Basketball Scouting: What is a ‘High Major’ recruit?

Evan Nolte

So this week I’m delving more into how I rate players in high school, and it starts with two components: where they are ‘today’ (meaning, the day I see them play) and what rating they might reach in an optimum environment. Yes, I know that sounds convoluted, so let me break it down a little bit. Let’s say I see a freshman high school player who I watch play a few times and he looks like he definitely is a college player, but possibly at the ‘low major’ level. That would mean that over the next 3-4 years if he just continues along without much change in his game other than getting stronger and older, he will probably be able to play at that level of college (more about ‘level of college’ later). However, a high school freshman has time on his side; over those 3-4 years he may work extremely hard on his weaknesses, may grow much taller, and may mentally mature a significant amount. So let’s say I see a player who is 6’4″ as a freshman and is playing as a power forward. The reality is that a 6’4″ power forward is common in high school but will be limited in college – most colleges at the Division I or Division II level are going to be looking for at least 6’7″ and 6’8″ post players if they can get them. In Division I, players who are 6’4″ or 6’5″ usually fall somewhere between shooting guard and small forward, and it’s not uncommon at all for high major schools to have 6’7″ small forwards and 6’4″ point guards.

The gap in time – and the amount of change that can occur in players from their freshman year in high school and the time the graduate – is the reason why it’s not very accurate to rate or rank players before their junior year. As I said, I don’t see rankings as much of a tool in scouting players, but even for ratings (which I do use) rating a freshman is risky. So let’s go back to our fictitious 6’4″ post player. Let’s say he’s athletic and has decent footwork in the post, good hands, and can score out to 15′, and as we said, he looks solid enough to actually play in college. In reality, he’s probably going to fall somewhere in the NAIA or possibly Division II range, but there’s just as much chance he would be a Division III player. But here’s where it gets tricky – let’s say he has great quickness and agility already, and there are several things he might be able to do to move to the perimeter – improve his dribble, extend his range, add moves and explosiveness to his first step. A hard working player who trains on these things and already has athletic ability may develop into a shooting guard or small forward in a couple of teenage years. If he already looks like a college player who is undersized, then either two things can happen that improve his rating: a growth spurt or he moves to a different position. If I look at the 6’4″ power forward who I already think is at least an NAIA or Division III player but is undersized, but I think he could move to the wing and have the same effectiveness, then I have to give him a higher ‘potential’ rating. So in this case, let’s say that if this player works like mad and does all of the things he needs to do on the court to improve, and I think he could end up as a mid major wing player, then his ‘potential’ rating – the second component of scouting a high school player – would fall into the ‘mid major’ range. So if I rated this player he might have a current rating of NAIA/4 or Division III/5 but a potential rating of MM/3. An important caveat to this is that players do not stop developing once they leave high school. The vast majority of players will not see significant minutes on their teams until their junior year of college, and will have added considerable muscle and strength during that time. While it does matter what the roster situation is (such as arriving at a college who has no starting PG and all underclassmen guards) as a general rule, the player who commits to college is still considered a developing project in almost all cases.

Now I know what you’re thinking – that’s a huge gap to make up, and you’re right. Normally the gap isn’t that wide. Most players end up pretty close to where they initially rate at, but since the player has several years of teenage growth ahead of them, it’s not out of the question. When rating players, their age/grade matters a lot in this gap. Obviously a senior player halfway through his season doesn’t have the years ahead of him to allow for this gap in ratings. If our player listed above was a senior, his current rating (NAIA/4) and his future rating are going to be very close. There also the fact that teenagers are usually still adjusting to their new height/size all of the time. A 6’9″ player as a freshman may be awkward and raw, but by the time he’s a senior he might have a killer drop step and hook shot. It’s rare this occurs, but that’s where the gap falls.

