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March 14, 2012

Have Cinderella runs helped in recruiting?

Team rankings: Class of 2013 | Class of 2012

When Hampton (Ga.) Lovejoy's Justin Tuoyo updated friends and classmates about his recruitment last year and mentioned the school he favored, the 6-foot-8 forward often heard the same response.

Who's VCU?

Tuoyo isn't hearing that nearly as often anymore.

VCU's stunning march to the Final Four last year assured that even casual basketball fans a few states away from campus were familiar with this Colonial Athletic Association program. There's not even any need to refer to the school as Virginia Commonwealth anymore. Just the initials will do.

"Now everybody knows about them," Tuoyo said.

Tuoyo, who signed with VCU in November, had the Rams atop his list long before they made national headlines last March. He believes the Final Four run will help win over some recruits who weren't even familiar with VCU beforehand.

But how much does a deep NCAA tournament run benefit a mid-major program's recruiting? The answer is complicated.

"I'm not going to say that because of last year, all of a sudden our recruiting profile has changed or the level at which we're recruiting," VCU coach Shaka Smart said. "It's not like we're going out there against the Floridas and Kentuckys and people like that and beating them for kids."

The difference instead is much more subtle, though a successful postseason does indeed make at least some impact. Perhaps the best way to measure the change is to look at the recent recruiting classes of Butler, which reached the NCAA championship game out of the Horizon League each of the last two years.

Butler's most heralded 2011 recruit was O'Fallon (Ill.) forward Roosevelt Jones, the nation's No. 129 prospect. Butler's 2012 class includes the nation's No. 141 recruit in Pendleton (Ind.) Heights guard Kellen Dunham. The Bulldogs' 2010 class featured two Rivals150 recruits in Pembroke Pines (Fla.) Flanagan forward Khyle Marshall (No. 118) and Indianapolis (Ind.) Herron guard Chrishawn Hopkins (No. 124), though both committed before the Bulldogs made their first magical postseason run.

Before this three-year stretch, Butler had signed just two Rivals150 prospects since Rivals started covering college basketball recruiting in 2002: Nick Brooks (No. 124) in 2003 and Matt Howard (No. 91) in 2007.

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"We find ourselves more and more recruiting against BCS schools," Butler assistant coach Matthew Graves said. "Four or five years ago, you'd see different MAC schools and different types of Missouri Valley schools. Now when we're recruiting kids, you're looking at kids that might list Northwestern, Virginia, Michigan, Boston College. So you're seeing a different mix of schools that you're recruiting against than you were three or four years ago."

VCU often had recruited against major-conference programs even before this Final Four run. Now the Rams hope to win more of those contests. VCU recruiting coordinator Will Wade discussed the possible change in fortune by mentioning a scenario in which the school targets five area players who fit the Rams' profile but also are receiving feelers from major-conference programs.

"Maybe in the past, we could get one of those five," Wade said. "Now maybe we can get two or three of those five. It increases the odds, with our profile being raised."

Here's a look at Butler's recruits before and after the first of its two runs to the NCAA championship game. We've included 2010 recruits Erik Fromm, Chrishawn Hopkins and Khyle Marshall in the "before" section because both committed before the 2010 tournament.
BEFOREPos.High schoolYearStarsRank
Jeff JamesSFTampa (Fla.) Wharton 2002TwoNA
Avery SheetsPGLafayette (Ind.) McCutcheon2002TwoNA
Nick BrooksSFRobinson (Ill.)2003Three124
Brandon CroneSFFrankford (Ind.)2003TwoNA
Jamie SmalliganCEast Grand Rapids (Mich.) 2003TwoNA
Brian LigonPFSt. Petersburg (Fla.) Lakewood 2003TwoNA
James ParkerSGEastern Oklahoma State College2003TwoNA
A.J. GravesPGWhite River (Ind.) Valley2004TwoNA
Gary PattersonPGChicago (Ill.) Bishop Noll2004TwoNA
Brandon PolkSFEl Reno (Okla.) Redlands CC 2004TwoNA
Marcus NellemsSGMarshalltown (Iowa) CC2005Two NA
Elliot EngelmannSFDowners Grove (Ill.) South2006TwoNA
Grant LeiendeckerSGFort Wayne (Ind.) Homestead2006TwoNA
Forrest SmallwoodSGLouisville (Ky.) Male2006TwoNA
Willie VeasleySGFreeport (Ill.)2006TwoNA
Zach HahnPGNew Castle (Ind.) Chrysler2007ThreeNA
Matt HowardPGConnersville (Ind.)2007Four91
Jermain RaffingtonPFBurlington (Iowa) Southeastern CC2007TwoNA
Shawn VanzantPGTampa (Fla.) Wharton2007TwoNA
Garrett ButcherSFEllettsville (Ind.) Edgewood2008TwoNA
Gordon HaywardSGBrownsburg (Ind.)2008ThreeNA
Emerson KampenPFYorktown (Ind.) 2008TwoNA
Shelvin MackSGLexington (Ky.) Bryan Station2008ThreeNA
Ronald NoredPGHomewood (Ala.)2008ThreeNA
Chase StigallSGNew Castle (Ind.) Chrysler2008TwoNA
Andrew SmithPFZionsville (Ind.) Covenant Christian2009ThreeNA
Erik FrommPFBloomington (Ind.) South2010TwoNA
Chrishawn HopkinsSGIndianapolis (Ind.) Herron2010Three124
Khyle MarshallPFPembroke Pines (Fla.) Flanagan2010Three118
AFTERPos.High schoolYearStarsRank
Roosevelt JonesSFO'Fallon (Ill.)2011Three129
Andrew SmeathersSFGreenwood (Ind.) Center Grove2011ThreeNA
Kameron WoodsPFLouisville (Ky.) Eastern2011ThreeNA
Kellen DunhamSGPendleton Heights (Ind.)2012Three141
Chris Harrison-DocksPGOkemos (Mich.)2012ThreeNA
Devonte MorganSGTampa (Fla.) Wharton2012TwoNA
But it isn't as if these schools are now competing regularly for top-50 recruits.

