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Bossi's Best: What does it take to build an NCAA champion?

What does it take to build a champion in today’s college game? After watching Villanova throttle the field on the way to its 2018 title, I decided to examine that question more closely based on recruiting rankings.

In this week’s Bossi’s Best, I took a look at the core group (top six players) of each of the last 10 national champions to see how they ranked as high schoolers, what trends could be found and how they ranked as a unit compared to the other title-winners in that time span.

MORE: The Deep Three looks back at the wild month of March

RANKINGS: 2018 Rivals150 | 2019 Rivals150 | 2020 Rivals150

The 2012 Kentucky Wildcats were loaded with talent.
The 2012 Kentucky Wildcats were loaded with talent. (AP Images)

TALKING TRENDS 

Don’t let anybody tell you anybody differently, it takes highly ranked talent to win a title. Of the 60 core players on the last 10 title winners, 54 of them finished ranked in the Rivals150. Of those 54, only Donte DiVincenzo (No. 120) from this year’s Villanova team and Miles Plumlee (No. 101) from Duke’s 2010 title team ranked outside of the top 100.

It isn’t just a matter of having highly ranked players, the typical title-winning team also features multiple five-star prospects. The average championship-winning team over the last 10 years has featured an average of 2.4 five-star players. Kentucky led the way with five five-star players among their top six while Duke (2015) and North Carolina (2009) each had four five-star players. None of the teams that have won titles in the last 10 years have done so without a five-star player. Villanova (2016), UConn (2014) and Louisville (2013) each managed to win with just one five-star prospect.

The 2013 Louisville team – sorry NCAA, I saw them win – is the only team in the last 10 years to win a title without a single player who ranked among the country’s top 20 players as a high schooler. Their highest ranked player coming out of high school? Forward Chane Behanan, who finished ranked No. 21 in the class of 2011.

While one-and-done is the craze in college basketball and everybody talks about instant impact freshmen, no team has won a title in the last 10 years with more than three freshmen among their top six players. Kentucky (2012), Duke (2015) and UConn (2011) each won a title with three freshmen playing major roles.

Titles are generally won by teams that are built out of talent that played their high school basketball in the United States and won a title at the school that recruited them. Of the six players who didn’t rank in the Rivals150 coming out of high school, only two - Russ Smith with Louisville in 2013 and Amida Brimah with UConn in 2014 - played high school ball in the States and won with the team that recruited them. The other four were either mid-major transfers or foreigners.

The 2014 UConn title team is the true unicorn of the last 10 title winners. It had the fewest former Rivals150 players (3) and just one five-star (DeAndre Daniels) among the top six. In those top six were the only foreign player to be among a title team’s core group (Niels Giffey), a non-ranked high schooler (Brimah) and a mid-major transfer (Lasan Kromah).

RANKING THE LAST 10 CHAMPIONS BY RECRUITED TALENT

1. KENTUCKY (2012) 

Darius Miller
Darius Miller (AP Images)

Average ranking: 14.3

Five-stars: 5

Bossi’s analysis: Led by superstar Anthony Davis, John Calipari’s 2012 group was stacked with talent and delivered the goods in the NCAA Tournament. It’s not a surprise to see that it had the highest-ranked group of six core players. Only Darius Miller (No. 42) ranked outside of the top 21 as a high school prospect.

2. DUKE (2015) 

Jahlil Okafor
Jahlil Okafor (AP Images)

Average ranking: 18.7

Five-stars: 3

Bossi’s analysis: Another title-winning team in which each of the top six players was ranked among the Rivals150, the 2015 team was scary loaded. Like the 2012 Kentucky team, the Blue Devils featured three big-time freshmen anchored by a dominant big man in Jahlil Okafor. Incidentally, Okafor is the only player who finished ranked No. 1 in the Rivals150 to win a title during the last 10 years. It’s also interesting to note that while Grayson Allen came up huge in the title game as a freshman, he wasn’t among Duke’s top six that year.