Okay, so with all of that said, I know I am skipping over the difference here of what a ‘2’ or ‘3’ rated player is and a ‘5’. I’ll have more on that this week. For now we have to stop and address what a ‘high major’, ‘mid major’ or ‘low major’ school is, the differences between Division I, II and III and the misunderstood aspect of NAIA basketball.

Mid Major, High Major and Super High Major

For purposes of record, there technically is no official designation of ‘high major’ or ‘mid major’ Division I colleges, and no college refers to themselves as ‘low major’. Only scouts do that, but there is a reason for that and I even take it a step further. I see a difference between high major colleges and ‘super high major’ colleges – these are the colleges that have multiple McDonald’s All-Americans on their roster, among other things. The designation between all of these Division I colleges can change – just because a school is winning today doesn’t mean they will still hold that ‘high major’ status in 10 years when they are perennial cellar dwellers.

Generally speaking a ‘super high major’ meets the following criteria:

  • Plays in a ‘high major’ conference, such as the ACC, Big 10, SEC or Pac 12
  • Almost always make the NCAA tournament
  • Routinely advance to the Final Four, Elite Eight or compete for a national title
  • Are rarely not in the Top 20 and normally are in the Top 10 during the year.
  • Routinely have recruits from the McDonald’s All America, Jordan Brand Classic or USA Basketball roster
  • Routinely have players who leave early as NBA draft picks, often as first round picks
  • Have major recruiting budgets, fan base and merchandise sales that rival (or surpass) some pro teams.

Obviously, there are very few schools that would fall into the ‘Super High Major’ designation, but these include schools that are most obvious:

– Duke
– Kentucky
– North Carolina
– Kansas
– Arizona
– Michigan State
– Connecticut
– Syracuse
– Florida
– Indiana

There are others, but there aren’t many. Don’t email me about how your school is ‘super high major’. However, once you leave the rarefied air of the super high majors, here’s where the designation can start to get fuzzy between ‘high major’ and ‘mid major’. A high major school, by my definition meets ALL of the following criteria:

  • Plays in a ‘high major’ conference, such as the ACC, Big 10, SEC or Pac 10
  • Routinely has a winning record and competes for the conference title
  • Often makes the NCAA tournament
  • Is often ranked in the Top 25
  • Has players every few years who are drafted into the NBA, regardless of round, or make an NBA summer league roster

So this list would be much, much longer – too long to list. But there are two problematic things with my ‘high major’ criteria above: schools who play in ‘high major’ conferences but rarely compete for the conference title, rarely make the NCAA tournament and rarely are ranked nationally. Are these schools really ‘high major’ schools? Not by my definition. And then, we have the schools who do win consistently, make the NCAA tournament, and even have players heading to the NBA; those are not technically ‘mid major’ schools just because they reside in a ‘mid major’ or ‘low major’ conference.

Examples of high major schools who do not play in high major conferences are pretty obvious: schools like Butler and Gonzaga would definitely meet that criteria. While I do think that these schools benefit by not playing in a high major conference, there’s no argument that even if they did, they would still be able to make the NCAA tournament and be in the upper tier of the conference standings, and both schools have multiple NBA players and deep NCAA runs over the last 10 years. Wichita State and VCU (under Shaka Smart) probably fall into this category, or are pretty close to it. San Diego State and SMU under their current coaches are definitely recruiting more like high majors than mid or low majors.

So, what are ‘mid majors’ and what are ‘low majors’?

My ‘Mid Major’ criteria:

  • Plays in a high major conference but doesn’t consistently win OR plays in a ‘non high major’ conference but routinely wins or competes for the conference title
  • Often makes the NCAA tournament over a span of time
  • Is always a possibility for the NCAA tournament field, whether by conference title or at-large
  • Has a winning record over time or during current coach’s tenure
  • May have players who make NBA summer league rosters or play internationally.

