Xavier Booker, the No. 3 boys basketball player in the class of 2023, committed to Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans last week.
This announcement has generated pages upon pages of some of the worst Indiana-related message boarding because Booker plays just up the road at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, earning him the label of a ‘must get’ from the perpetually Mad portion of the fanbase.
At first glance, the label seems sort of obvious; a recruit some believe to be a generational talent happens to be an hour’s drive away from a second-year head coach attempting to revive a traditionally contending program. If he lives up to his newly elite recruiting ranking, he certainly would have been a nice get.
The problem with this take is that, aside from the obvious unpredictability inherent to the development of teenaged athletes, the term ‘must get’ is extremely hard to define for any given program at any point in time. Booker is a fantastic example of how difficult it is to form a consensus among coaches, fans, and recruiting analysts as to what it means for a team to need a specific player from a specific class.
Defining the term ‘must get,’ then, becomes the logical starting point for any discussion about a particular player’s importance to a coach or program’s success. Here are some of the most common criteria I’ve seen used in the context of online recruiting discussions:
It’s something like common sense that Indiana kids will play for Indiana, but what does that really mean?
Again a vague term, this is probably what I would describe as having been relevant in the Xavier Booker recruitment. Overall, it comes down to somebody that the fan(s) believe the program just should get, for some reason or the other.
A lot of the time, it comes down to proximity to the school. This is probably why guys like Romeo Langford, Xavier Booker or even Damon Bailey from a slightly shorter drive away may earn the title a little more easily than other in-state, coveted recruits like Jaden Ivey or Jalen Washington.
Other times, it can be something like bloodlines or social connections that make a player seem, to fans and outsiders, like an obvious fit. Aside from being in-state guys themselves, Khristian Lander and Keion Brooks Jr. were both teammates and close friends with other IU commits, which made those recruitments feel like former head coach Archie Miller’s to lose.
Generally, the ‘optics’ category is the least serious of the lines of thought, as it can be expanded to include basically any intangible that make the grown adults who follow recruiting feel confidently about their predictions about where a kid may end up.
People who believe Archie’s recruiting missteps cost him his job could have a lot of ammo in coming years, as the Big Ten is littered with kids who he unsuccessfully recruited. After locking down the state for a bit, losing both Trey Kaufman-Renn and Caleb Hurst certainly did not help Archie in the “optics” category, but we won’t really know the extent of the on-court impact for a while now.
Mind you, other grown men posting incredibly weird edits of Kaufman-Renn probably didn’t help Archie when it came to recruiting, but I digress.
Losing guys like Greg Oden and Miles B to Big Ten teams went about as poorly as predicted for Tom Crean, and while I would never call Penn State a rival, I was not at all surprised when Curtis Jones ended up killing the team Archie essentially cut him from. Similarly, I cannot imagine Matt Painter enjoyed losing on a buzzer beater to a kid from Lafayette.
I would argue that this line of thinking rarely applies to Indiana recruits though, especially with the current regime who seems to be targeting a more national recruiting footprint.
Purdue and Indiana have not competed for many high-profile recruits of late (outside of the two mentioned above whose impact is TBD), and Indiana hasn’t (yet) played any of the other blue bloods on a regular enough basis for those recruiting battles to feel relevant when they happen.
Right now, it would be hard to argue with somebody who says that Mike Woodson needs a shooter. It’s always possible to develop the current roster to shoot better and more confidently as individuals, but that does not eliminate the need for talent on the roster and on the bench.
As with optics, what the particular roster needs is subject to interpretation. For a while under Archie, the common thinking seemed to be a talent upgrade by any means necessary. That Crean had left the cupboard lacking any talent that could make the sorry ol’ Hoosiers a threat to win, uh, anything.
This seems to make some sense on the surface, that winning requires the best players, but building a college basketball team is a little more complicated than being the general manager of the San Diego Padres or Los Angeles Dodgers, who can simply buy any player that gives them a better chance to win a title.
Unlike professional sports with years of high level analytics of college and professional performance, recruiting is based on composite evaluations of high school players by their own coaches, college assistants, sportswriters and a handful of professional scouts.
There aren’t vast databases of statistics available on these kids, and even if there were, it would not tell the tale of the game. The disparity in talent in a normal, public high school basketball game would render a box score completely useless for evaluating a player.
Perhaps this is why bloggers before me have found mixed results when evaluating the correlation between recruiting class rankings and winning and the timeliness of recruiting class impact.
If there were another elite shooting player like James Blackmon Jr. still available in the 2023 class, I may concede that they are as important a recruit as Mike Woodson could land. But those kids are few and far between - plus they may be some other school’s ‘must get’ if they aren’t in your backyard, making them even more difficult to come by.
Isn’t it all just hindsight, anyway?
The one theme running through each of these considerations of the various types of ‘must get’ recruits is the great unknown.
To use Xavier Booker as an example again, he went from the 90th ranked recruit to a top 5 player in the country virtually overnight. Until this new consensus about his potential was formed, fans were much more trusting that this would be a recruitment that Indiana could sit out.
Talent aside, the college athletics landscape has become so volatile in general over the last few seasons between the NIL, COVID-19, the one year free transfer rule and the ongoing creation of super conferences. It’s arguably harder now than ever to project the impact that each player will have on the program. Was somebody like Nijel Pack a miss, or would Indiana have inevitably lost him to the first school willing to bend the new rules a bit?
Only with hindsight can we fully appreciate the catastrophe of Archie’s decisions not to recruit Blake Wesley and Jaden Ivey, two players who he decided weren’t worth fully pursuing. Or that adding Keion Brooks Jr. to Indiana’s current roster would not have done much to address the real fatal flaw of the Archie tenure - the inability to shoot from deep.
Maybe it’s time to stop using the term altogether, minus the occasional internet joke here and there. People take recruiting too seriously as is and end up engaging in major weirdo behavior.
Even when the dream comes true and Indiana lands the Romeo Langford, the Damon Bailey, or whoever it will be in the future, the kids end up stepping onto campus with legacies that crabby old men will debate for eternity if it all ends short of a national title run. Nothing about their actual careers matters compared to these inflated, unfair expectations.
As is almost always the case when it comes to college recruiting, relax.