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A discussion of Florida State basketball recruiting

You have questions—we have (some) answers.

NCAA Basketball: Pittsburgh at Florida State Glenn Beil-USA TODAY Sports

As you may have heard, Florida State basketball has been making serious moves on the recruiting trail. The men currently hold the top class in the nation for the 2021 cycle according to the 247Sports composite rankings while the women have just wrapped up a top 20 class featuring three top 100 players. This success has produced hope, relief and outright giddiness among other emotions in many FSU fans. Let’s discuss this recruiting success and the ramifications that it could have for both programs.

These are real questions posed by real people in the sense that they are actual questions (they end in a question mark) and I am a real person (I have written all of the questions).

Let’s start with the basics.

Who are the members of the Florida State 2021 recruiting classes?

The men currently boast a five player class (all rankings courtesy of the 247Sports composite):

Jalen Warley (5*, 23 overall) is a 6’4 combo guard from Norristown, PA

Matthew Cleveland (4*, 24 overall) is a 6’6 small forward from Atlanta, GA

Bryce McGowens (4*, 30 overall) is a 6’5 shooting guard from Piedmont, SC

John Butler (4*, 51 overall) is a 7’1 center from Greenville, SC

Naheem McLeod (3*, 4 overall JUCO) is a 7’3 center from Plymouth Meeting, PA by way of Chipola College in Marianna, FL

The women have assembled a three player class (all rankings courtesy of ESPN’s HoopGurlz):

O’Mariah Gordon (5*, 33 overall) is a 5’4 point guard from Bradenton, FL

Makayla Timpson (4*, 54 overall) is a 6’2 forward from Blakely, GA

Mariana Valenzuela (4*, 95 overall) is a 6’2 forward from Mazatlan, Mexico by way of Montverde Academy in Montverde, FL

Are the Seminoles finished for 2021 or can more players join those classes?

The women have reached their scholarship limit so they are finished for 2021.

We should never count Ham’s scholarships but the men have one scholarship left. They are still in the mix for a few top 100 high school players but it seems likely that unless lightning strikes they will use the last scholarship on a transfer.

Those players certainly have impressive credentials but how good are these classes really?

Let’s start with the ladies first. Head coach Sue Semrau has raised the school’s recruiting profile in recent years. In fact, since 2016 FSU has had at least one five star player in every recruiting class but one (2020). In that time period FSU has recruited classes ranked 6th (2018), 7th (2016), and 16th (2019). This class will likely be another top 20 class but it won’t be ranked as high as the 2016 or 2018 classes. This class certainly features a quality group of players, but it’s not remarkable by recent FSU standards. However, as we will discuss in a minute, it was perhaps the most important class in recent Florida State history.

Head coach Leonard Hamilton has assembled what will likely be remembered as the best class he has attracted to Tallahassee (at least so far). I believe when the final rankings are announced, FSU’s class will have at least two (and maybe three) five stars. 247 lists only 23 5* players right now, but each of the last two years the site has recognized 28 five star players. Assuming they have a similar number in 2021, the Seminoles could see either Cleveland or McGowens (or both) earn a fifth star. FSU has had only one other class in the modern recruiting era featuring more than one five star player—in 2009, Michael Snaer (14th overall) and Chris Singleton (17th overall) picked FSU, and the class finished ninth nationally. That 2009 class was talented, but this one will likely surpass it, especially considering just one player from 2009 ever played in the NBA (Singleton).

How did these classes come together? Were they affected by the coronavirus?

The dreaded compound question!

Let’s start again with the ladies. Women’s basketball recruiting is different than men’s in several ways, but the difference most relevant here is that women’s recruiting is much more cyclical. In women’s basketball most players stay all four years. This makes it tough to have top classes every year because rosters can get stacked with talent and since top players want to play right away, they may shy away from rosters already loaded with five-stars.

This reality can be seen in Florida State’s recent recruiting history: 2020 (unranked), 2019 (16th), 2018 (6th), 2017 (unranked), 2016 (7th). This is a reality for everyone. Here are UConn’s recent rankings: 2020 (2nd), 2019 (unranked), 2018 (2nd), 2017 (2nd), 2016 (14th). UConn is the best brand in women’s college basketball, and they’ve been outside the top 10 in the recruiting rankings two of the last five years. For context, on the men’s side, Duke’s had a top 3 class every year since 2013.

