capacity, they didn’t think it was worth the investment.”
The Golden Hurricane also have one of the toughest recruiting bases in the league.
“They’ve performed well, but they’ve got recruiting issues,” an AAC coach said. “There’s some academic stuff they have to navigate. It’s a private school. Oklahoma isn’t going to produce enough talent for three high-major programs. It’s really similar to Wichita in that sense. You have to climb into someone else’s backyard for players.”
These two schools were at the bottom of the league by some distance among those we polled, clearly in their own tier. East Carolina and Tulane are not only the most challenging jobs in the AAC, they’re the most challenging jobs in high-major basketball.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that both programs underwent coaching changes in the last few years and both Joe Dooley and Ron Hunter Jr. attempted massive rebuilds. Dooley brought in 11 newcomers during his first offseason, while Hunter has hit the transfer portal in a big way.
East Carolina has been to two NCAA tournaments in program history and the last appearance came in 1993. The Pirates are in a state with plenty of basketball talent, they’re just not the first choice for most of those prospects.
“They just struggle for identity in that state,” one coach said. “There are so many North Carolina schools that have it going. And that’s a hoop state. There’s players on players on players. And if they do get them, they struggle to hold onto them.”
Perhaps there’s no bigger indictment of East Carolina’s recruiting struggles than the fact Houston has gone into North Carolina to sign four players under Kelvin Sampson — and three of them earned all-conference honors. The best player the Pirates have had in recent years, Jayden Gardner, just left for Virginia.
“The facilities just don’t match up with the rest of the league,” another coach said. “They’ve done a little better job with Joe Dooley. But if you’re a kid from North Carolina or South Carolina, the amount of schools you can go to in front of East Carolina makes it tough on them.”
As difficult as East Carolina is, Tulane might be tougher. The Green Wave actually have some tradition, going to three NCAA tournaments in the 1990s, and they don’t have the number of rival schools within the state that East Carolina does. But their academic requirements mean they have to target different players than most of the rest of the league.
“From a recruiting standpoint, it’s the toughest gig,” one coach said. “Them and East Carolina are both fighting a lack of tradition, a lack of pedigree. But on top of that, at Tulane, it’s an academic school. In a non-academic state. [Louisiana was 48th in the latest U.S. News & World Report education rankings]. There are a ton of players in Louisiana and Mississippi, they just don’t necessarily fit the Tulane footprint.”
It doesn’t help that Tulane has arguably the worst facilities in the league, too.
“It’s a tough job, man,” one coach said. “Ron Hunter does a great job. The gym holds like 1,800 people, 2,000 people. (Capacity is 4,100). They update it, but it’s tiny and they get no fans. No fans in a tiny gym. And it’s a tough academic school. They’re right there with SMU as the strongest academically in our conference.”