Reflecting on the Top 100 list: What makes a great women's basketball program?

Kevin C. Cox

A Division I coach helps us reflect on the criteria for our Top 100 programs list with a discussion about attendance, recruiting, and red flags. For the full list, visit our Top 100 programs storystream.

Our Top 100 Programs in Division I women's basketball list gets noticed. People may not agree with the results, but it is definitely a springboard for discussion.

Over the last three years, I've gotten some mail about the list but usually from fans or from college media directors that might point out some error of fact that needs to be changed - an incorrect spelling or year, for example.

This year was different.

I received an e-mail from a head coach at a Division I women's basketball school who agreed to talk to Swish Appeal off-the record about the list. I had the chance to speak to the coach over the phone, taking copious notes and I can say that the call was a true eye-opener about life at the Division I head coaching level.

Our anonymous Division I head coach was familiar with the Top 100 Division I programs list, having read the previous list when it was released in 2011. One thing the coach liked about the list was that it wasn't entirely a wins-based list - it makes an attempt to capture other facets of what makes a college basketball program successful. The coach agreed that having a winning tradition and fan support were important, but expressed concern that low major conferences might be overlooked.

In short, there was definitely a lot to talk about.

Attendance

We discussed two aspects of the list: attendance and recruiting. I mentioned that the current list uses four years of attendance data, which led to the discussion of how D-I schools counted attendance. The coach shared with me a conversation with a marketing director - one from a previous employer before their current head coaching job. The director counted the members of each team, the workers at the scorer's tables, the cheerleaders, the parents, staff etc. in the final attendance numbers! After adding season ticket holders who might not be physically present the school could possibly get an extra three digits in "attendance" before a single ticket was sold.

In the coach's eyes, there appeared to be a lot of latitude among programs as to how attendance was counted. Like WNBA attendance, attendance depends on who is doing the counting, and butts-in-seats might not equal numbers-on-paper. The coach felt that that some women's basketball programs had legitimate attendance numbers, but other numbers might be suspect.

Recruiting

We discussed how recruiting was calculated in the Top 100 list. In building the list I made use of the ESPN website, specifically the old Hoopgurlz player ranking sites in order to measure the name value of a player and the success programs had in picking up name recruits.

Our coach stated that in some cases, parents or other interested parties would lobby the workers at Hoopgurlz or other national ranking sites for inclusion on the list. They mentioned a case of a girl on the Hoopgurlz Top 100 list that played in the school's recruiting area. The coach defined the school's recruiting area as a six-hour driving radius, and this player was just ninety minutes away. The coach assessed the player and determined that the player was simply not good enough to recruit. That player who made the list - and was passed up by the coach's program - ended up at a Colonial Athletic Association school as a bench player who did not/is not getting any playing time.

The coach suspected that some big name programs recruit from these top 100 lists as a method of promotion - a big-name program could claim that they had recruited "x" number of top 100 girls or had a highly ranked recruiting class regardless of the accuracy of the player rankings.

In all, the coach stated that recruiting rankings had to be greatly discounted. I asked about whether they would rather recruit a player with great athleticism or a player with good (but not great) athleticism that might better fit into their system. After thinking about it, the coach preferred the latter.

The coach mentioned Chris Mooney, the men's basketball head coach at Richmond. Mooney's primary recruiting targets were players who he felt best fit into his system, the implication being that such players would be better choices than the kind of players that would make recruiting lists and might turn up their noses at playing anywhere other than a high-major program.

In passing, the coach mentioned that some parents have "Division I" eyes - parents simply cannot conceive of their daughter not playing in Division I, even though a non-DI school would be a better fit for their child's talents.

Green Flags and Red Flags

I asked the coach if there were any "red flags" that would indicate that a program was a bad program.

The coach mentioned a high major Division I program - a program listed on the Top 100 list - using the words "the program is in shambles". This high major program had no winning tradition and the implication was that a program is a candidate for bad program status if coaches there cannot win games...but after departing those coaches can win games at other programs.