Butler's closest call with an elite prospect came when it pursued Washington (Ind.) forward Cody Zeller, the No. 15 overall prospect in the 2011 class. Butler was one of three finalists for the five-star prospect along with Indiana and North Carolina, but Zeller chose the Hoosiers and was named the Big Ten's co-freshman of the year this year.

The Bulldogs had no regrets about going after Zeller. They believed they had a legitimate shot at him. Because he lived nearby, recruiting him heavily didn't come at a major expense.

"With his recruitment, you weren't out a lot of time and energy because you weren't spending a lot of money flying all over the country," Graves said. "He was a kid who was in our own state. It was one of those calculated risks that just didn't work out. Certainly you have to try and go after some of those types of recruits because he fit the correct profile of the type of student-athlete we want here at Butler. We'd be selling ourselves and our university short if we didn't attempt to go after kids that fit our profile.

"It's a calculated risk. You take the same kid, and let's say he's in California, where you can't get to see him as much. You're probably not going to spend as much time and resources if you're in an uphill battle with four or five high-major type schools. But for a local kid in the area, it certainly was worth the risk.''

The attempt to land Zeller didn't signal a permanent change in Butler's recruiting strategy. As much as Butler would like to pursue top-50 prospects on a regular basis, the Bulldogs are more intent on making sure they find guys who will work well within their system.

For example, Butler's 2008 recruiting class didn't include a single Rivals150 player, yet it produced an NBA lottery pick (Gordon Hayward), a second-round draft choice (Shelvin Mack) and a four-year starter (Ronald Nored). All three were starters on the 2010 NCAA runners-up, while Mack and Nored played major roles on the 2011 team.

Butler's coaches will talk to a prospect's high school coach, his school counselor and even some opposing coaches to get the best sense of whether a player is worth pursuing. No matter where a guy is ranked, Butler's coaches want to make sure he's a proper fit.

"We're very big on watching kids during timeouts, their interaction in huddles and on the bench when they're not playing," Graves said. "When they're in a game and they're up 20, how do they act? And what if they're down 20 and things aren't going well? We're just taking into account all those things and coming up with the best analysis that we can. There's no perfect formula, but I think we can make an argument that we've done a pretty good job so far."

Dunham represents one of the latest examples.

The three-star prospect lives about 30 miles from Indianapolis and was considering Butler even before the Bulldogs began either of their Final Four runs. He committed to Butler the summer before his junior year of high school. He now has boosted his stock with a spectacular senior season in which he has averaged nearly 30 points per game while making 94 percent of his free throws and nearly half his 3-point attempts.

"He was already looking at them as one of his strong contenders," Pendleton Heights coach Brian Hahn said. "The tournament success just pushed it over the top and made it the obvious choice."

The Final Four runs also could enable Butler and VCU to broaden their geographic reach, though both schools continue to focus primarily on recruits within their own area.

Butler had landed Marshall out of south Florida before its first Final Four run, but the Bulldogs returned to Florida this year to get a commitment from two-star guard Devonte Morgan of Tampa Prep. VCU also now should have more name recognition outside the East Coast.

"It certainly raised our visibility," Smart said. "There's much more recognition when we call recruits. We get more calls back. Probably the best thing about it is they've all seen us play, so whereas everyone in recruiting typically says, 'Hey, we play fast, we press and you get to shoot a lot of threes and get to play your game,' some people back that up and some people don't. We don't even have to say that. They've seen that. They've seen it on the biggest stage.

"That's probably the best part of what happened last year as it relates to recruiting."

Yet Smart remains unsure about how much one huge NCAA tournament run can affect a team's recruiting fortunes. He wonders if top-level recruits want to see a longer period of excellence.

He cited Gonzaga as an example. Gonzaga has signed six top-100 recruits - including 2007 five-star prospect Austin Daye - over the last seven years to pretty much shed its former status as a mid-major program. But that flurry didn't come until several years after Gonzaga burst onto the national scene with a Cinderella run to a regional final in 1999.

On the other hand, George Mason of the CAA has experienced a modest upgrade in recruiting but has signed only one top-150 player (Erik Copes in 2011) since reaching the 2006 Final Four. George Mason has earned two NCAA bids (in 2008 and 2011) and has won only a single tournament game since that Final Four appearance. Copes was signed by new George Mason coach Paul Hewitt after Jim Larranaga - the coach who had led the Patriots to the Final Four - left for Miami.

"I don't know if one year definitely makes a direct impact where you're now getting significantly better players," Smart said. "I think a sustained run of excellence - if you look at what Gonzaga has done the last 10-15 years - that obviously has an effect. I think a program like that is now able to recruit significantly better players than they were before.''

That makes the upcoming NCAA tournament particularly noteworthy for VCU. Just as Butler cemented its status as a national program last year by proving its run to the 2010 championship game was no fluke, VCU would love to show it can wreak havoc on a bracket in back-to-back seasons. VCU also must try hanging on to Smart, who is considered a prime candidate for Illinois' coaching vacancy.

One trip to the Final Four already helped VCU raise its profile among recruits. A second straight productive postseason could have an even greater impact.

Steve Megargee is the national college columnist for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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