The 2018–19 season may be remembered as the year of Zion, but the national championship wasn’t decided by a slate of superstar prospects. Virginia’s band of veterans Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De'Andre Hunter were all four-star recruits in 2016, while Jarrett Culver was ranked 312th in the country when he joined Texas Tech out of Lubbock’s Coronado High School. An elite recruiting class doesn’t necessarily spell postseason success.
Many quality recruiting classes failed to translate to on-court success in 2018–19. The team with the highest-ranked batch of newcomers to fall short of this year's NCAA tournament was UCLA, which finished the season 17–15 and went 8–10 in the Pac-12 after landing the nation's No. 6 recruiting class, missing out on March Madness for the first time since 2012. Meanwhile, Texas landed its third highly-recruited center in three years with Jaxson Hayes, but it settled for an NIT title.
Seven schools with top-20 recruiting classes missed the NCAA tournament in 2019. What went wrong at each program? We unpacked the problems and looked forward to the future of each school as we turn to 2020.
UCLA (No. 6 in the 247Sports Composite Rankings)
The Bruins were looking to reach the NCAA tournament for the sixth time in seven seasons in 2018–19 after bringing on five-star center Moses Brown and Shaq’s son Shareef O’Neal, the No. 4 recruit in the state of California. But that potentially sturdy frontcourt never saw the court together, and the result was the 321st-ranked scoring defense in Division I and the firing of head coach Steve Alford on New Year’s Eve.
The major what-if for the Bruins was O’Neal, who missed the entire season after undergoing heart surgery in September. He may now be sidled with a subpar supporting cast in year one for new coach Mick Cronin. Brown could very well follow leading scorers Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands to the NBA draft, leaving UCLA with few proven scoring options. Cronin’s rebuild in Westwood may take a season to gain traction, and the school’s first Final Four appearance since 2008 is still years away.
Texas (No. 8)
Another big-name center brought another lost season in Austin as the Longhorns missed the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years. Jaxson Hayes never became the offensive force many expected, suffering from similar spells of inactivity that plagued Mo Bamba and Jarrett Allen before him. We shouldn’t place the blame solely on the shoulders of Texas’s talented centers, though. The Longhorns have cycled through a slate of middling guards since Isaiah Taylor headed to the NBA in 2016. Kerwin Roach’s shot disappeared for long stretches last season, and Matt Coleman regressed. Any big man short of Zion wouldn’t have saved Texas from the NIT.
Shaka Smart and his staff will have another chance to make the most out of a prized big man in 2019. Four-star center and local kid Will Baker comes to Texas as the state’s No. 2 recruit, and Kai Jones will battle for big-man minutes after coming to Austin as a four-star recruit from New Hampshire. Baker’s versatility is intriguing. He’s skilled with an impressive handle, a potential fulcrum of the Longhorns’ attack. Texas’s season will be decided by its guards, though, with Jase Febres and Courtney Ramey taking on added responsibility. Ramey is perhaps the team’s most intriguing piece heading into next year. An All-Big 12 season out of him would bring a much-needed boost in a critical year for Smart.
Indiana (No. 10)
Romeo Langford didn’t turn out to be the savior of Indiana basketball many hoped for in year two of the Archie Miller era. The five-star freshman led the Hoosiers with 16.5 points per game, even as he shot just 27.2% from beyond the arc. His efficiency shortcomings left him merely as an All-Big Ten selection rather than an All-America candidate. As Langford struggled to carry Indiana—especially early in the year—supporting contributors were few and far between. Junior guard Devonte Green appeared in only nine games. Freshman guard Rob Phinisee shot just 36.1% from the field. Indiana lost seven straight in January, upset Michigan State in overtime and then ripped off five more losses in a row. Even late-season victories against Wisconsin and Michigan State couldn’t salvage the Hoosiers’ NCAA tournament case.
Can Indiana rebound in 2019–20? An uphill climb looms. Langford is draft-bound, and No. 2 scorer Juwan Morgan graduated. A third season from guard Aljami Durham could increase the Hoosiers’ perimeter production, while Butler grad transfer Joey Brunk should provide a necessary presence in the paint. The outline of a passable team is in place, but in the ever-competitive Big Ten, Indiana could miss the tournament for the third consecutive year, and this time it might cost Miller his job.
Vanderbilt (No. 13)
There’s the temptation to blame Vanderbilt’s historically bad 2018–19 on Darius Garland’s meniscus injury, but going 0–18 in conference play is truly an amazing feat for a Big Six program. Former head coach Bryce Drew still had a full season of five-star forward Simisola Shittu (the nation’s No. 3 power forward prospect, per 247Sports) along with sophomore point guard Saben Lee. The cupboard wasn’t exactly bare once Garland went down.
Lee will need to register a superb junior year for Jerry Stackhouse to reach the NCAA tournament in his first season with as the Commodores’ head coachs. Landing five-star forward Trendon Watford could help mitigate Garland and Shittu’s departure for the draft, but Memphis, LSU and Alabama seem to be closer to the front of the line for Watford. A quick rebuild is unlikely, but Stackhouse’s real test will come in how well he recruits his first full class in 2020. A return to the tourney should come early in the next decade.
Notre Dame (No. 15)
Mike Brey pulled off quite the coup in 2018 when he landed the ACC’s No. 3 recruiting class behind Duke and North Carolina, bringing a quartet of four-stars to South Bend, led by Massachusetts forward Nate Laszewski and day-one starting point guard Prentiss Hubb. But the influx of talent couldn’t carry the Fighting Irish to the NCAA tournament as they finished 14th in the ACC with just three conference wins and an overall record of 14–19. A rebound could be in store for 2019–20. Leading scorer John Mooney will return for his senior season, and T.J. Gibbs is a good bet to take his name out of the NBA draft. William & Mary grad transfer Justin Pierce would be an impact addition if the 6'7" forward chose the Irish over Michigan. Last season marked Notre Dame’s worst conference performance in 19 years under Brey. Don’t bet on another no-show next season.
USC (No. 18)
The wheels came off for the Trojans in year six of the Andy Enfield era. Five-star swingman Kevin Porter Jr. battled a thigh injury, then was suspended for “conduct issues” on Jan. 14. Porter’s suspension came two weeks after sophomore Jordan Usher transferred from the program following his indefinite suspension. USC limped to a 16–17 finish with an 8–10 Pac-12 record, wasting a strong season from senior forward Bennie Boatwright.
Enfield desperately needs to turn the tide in 2019-20, and the talent is on board for a return to the tournament. The Trojans will gain a big boost on the perimeter with Columbia transfer Quinton Adlesh, and securing Akron transfer Daniel Utomi would be a clutch double dip into the portal. A pair of five-stars are set to join the program on the freshman front, led by California’s No. 1 recruit Isaiah Mobley. Paired with incoming center Onyeka Okongwu, USC could boast one of the conference’s most imposing front lines. Add in returning starters Nick Rakocevic, Jonah Mathews and Derryck Thornton, and the lows of last season could feel like a distant memory next March.
Stanford (No. 20)
A top-20 recruiting class couldn’t drive the Cardinal to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2014. Four-star guard Cormac Ryan struggled to acclimate to college competition as a freshman, shooting just 33.3% from the field. As the freshmen faltered, sophomore forward Kezie Okpala operated as a one-man-band, pouring in 16.9 points per game while leading the team with a 27.4% usage rate. Okpala entered his name into the NBA draft on April 12. If he stays at the pro level, head coach Jerod Haase will likely find himself outside the tourney field for the fourth straight year. The talent is lacking in Palo Alto.