By this designation, schools in the ACC, Big 10 or SEC who don’t consistently win are mid-majors. I know this sends people into a fury, but this is the reality of it for me- schools like that aren’t competing for the same recruits as the high majors, aren’t consistently winning and generally are destined for coaching turnover if things don’t improve. These schools are the ones who really need to find under-the-radar high major players who have slipped through the gaps of the high and super high majors so they can get back into those upper reaches. However, there are schools (like Davidson) who play in a conference many would designate as ‘low major’ but win so consistently that they would fall under my definition of ‘mid major’.

But, why do I need these definitions, anyway? It matters because I need some way of determining where a player might be able to compete and which schools could actually be a good fit at the current time. Over the years, despite what people really want to believe, teams that don’t make the NCAA tournament (and I’m ignoring any outside of the field of 64 – ‘play ins’ are irrelevant) are not competitive with teams that do make the tournament. The blunt truth is that the NCAA selection committee is very good at making their choices, and for those few mistakes, there are hundreds of selections that are proven correct. I have to rely on the years of documentation for this – this season Wichita State, which plays in the Missouri Valley Conference, knocked off Alabama during the regular season and then downed Indiana and Kansas in the NCAA tournament. By my definitions above, Alabama’s basketball program falls into the ‘Mid Major’ category and Wichita State is pushing up into ‘high major’ territory. I’m not trying to upset Tide fans here, but on the basketball side of things, their recruiting reach isn’t high major as it stands today. Alabama isn’t going to be competing with Kentucky for many recruits, and they might not be able to beat Wichita State out for some recruits right now – at least while Gregg Marshall is coaching for the Shockers. And here’s where it gets really tricky – if I rate a player as a ‘Mid Major’ talent, does that mean it’s more likely he’s a fit for the talent level at Wichita State or Alabama? Does it mean he can’t get minutes on either team because they are sort of both ‘high majors’. There are players on Duke that never get major minutes – are they all high major players? The answer is no. So just because a player is rated as a ‘mid major’ doesn’t automatically mean he’s not going to play (or ride the bench) at a high major. And just because a player is rated as a ‘high major’ does not that mean the ‘super high majors’ are going to come after him, either.

See why I scoff at the ‘five star’ system? Explain to me the difference between a 2 star player and a 4 star player. There are Division II players who are headed to pro careers overseas while there are Division I players who won’t play another game after college ends. In the ‘star rating’ system, the DII players would probably not even have stars. But a 6’7″ player rated at DII/5 and who reaches his full potential on a solid Division II program has a legitimate shot at professional ball on some level. How in the world is that ‘no stars’? And many of the players in the NBA were 2 or 3 star players in high school – how does that work, exactly?

If I rate a player as a MM/5 (mid-major/5) it means that by the time he is a college senior, he could start and be a significant impact player for any mid major in the country. Any player who can be an impact player at that level could also get minutes at most high major colleges, too, but probably wouldn’t be a starter. And we’re talking over four years of college. I hesitate to publicly rate a player as MM/3 or LM/2 because parents, high school coaches and players will fly off the handle but the reality is, most players aren’t even good enough for Division III basketball. Rating a player as an LM/5 means that he can go to a ton of Division I conferences, play and get minutes and likely be a major contributor on a team by the time he’s a senior. Rating player as a D2/5 technically means he’s so good he could play Division I but might be a better fit at the right DII program.

Now for the last item, let’s talk about the NAIA. The NAIA is often lumped into the same level as Division III, and although Division III basketball is far superior to what the majority of fans think, NAIA is a competing organization to the NCAA, not just Division III. There are some very good players and teams in NAIA and most fans have no idea that there is a whole different set of recruiting regulations and structure for NAIA.

I know this is a long read, but there’s a lot more I need to expound on – such as how the Impact Ratings are determined for players and why you should separate the lottery picks from the vast majority of players.

Marcus Shockley is the creator, along with a band of talented (but possibly misguided) misfits, of BasketballElite.com, the Southeast Summer Showcase and has scouted and written about basketball for longer than any person should openly admit. You can follow his rantings on sports, life and acceptable flavors of ice cream on Twitter @m_shockley

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