For the first time in a long time, the Philadelphia 76ers have reason to smile. Yes, they’re in dead last in the Eastern Conference with a 4-14 record, but the future is bright. Their young talent, namely rookie Joel Embiid, is finally coming together. The phrase, “Trust the Process,” once used to ridicule the 76ers’ seemingly endless rebuilding, is now chanted with sarcastic pride after every Embiid highlight.
The 76ers represent the kind of complete-team-turnaround that is celebrated in American professional sports. And it’s possible because of one thing: the draft. The NBA Draft pick order, like the MLB, NFL and NHL counterparts, are determined by the inverse of the previous season’s standings. Of course, the NBA has a lottery that leaves some of the order to chance, but it still ensures that the worst teams get the highest picks.
This system is far from perfect. In recent years, the issue of “tanking,” or intentionally losing to get higher draft picks, has worsened, with the 76ers at the forefront. Draft pick trading has confused the system, with teams like the Brooklyn Nets inexplicably sending away years of upcoming talent in return for aging veterans. And of course, there is also the Cleveland Browns syndrome, as the team annually receives a high draft pick and never seems to do much with it.
Despite these flaws, the draft is an essential piece of professional sports. While the draft doesn’t ensure talent, it at the very least ensures that every team is given an opportunity to improve. The strongest teams don’t get any stronger (Kevin Durant aside), while the weakest teams, in theory, can rebuild on the shoulders of young talent.
College athletics don’t have any such system. Instead, collegiate programs rely on recruiting, which allows the programs to aggressively pursue the players, and ultimately, the power is left in the athlete’s hands. Unfortunately, the recruiting process is horribly flawed and corrupted. It’s difficult to find a top-ranked school that has not been subject to a recent NCAA violation.
But recruiting corruption is a separate issue. The truth is, even if schools followed NCAA guidelines perfectly, the recruiting process would still face the same problem: rewarding the best schools and punishing the worst. The current No. 1 teams in the country in football and men’s basketball, Alabama and Kentucky, respectively, each boast the top recruiting class for next year.
The powerhouse programs, the ones with the most recognizable brand names, the most lucrative sponsorships (Michigan, I’m looking at you) and the most reputable recruiters and coaches, continually receive the best talent. Meanwhile, the struggling teams are left behind. The great teams only get greater, and the cellar teams only dig a deeper hole.
UConn Athletics can see the best and worst of this cycle. On one hand, UConn has its high profile, hugely successful basketball programs. The men’s team boasts one of the strongest recent track records in the nation, and Kevin Ollie is a top-10 recruiter. On top of the young talent already on the roster, the class of 2017 recruits are top-20 in the nation. The women’s team is the national standard, with a superstar head coach for a recruiter and four consecutive national titles. To prove their reputation, earlier this month, the No. 1 recruit in the country, Megan Walker, committed to the Huskies.
On the other hand, there’s the football team. Last year was a step in the right direction. This season was a worse setback than could have been imagined. And the scary part is: it’s only going to get worse.
As of now, UConn has the smallest (seven players), and lowest ranked recruiting class of any team in the American Athletic Conference, according to 24/7 Sports. The program hasn’t received a commitment in four months, and is failing badly in its own state, as none of the top 10 Connecticut prospects have committed to UConn. And who can blame them? Would any talented NFL prospect willingly elect to join the Cleveland Browns? That’s not to compare the UConn football program to the Browns—the Browns are much more promising.
UConn fans bear witness to both sides of the college recruiting cycle. The basketball teams will continue to graduate superstar talent like Breanna Stewart, but will also be replenished by a constant supply of upcoming stars. The football team will only find it harder to bring in promising recruits, making it even more painful to watch gifted athletes like Noel Thomas depart.
There will never be a college football or basketball draft. It’s impossible for a college program to turn around as quickly as, say, the Oakland Raiders or collapse as rapidly as the Carolina Panthers. The rich teams will continue to get richer, the poor teams poorer. It is also worth mentioning that simply bringing in a new coach, at least one of the caliber UConn could attract, will not instantly improve a team’s recruiting. It starts with the players.
That’s why the remainder of this men’s basketball season, while it may appear dismal, will be extremely important. When Ollie sets off to recruit next season, will he represent a team that fell apart after losing two of their best players, or a team that continued to fight? It may be too late for the football team, but the basketball teams have a reputation to protect—and reputations are more important now than ever.