Five-star recruiting classes are the norm for blue-blood programs like Kentucky, Duke, Michigan State and Louisville, where tradition, big-name coaches and NBA-caliber talent converge on a yearly basis.
A belief exists that programs like Pitt, which flirted with college basketball elite on multiple occasions in recent years, needs to seek out star-studded players – the ones who stay at school a year or two before seeking the riches of the NBA lottery.
There’s no doubting talent makes winning easier. Just look at Kentucky.
Filled with a roster of future NBA players, the Wildcats are 38-0 after Saturday night’s last-second victory over a game Notre Dame. Kentucky, led by former Pitt assistant John Calipari, can become the first team since Indiana in 1976 to win a national championship with no losses. If Kentucky accomplishes the task with two more victories, it becomes a team for the ages.
Meanwhile, at Pitt, the Panthers land the occasional four-star guy and, on rarer occasions, five-star recruit. On the surface, Pitt shouldn’t be a tough sell. It competes in a Power 5 conference. the Panthers are regularly on national television and the urban setting – complete with an occasionally packed, state-of-the-art facility – is something a lot of inner-city high schoolers can relate with. Yet, most years, Pitt finds itself down the list on recruiting rankings.
It wasn’t always that way.
Pitt once brought in a recruiting class that had Panthers fans thinking big, and it wasn’t as long ago as one might think.
Hot-shot coaching prospect Ralph Willard arrived in Oakland after Paul Evans was fired following the 1993-4 season. Evans guided, arguably, the most talented team in Pitt history in 1987-88, but, like most Pitt teams, it underachieved in postseason play, losing to Vanderbilt in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Willard’s hire was seen as a boon. He had been an assistant for Jim Boeheim at Syracuse and Rick Pitino in the NBA and at Kentucky. As a head coach, Willard guided Western Kentucky to the Sweet 16, a place Pitt hadn’t been since 1974, when the tournament field was smaller.
Willard was supposedly the answer to Pitt’s basketball problems, which were many after the program slumped mightily under Evans’ watch. It wasn’t long before Willard, whom Pitino once recommended for a NBA general manager job, was bringing in the type of players who would’ve had message boards and subscription web sites drooling, had those things existed in the mid-1990s.
Willard’s second recruiting class at Pitt was lauded. Some recruiting services – remember there weren’t as many at the time – ranked it second nationally. Second! Willard actually convinced some of the best high school players in the country to come to Pitt and play at the leaky, old Fitzgerald Field House.
There was Vonteego Cummings. The Georgia native could run the point, and was big for the position at 6-foot-3. Cummings was considered one of the top 20 high school players in the country.
There was Mark Blount. A Parade All-American, Blount was a 7-footer and pegged as a future NBA player.
There was Michael Gill, a 6-6 swing player who was tabbed as the most explosive scorer in the group. Like Cummings, Gill was considered a top 20-25 player.
There was Andre Howard, a 6-7 force from Philly; Isaac Hawkins, a big man from the South; and Kellii Taylor, a smooth-shooting defensive stopper.
It was an impressive group, a collection good enough to make many believe Pitt not only made the right hire in Willard, but that the Panthers were once again an up-and-coming program, much like it was during the early years under Evans.
As for Willard’s heralded recruiting class, well Pitt made one NIT appearance during his coaching tenure, which ended in 1999. Repeat: one NIT appearance.
No NCAA tournament appearances.
Bobby Jones and Tom Crean, two of Willard’s top assistants, quickly found work elsewhere. For Jones, who spent several years as athletic director at Trinity High School, the move was a lateral one to Minnesota.
Cummings proved to be the best player of the bunch. Hawkins stuck around and was a solid big man. Taylor stayed around long enough to be dismissed from the team in 2000, a result of drug problems. Howard transferred to St. Joseph’s. Gill transferred to George Washington. Blount stayed for two underwhelming seasons, but never returned to campus following a Big East tournament and declared for the NBA draft.
Blount was drafted, in the second round, but it would be years before he ended up in the NBA, though, much to his credit, he stuck around for some time. Cummings ended up in the NBA, too, for three seasons.
Willard brought other big-named talent to Pitt in Attila Cosby, Chris Seabrooks, Fred Primus and Willie Cauley. None panned out, but the latter keeps popping into my mind as Kentucky keeps playing in this NCAA tournament.
Cauley’s son, Willie Cauley-Stein, is a marvel, a 7-foot combination of speed, skill and incredible defensive ability. He’s lived up to the hype he received heading into Kentucky. His dad sure didn’t.
Willie Cauley was considered a top junior college player, a can’t-miss NBA prospect when he came to Pitt. The problem was Cauley ended up in more fights and more trouble at Pitt than he did on the good end of the stat sheet.
I covered those Willard teams though the 1996-97 as sports editor at The Pitt News, the university’s student newspaper. And I can’t help but think of that heralded group every time someone mentions Pitt needs to recruit more talented players.
Pitt needs to recruit the right players.