By Kevin Sweeney
Ohio State. Clemson. Purdue. Virginia.
Those are among the many high-major programs that offered 4-star point guard Jaelin Llewellyn a scholarship this summer. For most mid-major programs, that would be enough to end any chance of landing the player. He would have been deemed to have “blown up”, and the staff likely would have moved on to other targets.
Instead, Princeton stunned the college basketball world by landing the commitment of Llewellyn on Monday. It was the latest, but hardly the first, victory by the Ivy League over a high-major school on the recruiting trail in recent years. In doing so, these programs (and the players committing to them) continue to prove the general notions we have about college basketball recruiting to be wrong.
We tend to think of college basketball recruiting as an arms race. Athletic departments across the country are pouring money into facility upgrades to make their programs more attractive to prospective student-athletes. Whether it be at the highest level with Kansas building an $11.2 million apartment complex for basketball players or at the mid-major level with teams building practice facilities to separate themselves from the competition, the message from athletic departments nationwide is that better facilities will recruit better talent.
Yet the Ivy League continues to see recruiting success without the red carpet that other programs are pulling out. While Penn has the Palestra as well as a practice facility to wow recruits with and Princeton does have beautiful Jadwin Gymnasium as its home court, the other 6 Ivy League programs play in smaller venues that wouldn’t stand out to a prospective recruit. Harvard, which landed a top-25 ranked recruiting class in 2016, plays in a modest facility that seats just under 2,200.
And while academics are often scoffed at in the recruiting process in the age of the one-and-done, Ivy League programs are thriving as a result of them. The ability to pitch a world-class education, combined with the increased exposure that the Ivy League’s recent NCAA Tournament success has provided, makes the Ivy League a much more attractive destination than ever before. Many top players care about more than just basketball and the Ivy League programs are providing the opportunity to leave school in 4 years with an excellent basketball resume and a degree that will help them be successful in life even if basketball doesn’t work out.
Basically, the Ivy League has gone back to the roots of college basketball. Great coaching, great education, and winning. The 3 Ivy League programs that have seen the most recent success on the recruiting trail are evidence of that. Harvard’s academic reputation is among the best in the world, it has won a pair of NCAA Tournament games in recent years, and coach Tommy Amaker is a well-regarded man in the business who has also been the head coach at Seton Hall and Michigan. Princeton has a great tradition of basketball success and reached the NCAA Tournament this season, while head coach Mitch Henderson is thought of by many as a rising star in the business. James Jones led Yale to its first NCAA Tournament since 1962 in 2016, and parlayed that success into recruiting victories in the 2016 and 2017 classes.
Meanwhile, other Ivy programs are on the rise on the recruiting trail as well. Penn, under the direction of former Boston College head coach Steve Donahue, is bringing in an excellent class this season, one that I named as one of the most underrated mid-major classes nationally. Meanwhile, former NJIT head coach Jim Engles has also had some major victories on the recruiting trail since arriving at Columbia last summer.
So, what’s the next accomplishment for the Ivy League? A 5-star recruit? A team reaching the Top 25? An at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament?
If these programs continue to bring in top talent, I wouldn’t rule any of those out.