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Can basketball programs win a NCAA title without five-star recruits?

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Teams like Texas Tech yearn for a deeper NCAA run than last year, but can they match up?

What is it about the underdog that makes them so darn compelling? Their ability to succeed against all odds and expectations gives us hope. Yet hope has its limits. In Division I basketball the limit is the national championship. For the past twelve years the national champion has had at least one five-star recruit. It doesn’t mean there aren’t sparks here and there, like Loyola-Chicago last year or VCU in 2011, but every Cinderella story hit its midnight chime sooner than hoped.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-East Regional-Villanova vs Texas Tech Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Last year Texas Tech defied all expectations by their Elite Eight appearance. After rallying back against 14-seeded Stephen F. Austin, the Red Raiders outplayed (6) Florida and (2) Purdue before facing off against top seeded Villanova. All the attention started to shift. Texas Tech? Who even plays on their team? Villanova will hang 100 on them! The Cinderella story (in Red Raider fans’ minds) had finally blossomed. Yet it ended as soon as it had life. Despite keeping the Wildcats to well under their season average on offense, Coach Beard and company ended the season at the Elite Eight.

Now it’s 2019 and teams who had tournament experience last year are vying for their chance at a better finish. No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 Tennessee, No. 4 Virginia, No. 5 Gonzaga, No. 8 Texas Tech, No. 9 Virginia Tech, No. 10 Nevada and a host of others. What do these teams have in common? No five-star recruits. Look at how many of the top ten teams in the country are producing results without the highest caliber recruit. The ultimate question: could a program win an NCAA title without five-star recruits?

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

In short (ignoring last year’s surprising knockouts), this may be the best year to break the twelve year drought. With teams like Michigan and Virginia, who remain undefeated, and Tennessee and Gonzaga, who have had substantial success, there are safe bets* in the tournament talk this year. You could also make a case for a myriad of teams who have outperformed expectations such as Texas Tech. The problem of speculation is you end up expecting a number 1 overall team to win the whole tournament, but then they get knocked out by a school like UMBC.

*there’s no such thing as a safe bet.

Below is the list of national champions of the past twelve years and their five-star ranked athlete(s).


(2018) Villanova

Jalen Brunson — No. 16 overall, 2015

Omari Spellman — No. 18, 2016

(2017) North Carolina

Isaiah hicks — No. 18, 2013

Joel Berry — No. 17, 2014

Theo Pinson — No. 10, 2015

Tony Bradley — No. 17, 2016

(2016) Villanova

Jalen Brunson - No. 22, 2015

(2015) Duke

Jahlil Okafor — No. 1, 2014

Tyus Jones — No. 7, 2014

Justise Winslow — No. 14, 2014

Rasheed Sulaimon — No. 13, 2012

(2014) UConn

DeAndre Daniels — No. 16, 2011

(2013) Louisville

Chane Behanan — No. 23, 2011

(2012) Kentucky

Terrence Jones — No. 8, 2010

Anthony Davis — No. 1, 2011

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — No. 3, 2011

Marquis Teague — No. 7, 2011

Kyle Wiltjer — No. 20, 2011

(2011) UConn

Kemba Walker — No. 12, 2008

(2010) Duke

Kyle Singler — No. 6, 2007

Nolan Smith — No. 21, 2007

Ryan Kelly — No. 15, 2009

(2009) North Carolina

Tyler Hansbrough — No. 8, 2005

Ty Lawson — No. 7, 2006

Wayne Ellington — No. 9, 2006

Ed Davis — No. 8, 2008

Tyler Zeller — No. 16, 2008

(2008) Kansas

Mario Chalmers — No. 13, 2005

Darrell Arthur — No. 13, 2006

(2007) Florida

Corey Brewer — No. 22, 2004