When the assignment came in to rank the top 10 basketball recruiting classes of the past 25 years, I was not excited. More than once I looked at the list and just cringed. This project made me nervous. Reading the final list still does.
But with all the hype about Kentucky assembling perhaps the best class of all time this year, the questions were begging to be answered. Where does this UK class rank historically? And if not No. 1 -- yet -- then who was?
Before we get into the list, let's define the criteria. This is the 10 best classes of the past quarter century as they looked on paper at the time of their signing. That's how we rank classes in the recruiting world. No benefit of hindsight, no factoring in how the players turned out in college or the pros. This is recruiting classes at the time they signed. (Of course, easier said than done. You try doing this without having a bias of how the players eventually turned out seep into your mind.)
With the help of my former-intern-turned-graduate-assistant at Butler, Drew Cannon, a massive list of recruiting classes was compiled. There are all kinds of variables that make this challenging: The No. 1 player one year might be No. 5 another year. Ssometimes there's not a consensus No. 1. Not to mention I've been covering firsthand for only the past 16 years, and we see players way more in 2012 than when I began in 1997.
After a few days of revising (and I probably should have just used the original list anyway) here's what I have: on paper, the 10 best recruiting classes of the past 25 years before they ever played a game in college.
Want to rank the top recruiting classes yourself? Have at it with our SportsNation Rank 'Em.
1. 1991 Michigan
Key recruits: Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King, Ray Jackson
This class played in two national title games and had a major cultural impact on college basketball. A more talented group might one day be assembled, but it'll be unlikely to have the overall impact this class had on the game.
2. 2006 North Carolina
Key recruits: Brandan Wright, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, Deon Thompson, Alex Stepheson, Will Graves
This group sneaks into the conversation based on the strength of having three players who were No. 1 at their position: Wright, Lawson and Ellington. The depth of this class is undeniable.
3. 2011 Kentucky
Key recruits: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, Kyle Wiltjer
Davis was the best player in the country and Kidd-Gilchrist played the game as hard as any player we've seen in the past decade.
4. 1998 UCLA
Key recruits: Dan Gadzuric, JaRon Rush, Jerome Moiso, Ray Young, Matt Barnes
The Bruins scored three players ranked in the top 10 and Moiso was the most notable hoops Frenchman until along came a guy named Tony Parker. This class was a Steve Lavin special.
5. 2009 Kentucky
Key recruits: John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Daniel Orton, Eric Bledsoe, Jon Hood
John Calipari's first recruiting class at UK was assembled weeks after he got the job. The value recruit in the class turned out to be Bledsoe, and four of the five left after one year, thus creating the blueprint for Calipari's revolving door at the point and big man positions.
6. 1999 Duke
Key recruits: Jason Williams, Carlos Boozer, Casey Sanders, Mike Dunleavy, Nick Horvath
It was a great class on paper at the time, and it matured on the court at Duke with a national title and in the NBA for three of the guys.
7. 2013 Kentucky
Key recruits: Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, James Young, Marcus Lee, Derek Willis
Hard to believe this class is on the list and it's still not finished. Play a fun game with your friends and insert No. 1 recruit Andrew Wiggins or No. 4 Julius Randle into the class and see where it ranks.
8. 1993 North Carolina
Key recruits: Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace, Jeff McInnis
This group will be remembered fondly for Stackhouse's famous dunk against Duke and not so fondly for ending Dean Smith's run of Sweet 16 appearances with a loss to Boston College in the 1994 tourney.
9. 1997 Duke
Key recruits: Elton Brand, Shane Battier, Chris Burgess, William Avery
This is what makes ranking the classes based on paper and not what happened afterward both interesting and difficult. Had Burgess met expectations -- he's considered one of the biggest recruiting flops -- this team could have been even better.
T-10. 2005 Kansas
Key recruits: Julian Wright, Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers, Micah Downs
Bill Self got some mileage out of this bunch. This is one of the most athletic classes you'll see on the list.
T-10. 1989 Indiana
Key recruits: Lawrence Funderburke, Pat Graham, Chris Reynolds, Calbert Cheaney, Greg Graham, Chris Lawson
IU's best recruiting class might have been 1979 with Isiah Thomas, Jim Thomas and Randy Wittman, but this one wasn't too shabby.
1990 North Carolina
2002 North Carolina
2006 Ohio State
2010 Kentucky 2012 UCLA
For your consideration...
While constructing this list, it hit me: Where is Florida's 2004 class? Remember that quaint little recruiting class that produced two national championships and pros Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Joakim Noah? It's hard to fathom now, but that class was not a consensus top-five group coming into college. Only Brewer was a top-25 player.
If we're factoring in post-signing success, I think there's a reasonable argument that can be made for that trio plus Taurean Green as possibly the best recruiting class of the past 25 years given the national championships.
See, that's the dilemma of making a list like this. It's also the fun. There's no right answer and endless debate. Recruiting junkies will blow up the list and come up with their own. And honestly, isn't that the fun of recruiting anyway?