Therefore, the Noles were seemingly due for a good class, and they got one. However, FSU failed to sign any high school players in the 2020 class. While not ideal, due to the cyclical nature of women’s college basketball recruiting this wasn’t a catastrophe as long as the Seminoles rebounded in 2021. That’s why this class has increased importance. FSU couldn’t bring in another disappointing class and expect to keep up with the top teams. With this class, they’ve put themselves in a position to remain in the top tier of the ACC.

This class came together relatively late. Three weeks ago, FSU had zero commitments and things were looking relatively bleak. Then Timpson committed, followed by Valenzuela 12 days later. Gordon joined on Friday to complete the class. Therefore, FSU went from nothing to a top 20 class in less than three weeks. It should also be noted that most of the top talent had already committed when FSU made its move. There are only 11 top 100 players still uncommitted. Basically, Florida State was able to reel in a much needed impressive class at the 11th hour to the relief of Seminole Nation.

In contrast, the men assembled their class relatively early. To be clear, I’m using the terms “early” and “late” in a relative fashion. The women could be said to have assembled the class “late” because there were so few top 100 players left uncommitted. The men could be said to have compiled their class “early” because 44 players in the top 100 are still uncommitted.

McGowens started things off on February 8th. Things were quiet for a while until Cleveland jumped aboard on July 21st. Only a week later Butler chose FSU, and Warley said yes soon after. Therefore, the men were similar to the women in that they picked up three quality players in about three weeks.

We should discuss how the pandemic has changed recruiting. There have been some important changes (in no particular order):

  1. The shoe leagues were cancelled. The EYBL (Nike), the Adidas circuit and the Under Armour League were all cancelled this summer. While there have been some events staged here and there (like the recent Crossroads Elite Invitational) this will have a big effect on player evaluations as some players won’t get seen as much and won’t have as much of an opportunity to rise in the rankings. As a result, player rankings may not be quite as accurate as usual and more players will likely slip through the cracks.
  2. In person official visits have been cancelled. This led to some players committing earlier than normal because virtual visits take much less time than real visits.
  3. Bluebloods have less time. Bluebloods generally only offer sure-fire studs early. They will accept those players at any time. However, they sometimes don’t want to offer even high four stars early because they may commit and take scholarships from five stars who are waiting longer. They figure they can wait for the five stars and if they whiff on them, they can circle back and snag the lesser rated player later. That strategy isn’t working as well this year because guys are committing earlier. Cleveland is a case in point. Kentucky and North Carolina tried to jump in late with him, but he declined. In a non-covid year Cleveland would’ve probably still been taking official visits at that point, so he may have been more receptive to a late offer.

It’s obviously impossible to know how the classes would’ve turned out in the absence of Covid, but I don’t believe it would’ve drastically changed the class for the women. As discussed earlier, FSU has a track record of attracting quality classes, and they likely would’ve been able to reel in a class like this regardless of the pandemic.

The men are another matter. It’s likely FSU would’ve had a very good class in any case as the program is clearly on the rise. However, it’s unlikely they would have all of these guys in the fold this early if official visits were possible. Warley said as much when he committed. He said he thought he would’ve chosen FSU regardless, but not this soon because he would’ve still been taking visits. My guess is McLeod and probably McGowens would’ve been committed by now in a non-covid year because they seemed locked in. However, its likely the other guys would’ve taken their visits and that would’ve taken some time. That’s important because it would’ve allowed other schools (bluebloods) to come in and potentially poach one or two. In that case, FSU would’ve still been more than fine, as they had other quality guys on their board (ex: James White, James Graham, Josh Minott, etc) that they could’ve reeled in, but the class would’ve likely dropped from top 3 or top 5 to the 8-15 range.

These classes are impressive. Does this mean FSU has moved into the ranks of the basketball bluebloods?

Again, ladies first. FSU is in a very good position. The program has been knocking on that door for a few years. Florida State really took a step forward with the 2015 team that nearly made the Final Four. Since then, the Seminoles have consistently been a top four team in the ACC. However, nationally, I’d put FSU’s program in the second tier. There are eight teams in the first tier and around 12-15 teams in the second tier. For the Seminoles to break into the top tier, they need to do a couple important things: 1. recruit top 10 players and 2. reach a Final Four. FSU has never reached a Final Four and hasn’t recruited a top 10 player since Natasha Howard (2nd overall) in 2010. True bluebloods accomplish these goals on a regular basis, so until FSU gets that done the Lady Noles can’t truly be considered.

