Analysis of NCAAW Recruiting Part Two: What conferences are dominating recruiting?

In part two of our study, we examined what conferences bring in the top recruits and analyzed the recruiting approach of each league.

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It’s incredible the impact conferences have on college basketball. Over half of a team’s opponents are within conference, difficulty of conference is a massive factor in a team’s strength of schedule, and winning a conference regular season or tournament championship is a significant factor in determining NCAA Tournament seeding. The strength of a team’s conference affects its entire season.

So what is the best conference in the NCAAW? Well, if you talk to three different people, you may get three different answers. And the answers you get are likely influenced by the location of the subjects. However, if you’re trying to evaluate a conference objectively, one of the most important factors is the overall talent in the league. One of the best ways to judge that talent is to look at the recruits a conference brings in. 

In part one of our study, we determined which states and regions produce the most top prospects, both in terms of raw numbers and compared to their respective populations. Determining the most fertile recruiting grounds helped us understand what schools and conferences have an inherent advantage over the rest of the country. 

But now, more than ever, recruiting has become a national competition. Teams scour the country for elite prospects, and knowing where the best high school players come from isn’t enough. In part two of our study, we’ll take a look at what conferences have dominated the battle for top prospects and how each league approaches recruiting.

A couple of notes about how data is classified/used:

  •  All recruiting data is based on ESPN’s HoopGurlz 100.

  •  All regional classifications are based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s definitions.

  •  Conference data is based on current conference alignment. For example, Maryland recruits count towards the Big Ten total, including prospects that committed when Maryland was in the ACC. This method was applied because players commit to schools, not conferences. And if we are evaluating a conference’s present-day strength, the history of its current members is much more pertinent than the history of teams who are now playing in another league.

  • All non-Power Five conference teams are labeled as “Mid-majors.” Yes, that includes UConn, which certainly does not feel like a Mid-major but does technically play in a Mid-major conference. 

Which conferences are winning on the recruiting trail?

In part one, we determined that the South, particularly the Southeast, produced the most talent relative to its population. So it should come as no surprise that the two conferences with the most top-100 recruits over the past 10 seasons are the two conferences located in the recruiting heartland.

Over the past 10 years, the ACC has landed the most top-100 recruits, bringing in 213 top-ranked prospects. The second-most proficient conference is its regional rival, the SEC, bringing in 188 top-100 commits. Although the ACC and SEC have the most schools of any conference in the country, they’re also dominating on a per-school basis. The ACC has brought in an average of 14.20 top-100 recruits per school over the past 10 years; the SEC has brought in an average of 13.43. No other conference has averaged more than 12 top-100 recruits per school.

The battle for top-10 prospects is even more lopsided.

The SEC and ACC have averaged significantly more top-10 recruits than the rest of the country. Since 2010, the SEC and ACC have combined for 49 of 100 top-10 recruits, meaning that 29 of 351 schools account for half of the nation’s elite commitments.

The good news for the rest of the Power Five? It looks like the South’s stranglehold on the best players in the nation is loosening, at least a bit.

Over the past five years, the ACC and SEC have both seen a significant decline in top-100 recruits. The other three conferences have all seen increases. In fact, over the past five years, the Big Ten has moved from having the fewest top-100 recruits per school of the Power Five conferences to the second-most. The Pac-12 and Big 12 aren’t quite in that same tier, although they have certainly reduced the gap. 

Also, worth noting is the significant decrease in top-100 recruits attending Mid-major schools.

We’ve seen a similar development in top-10 prospects. During the first five years of the decade, the ACC and SEC had a distinct advantage over the rest of the NCAA. Over the last five years, things have become much more balanced.

Over the past five years, the Big 12 has become the number one conference in the country in terms of top-10 recruits per school. Meanwhile, the SEC and ACC are closer to the other two Power Five conferences than to the Big 12. And while the increase for Mid-majors may seem like a win for the little guy at first glance, UConn is responsible for all 11 top-10 commitments.  

How are conferences recruiting?

While every school employs its own specific strategy, many schools within the same conference have similar recruiting profiles. Typically, schools within the same conference have comparable locations, enrollment figures, and academic requirements. Because of their similarities, trends emerge between those conferences.

The Big Ten and ACC tend to attract recruits from the most diverse locations, while the SEC and Pac-12 focus on local prospects. The Big 12 has somewhat of a blend between the two approaches.

These results shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Being in the middle of the country, the Big Ten can steal and swipe players from every region. And although primarily in the South, the ACC also has programs in both the Northeast and Midwest, allowing them to have a near-national presence. 

On the other hand, the majority of Pac-12 schools are on the West Coast. It can be difficult to persuade someone who lives in the Midwest or on the East Coast to fly across the country. Instead, they’re often better off fighting for the players close to home. Meanwhile, the SEC is located in the recruiting hotbed of the country. Its schools don’t need to recruit prospects from Oregon or New York. Every school is no more than a state away from a half-dozen top prospects. 

Of course, recruiting isn’t everything. Just because a conference brings in more top-10 or top-100 recruits doesn’t necessarily mean it is superior to another league. Hypothetically, the best way to judge conferences would be to have multiple games between various teams from every league. Unfortunately, that’s not an option. We only get a dozen or so games between conferences, which forces us to work with incredibly small sample sizes. Because of that, knowing where the best athletes are playing is critical to understanding how talent is distributed across the country. 

But while tracking the talent level of each conference is important, ultimately, recruiting is a competition between schools, not conferences. A recruit for Duke doesn’t help North Carolina win games. Teams are worried about their individual performances, not their rivals’ achievements. In part three of our study, we’ll determine what schools are dominating the recruiting landscape and look at the different recruiting strategies employed by specific schools.

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