How can the universities inside Utah build a Sweet 16 or even Final Four roster?

For Utah, Utah State, BYU, Weber State, Utah Valley and Southern Utah, it would appear to be a steep hill to climb. But in basketball, unlike college football, you do not need a roster filled with four- and five-star recruits.

The evidence was clear in this year’s Final Four.

The thing about basketball is it doesn’t take a dozen players who are sought by everyone because of their resume or AAU experience on a national stage. It just takes a few ranked players, mingled with good role players. And great coaching. And luck.

In his “Extra Points” newsletter, Matt Brown does an excellent job of breaking down just how San Diego State, UConn, FAU and Miami sought out and collected the players that took them to the biggest stage in college basketball — the Final Four.

Only UConn had been there before.

We had a Final Four devoid of blue bloods Kentucky, Kansas, Michigan, Duke, North Carolina, Texas and Alabama. Such blue-blood programs regularly lace their rosters with four- and five-star, top-of-the-litter superstars.

FAU had only played in one other NCAA Tournament in program history.

Wrote Brown: “One of these teams was the off-season poster child for building a roster through NIL (even if that reputation wasn’t completely deserved.) One is a team full of 22-year-olds and lesser-regarded transfers. One built a roster that the recruiting industry barely bothered to scout. And then there’s UConn.”

It’s an interesting breakdown.

And it looks like something Mark Pope or Craig Smith could realize — if they struck some recruiting gems. And that’s always a big if. 

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Taking Ken Pomeroy’s “usage” statistical formula and recruit rankings of 247Sports, Brown breaks down the Final Four rosters.

San Diego State featured a team that was simply old and experienced with eight seniors.  The upperclassmen saw the bulk of the minutes. SDSU uses a lot of transfers but the players aren’t in the same rank as Duke, Kentucky or Kansas. They aren’t guys who sign, then move on to the NBA after one or two seasons. They stuck around, worked and played hard. 

And the Aztecs didn’t spend a lot of NIL money. According to a report, SDSU players received about $2,000 a month on NIL collective money.

Here are the Aztecs’ most-used players:

Matt Bradley (Cal transfer, .9508 rating, 112th ranked recruit).
Jaedon LeDee (Ohio State and TCU transfer, .9584 rating, 103rd recruit).
Darrion Trammell (Seattle transfer, juco prospect, unranked).
LaMont Butler Jr. (high school recruit, .8873 rating, 243rd recruit).
KeShad Johnson (high school recruit, .8785 rating, 300th recruit).

FAU is a team that had never signed a four-star basketball player before and had zero NIL money at the beginning of 2023. Its roster is comprised of little-known and less-recruited players, few of whom were transfers. Brown believes the reason FAU advanced to the Final Four is because the squad was simply very, very good and kicked butt all over. The Owls won 35 games, including a win over Kansas. Brown says FAU simply did a great job of scouting players and then using COVID-19-year player development to produce a very effective roster.

Here is the FAU roster:

Johnell Davis (high school recruit, unranked).
Alijah Martin (high school recruit, unranked, late flip from McNeese State).
Vladislav Goldin (Texas Tech transfer, .8950 rating, 211th recruit).
Michael Forrest (high school recruit, unranked).
Bryan Greenlee (Minnesota transfer, .8668 rating, 467th recruit).

This sounds like a Pope/Smith roster, right?

Miami, on the other hand, is a school that has found big NIL money and has shopped it in both football and basketball.  

Brown recounts one Miami NIL deal. “Last April, Nijel Pack was seen as one of the best available players in the transfer portal, and many elite programs were interested. Miami businessman John Ruiz would later announce that he signed Pack to a two-year $400,000 NIL deal, perhaps the first NIL deal to go public with how much money was involved. Then, Miami guard Isaiah Wong’s agent threatened to have Wong transfer unless he started earning more NIL money.

“Eventually, the dust settled, everybody got what they needed, and by all accounts, there are not team chemistry problems with the squad at all.”

Here is a list of Miami’s most-used players:

Isaiah Wong (high school recruit, .9695 rating, 79th recruit).
Nijel Pack (Kansas State transfer, .9437 rating, 126th recruit).
Norchad Omier (Arkansas State transfer, unranked).
Jordan Miller (George Mason transfer, unranked).
Wooga Poplar (high school recruit, .9378 rating, 128th recruit).

Then comes UConn, the Huskies are built like a blue blood, what you’d expect from a team recruiting from the talent-rich playgrounds of New York City and recruits with rankings you’d see of the usual Final Four regulars.

Writes Brown: “This looks like a much more traditional roster makeup for a national power, which makes sense, because that’s what UConn is. They’re the top-ranked team in KenPom, and have been at or near the top of many efficiency rankings for most of the season. The Huskies started 14-0, and have won 13 of their last 15 games. They had a terrible three-week stretch in January, which is why the Huskies had a four-seed instead of a one or a two. That they’re playing in the Final Four is not a massive shock.”

Here are the most-used players on UConn’s championship team — the squad that simply intimidated the Aztecs last Monday in the championship game:

Adam Sanogo (high school recruit, .9696 rating, 85th overall).
Donovan Clingan (high school recruit, .9800 rating, 56th overall).
Tristen Newton (ECU transfer, unranked).
Jordan Hawkins (high school recruit, 9800 rating, 51st overall).
Andre Jackson (high school recruit, .9809 rating, 53rd overall).

So, looking at the Final Four, one team, UConn was not like the others. And it proved out. But the others got there with attainable avenues.

In March, Utah State had the best record in the state at 26-9 and lost to San Diego State in the championship game of the Mountain West. USU received a No. 10 seed and lost to Missouri in the first round of the NCAAs.

Here are USU’s most-used players:

Max Shulga (high school Ukraine, unranked).
Daniel Akin (Cal Baptist transfer, London, England unranked).
Sean Bairstow (high school, Australia .08700, unranked).
Taylor Funk (high school, unranked).
Steven Ashworth (high school, unranked).

This is an interesting dance these in-state basketball programs perform. BYU (19-17) had only one 247sports-rated player this past year and that was Arkansas transfer Jaxson Robinson with a .9770 composite rating who ranked 67th.

Utah (17-15 overall)  had six players in 247sports composite ratings including Wisconsin transfer Ben Carlson (.9602, 197th), Cincinnati transfer Mike Saunders (.8881, 232nd), Virginia/Utah State transfer Marco Anthony, (.8707, 244th), Keba Keita, high school .9190, 163rd ranked), Branden Carlson, high school (.9442), and Cincinnati transfer Gabe Madsen (.8955, 210th).

It is obvious that blue blood football programs make hay by rosters filled with four- and five -star talent and there are only about a dozen or less programs that can boast about it. But in hoops, the recipe is far less loaded, and certainly attainable as we learned from this year’s Final Four. 

Utah State guard Sean Bairstow is guarded by San Diego State’s Micah Parrish in the Mountain West Conference Tournament championship game at UNLV’s Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas on Saturday, March 11, 2023. The Aggies gave San Diego State a battle but fell 62-57. The Aztecs ultimately played in the NCAA championship game, falling to UConn. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News