3. NORTH CAROLINA (2009) 

Tyler Hansbrough
Tyler Hansbrough (AP Images)

Average ranking: 24.2

Five-stars: 4

Bossi’s analysis: Up until Villanova’s run to the 2018 title, the Heels' 2009 run was probably the most convincing of the last 10 years. Led by Tyler Hansbrough, the Heels also featured two other former top 10 players in guards Wayne Ellington and Tywon Lawson. Ellington, Danny Green and Ed Davis from that team are still playing in the NBA.

4. NORTH CAROLINA (2017) 

Justin Jackson
Justin Jackson (AP Images)

Average ranking: 37.8

Five-stars: 2

Bossi’s analysis: This Carolina team didn’t feature a true superstar high school recruit, but Justin Jackson was pretty close, ranking No. 11 in high school. Primarily a veteran team, the 2017 Heels followed in the footsteps of the 2009 group by winning a title after losing to the national champions the previous year.

5. DUKE (2010) 

Kyle Singler and Mike Krzyzewski
Kyle Singler and Mike Krzyzewski (AP Images)

Average ranking: 47

Five-stars: 2

Bossi’s analysis: The 2010 team may have been the most unlikely of Mike Krzyzewski’s five national championship winners. Jon Scheyer was the leading scorer as an experienced former four-star and the fact that former top-five prospect Kyle Singler was still around as a junior would come as a surprise these days. The team also lacked a big-time freshman. Maybe most surprising is that the only other five-star in the roster's top six was 7-footer Brian Zoubek.

6. UCONN (2011) 

Kemba Walker
Kemba Walker (AP Images)

Average ranking: 49.3

Five-stars: 2

Bossi’s analysis: The 2011 UConn team had an interesting makeup. The Huskies were willed to a championship by a former top 15 player in Kemba Walker. At the same time, they relied heavily on freshmen, even though not a single one of them was a five-star prospect, and the highest ranked of them (No. 37 Roscoe Smith) was the least productive.

FOR MORE UCONN SPORTS NEWS GO TO STORRSCENTRAL.COM

7. VILLANOVA (2016)

Kris Jenkins
Kris Jenkins (AP Images)

Average ranking: 60.3

Five-stars: 1

Bossi’s analysis: In the most thrilling ending to any of the last 10 title games, Villanova knocked off North Carolina, courtesy of a buzzer-beater from former four-star Kris Jenkins. Ranked No. 74 coming out of high school, Jenkins was the fourth-highest-ranked core player on that Wildcats team, after then-freshman Jalen Brunson and seniors Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu.

FOR MORE VILLANOVA SPORTS NEWS GO TO NOVAILLUSTRATED.COM

8. LOUISVILLE (2013) 

Luke Hancock
Luke Hancock (AP Images)

Average ranking: 73.7

Five-stars: 1

Bossi’s analysis: Based on the trends identified above, this Louisville team could also be looked at as an outlier. The Cardinals didn’t feature any big-time freshmen, they relied heavily on a mid-major transfer (Luke Hancock) and their best player, Russ Smith, was a non-ranked three-star prospect coming out of high school. Their four ranked players, who all finished between No. 21 and No. 44 coming out of high school, helps with their average ranking.

9. VILLANOVA (2018)

Jalen Brunson
Jalen Brunson (AP Images)

Average ranking: 81.5

Five-stars: 2

Bossi’s analysis: The only thing surprising about Jay Wright’s second title group is that the average ranking of their players didn’t come out a little higher, since both Jalen Brunson and Omari Spellman were top 20 players coming out of high school. Of the last 10 title teams, Nova probably got the most significant boost from a transfer in Eric Paschall, a player Wright passed on as a high schooler. Final Four MOP Donte DiVincenzo (No. 120) is one of two sixth men to win that award (Luke Hancock for Louisville is the other) over the last 10 years.

10. UCONN (2014) 

Shabazz Napier
Shabazz Napier (AP Images)

Average ranking: 100.5

Five-stars: 2

Bossi’s analysis: That this UConn team won a national title still defies almost any and all logic. Not just in the last 10 years, but ever. They weren’t a bad team by any means, but the run it made remains improbable. A borderline top 100 player in high school, Shabazz Napier was a star on his way to being a first-round NBA Draft pick and winning his second title. Their one five-star, DeAndre Daniels, still hasn’t played in the NBA, and three of the team's top six players weren’t ranked in the Rivals150 as high schoolers.