Winning the NCAA tournament is inherently difficult, but there are several ways in which college basketball teams can reach the pinnacle of the sport.
Reigning champion Villanova was a gorgeous point-scoring, floor-slapping juggernaut last season; the Wildcats were primarily comprised of local talent, and Jay Wright has a formula that has proven to be successful for his program.
Jake Sharpless, a content manager at Rukkus, compiled data of where all 5,176 Division I players, for all 351 Division I teams, and all 32 Division I conferences, are from. The results are fascinating -- here is the full study, and below are some key highlights:
• The average basketball player (960 miles) travels more than 2x the distance football players (446 miles) do for college. See Sharpless’ study on college football players here.
• Eleven percent of college basketball players are born outside of the United States.
• Villanova has the second-most localized roster with an average distance from home to school of 128 miles.
• Maryland sends the 10th most players to Division I schools, but when factoring in population, it produces the most players per capita.
Here is what the full college basketball player map looks like – as you can see, the midwest and eastern regions of the country are dominant. If you scroll in either direction, you can venture outside of the United States:
Perhaps it’s not talked about enough, but it’s really interesting to see different programs utilize different roster construction strategies. As mentioned earlier, Villanova almost exclusively relies on talent that’s near the Philadelphia area. On the flip side, fellow blueblood Arizona's quest for players extends to anywhere and everywhere; only 11 programs have a less-localized roster than the Wildcats. Where does your favorite team lie?
Texas is a notorious college football hotbed, but it also produces plenty of college basketball talent. The most of any state, in fact. State by state, here’s where college basketball players hail from:
NCAA.com caught up with Sharpless to make some sense of what he found in his study:
Boozell: At first glance, 11 percent seems like a pretty high percentage of international players. I'd imagine it's trending upward. What do you think that number will look like in 10-15 years?
Sharpless: If we were to simply look at the NBA's expansion to the international stage, there is reason to believe the wave of overseas players in the NCAA is set to continue for years to come. Fifteen years ago, the NBA was comprised of less than 10 percent of international players, and now that number is well over 20 percent. There is reason to believe that 10-15 years from now the NCAA will be over 20 percent as well.
The visibility that international NBA players bring to young kids overseas has grown the game infinitely. Players growing up watching Tony Parker, Dirk Nowitzki, and the Gasol brothers are now college age players, and while some of them can compete professionally in Europe right away, many see the opportunity of playing the North American style of basketball that college offers as preparation for the NBA. Australia is being looked at closer and with the popularity Yao Ming brought to basketball in the far east, we're already seeing an influx of Chinese players in the states.
Additionally, some players are using basketball as a means to obtain an education that they simply would not be able to get if they stay at home. Nigeria and Senegal sent a combined 59 players to DI schools this year and those players would have had a limited opportunity to get both an education and play competitive basketball without traveling to the states.
If I had to guess, in 10-15 years, college basketball will look similar to what the NBA is now, with over 20 percent of players coming from outside the United States. What I'm not so sure about is how high that number can climb, both in the NBA and NCAA.
Boozell: What surprised you most about the data you compiled?
Sharpless: I was a bit surprised at the per capita numbers for some of the states when it comes to producing talent. Maryland being number one was a slight surprise, although the DMV region has long been a basketball-rich area. What stood out was some of the states in the southeast and the numbers of players they produce. Looking at the map, you'd think you were looking at a college football visualization with all the talent coming out of SEC territory.
Boozell: Is there a particular region of the country (or world) that we should expect to produce more players/talent in the coming years?
Sharpless: As mentioned before, I think international NBA stars have and will continue to influence players in their home countries. Germany, Spain, and France are all the the top 15 in terms of countries that send players to the NCAA and I think each will continue to grow because of the spotlight some of those players have brought to college and pro basketball in the U.S.. The Canadian and Australian numbers are growing and I don't see those slowing down, especially seeing some of the players who have paved the way by playing in college and transitioning success there to NBA careers.
As mentioned earlier, I think China might be the next big region to look at. Currently there are only three players from China in the NCAA, but with basketball's explosion in popularity of the past 20 years there, I'd be surprised if that didn't start to seep over into the NCAA sooner rather than later. The language barrier might be a large reason why China hasn't sent more players (compared to equally as distant Australia), but with more and more North American coaches setting up camps there, I'd expect at least a few of the 300 million Chinese that play basketball (same size as the entire U.S. population) to give the college basketball a shot.
Boozell: Do you see any correlation between distance from a player’s hometown to school and program success, or should that be judged on a case-by-case basis?
Sharpless: I think it should be judged on a case-by-case basis. Some teams like Villanova have the luxury of grabbing great talent that happens to be close to home. As the defending champions, they don't have to go far to find great talent if they don't want to.
For other teams, it's more of a necessity in order to keep up with the competition. Arizona has long been a basketball elite, but without a major hotbed of talent (besides Los Angeles), they've had to expand their reach. I think smaller schools outside the Power Five can be credited for starting the international reach out, as they sometimes can't compete with the larger schools in vying for top talent. Instead of competing with those schools at their own recruiting game, the smaller schools branched out overseas first and now some of the traditional powers have begun to follow suit.