Another possible red flag could be a program where both the men's and women's programs are successful and win games but there is a huge gap in attendance between the men's games and the women's games. The coach felt that the experience and support on the men's side should naturally filter down to the women's side. The coach mentioned another program on the Top 100 list where the men's program can fill its voluminous arena but where the women's games are virtually deserted.

I thought that one sign of a poor program might be one with a lot of transfers. On the issue of transfers, our coach stated that it was, "kind of a red flag...either the program is not recruiting the right kids, or not treating the kids right." "Some programs don't treat kids very well," our coach said.

However, transfers are not a universal sign of a bad program, since players can transfer for a number of reasons. In the coach's first couple of years, three players had transferred out of their program.

More on recruiting

I took the opportunity to ask more about recruiting at the Division I college level, and the size of the recruiting pool. This coach - looking at high school juniors - starts with a mailing list of about 120 players who will receive some sort of letter about once a week for approximately six months. These letters are all signed by the coach and are personalized to some degree. There are only three or four roster spots to be filled and candidates will be eliminated from the list for a number of reasons.

However, this initial pool of recruits is simply a starting point - like following a highway with many exits, off-roads and scenic routes, any of which could yield an unexpected success. Our coach was watching the game of a recruit on their mailing list and saw a kid on one of the teams that was better than the kid on the mailing list and furthermore was open to being recruited.

Of the four roster spots that were filled, three of those players were not in the initial pool of 120. One player was seen at a summer tournament. Another was from outside the United States.

In one case, the coach went to see a prospect at an out-of-state high school with a very successful girls basketball program, as this player was the best friend of one of the players already on the college team. The school already had offers out to three or four other recruits, but the coach felt that this player could be an asset for the program. The player in question was offered, but was also told by the coach that other players had already been offered scholarships - "if one of those other kids calls back before you accept, then they get the scholarship". The final result was that the program got a player from a high school which was a proven pipeline to high major programs.

(A side note: the coach makes it clear that when something like this happens, they have already told those who have been offered that they would be offering to someone else as well. "Hey, we offered you on September first, now it's October first, and we are bringing in another girl on campus to offer her as well." Unfortunately, our coach said, this is not always the case at other universities.)

I asked the coach if they got referrals regarding players from knowledgeable alumni or high school coaches.

"Yes," was the answer, "but the trick is to figure out who is knowledgeable".

Coaches get referrals all the time; the problem is that referrals might not be very good. Often the coach gets a call with something like "this kid can play in the CAA" or "this kid is an SEC-level kid" but until a coach gets a handle on who knows their stuff the only way the talent can be measured is through a direct assessment.

The coach's program once picked up a recruit through an elite camp held at the school. They made an offer right there. (This is not unheard of, although websites like recruiting-101.com state that offers to camp players who aren't in the recruiting pool are an infrequent occurrences.) After the offer, the prospect took two hours to make a commitment decision - the two hours was for the player to contact her parents who weren't at the camp and talk over the offer.

Of the four spots that our coach filled, all of them took their official visit to the school. However, two of the players had committed to the program before the visit.

Impressions

Our conversation left a strong impression on me. I had already made plans for next year on de-emphasizing both attendance and recruiting in the metric, as well as looking at the issue of the discrepancies between men's attendance and women's attendance.

In addition, the coach mentioned a school in their conference that they said "had never finished below third place" in x number of years. Teams which finish consistently well in their conference - but do not win either tournament or regular-season championships - might deserve a measure to give their programs credit.

When we talked about specific schools that were great programs, Gonzaga was mentioned. The coach knew that the school had plenty of community support. James Madison was also mentioned, a school with "great fans and great tradition" and a program with good support.

There is a great difference in having an off-the-record conversation with a coach and having a conversation at a press conference (I had mentioned to the coach something said at a press conference this season, and the coach responded that it was said only because they couldn't think of anything else to say!).

I'll have to admit, I might have been turned into a fan of the school on this conversation, and if I haven't been, at the very least I'll be watching this school very closely over this season and the following seasons. With luck, we might hear more from the coach in the future, but even if not I'll be taking what I've learned and applying it to future Top 100 lists.

For a look at our full 2012 Top 100 NCAA women's basketball programs list, visit our storystream.

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