Similarly, the men haven’t ascended to blueblood status. On the court, FSU hasn’t reached a Final Four since 1972. Although the Noles have had more recent success on the trail, two top five classes (likely) 2021 and 2016 aren’t enough to call Florida State a blueblood.

So how is FSU beating out the bluebloods for the top class then?

Traditional bluebloods have several advantages in recruiting. In no particular order:

  1. Prestige and tradition
  2. Excellent facilities
  3. Excellent coaching
  4. Many former players in the NBA
  5. On court success
  6. Excellent infrastructure (fan support, budgets, outside support, etc.)

Leonard Hamilton and his staff have done a great job maximizing Florida State’s advantages and minimizing disadvantages. Regarding the above list, the Noles have begun to consistently win. FSU won the ACC last year and finished fourth nationally before the season was cancelled. This proves to recruits they can win and win big in Tallahassee.

The number one thing recruits care about is getting to the next level ASAP. Florida State has seen a significant uptick in NBA players recently. In the last four drafts, FSU has had five players drafted (three in the first round). This doesn’t count this year’s draft where the Noles could/should have a pair of guys chosen in the lottery. This is greatly aiding recruiting. Coaches can now reliably sell their ability to put players in the NBA.

The previous two factors prove to recruits they’ll receive excellent coaching. This is especially true considering that of the seven players referenced who have (or will) be drafted, only three came into the program as five stars. This proves the coaches can develop players.

Therefore, of the above factors, FSU has significantly improved its position in numbers 3-5 (at least in the perception of recruits). The first factor takes a bit of time, but improvement is being made there, as well. Florida State is now seen as a very viable destination even for top recruits (#newblood), despite not having an extensive tradition of success, so the prestige level of going to FSU is now greater.

The other two factors basically come down to money. Until more money is invested in the program the infrastructure and facilities won’t appreciably improve. FSU has average (at best) facilities relative to the rest of the ACC. The recruiting budget isn’t as great, and Florida State gets virtually no help from its shoe partner (Nike).

However, this year (because of covid), those factors haven’t mattered as much. As noted before, recruits can’t take in-person official visits. Therefore, it’s harder to appreciate the differences in facilities. Also, games aren’t being played, so it’s harder to appreciate the difference in fan support between FSU and Kentucky or Kansas.

Budgets are an issue, as well. Bluebloods have fatter recruiting budgets. To see how this matters, consider how it usually works. A program like Duke can fly a coach (or several) by charter to watch top recruits in tournaments on Sunday evening and have them back in time for Monday morning practice. Bluebloods will have coaches three or four deep for games featuring top recruits on a regular basis to “show the love”. Recruits notice which coaches show up for their games. FSU simply doesn’t have the money for that, so the Noles often miss out. In the Age of Covid this isn’t such a big deal because no one is flying and games weren’t being played as often. Basically, covid acted as a huge leveler in the recruiting game, and Florida State took full advantage.

Great! So is this type of success sustainable?

For the women, yes. This is the type of class FSU needs to bring in at least every two years. In fact, if the Lady Noles want to rise to the top tier, they probably need to do it on a more regular basis.

For the men, it really depends on what you mean by “this type of success”. FSU can’t be expected to reel in top 5 classes every year. However, Florida State has raised the recruiting standard appreciably, and it’s probably sustainable. I expect the Seminoles to be in the top 20-25 each year, as long as they have scholarships available. In some years, the Noles can expect to crack the top 5 or 10, but FSU isn’t suddenly going to turn into Duke or Kentucky.

Finally, will the men retain their top spot when the final rankings are published?

While there’s a legitimate chance, I think they’ll get passed by someone (most likely Duke). For the past five years, every top recruiting class had at least 70 points in the 247Sports system. FSU currently has 68.38 points. Yes, the Noles are really close to 70. However, getting those last 1.62 points will be really tough. FSU only has one scholarship left. Even in the unlikely event that they can reel in top 10 player Michael Foster (believed to be the top player left on their board) FSU will only rise to 69.54 points. That could be enough to keep the number one spot, especially if the other teams falter, but Duke probably won’t falter.

The Blue Devils currently sit in 12th place. They already have two top 10 players. They’re also in the running for at least four more five stars. If they can get two of them (which I think is likely), they’ll pass FSU even if FSU gets Foster.

That said, FSU is almost a lock for a top 5 class and is likely going to end up top 3. The future is bright in Tallahassee.