In early August, prompted by a thoughtful piece from Basketball Prospectus contributor Drew Cannon, we discussed the notion of positional flexibility in college basketball. More than that, though, we were talking about exploiting inefficiency.
The yearly recruiting scene is a free market, and no market is perfectly efficient. Players slip through the cracks. There's a reason mid-majors compete every year. By taking a non-traditional recruiting tact -- by looking for players that fit production-based, rather than position-based needs -- a coach at a struggling high-major could exploit that inefficiency and consistently put together winning teams. The opportunity is there.
Upon further reflection, it's entirely possible Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon beat us to this conclusion.
Dixon, talking with Fox Sports' Jeff Goodman, said he doesn't care about yearly recruiting rankings. Instead, he recruits players based on different criteria -- attitude, academics, and -- "most important" -- age:
"It’s hard because a lot of them don’t take into account academics, winning and most important – age," Dixon said. "Some guys in the same class are two years younger than others."
"We don’t recruit numbers," Dixon said. "We recruit winning and character. Sometimes when you get five highly ranked guys, they may not fit well together."
Here's why this is interesting: Dixon has been winning without highly ranked recruits since he took over at Pitt. His recruiting classes are universally good, but not great, filled with guys that rank in the lower half of the country's top 100.
His best player on the 2009-10 Panthers, freshman Ashton Gibbs, wasn't even ranked that high. His best player of recent vintage, power forward DeJuan Blair, wasn't considered a top-50 prospect before he became a Panther.
Instead, Dixon's classes are collections of good players that, when meshed together over the course of three or four years, form tough, defensive-minded, intelligent basketball teams. This strategy has worked: Dixon has won fewer than 25 games only once in his seven-year tenure at the school, and his teams have never failed to make it to the NCAA tournament.
Last season, when a group of unheralded players (including Gibbs) replaced stars like Blair, Sam Young and Levance Fields (two more examples of the good-but-not-elite recruiting strategy), the Panthers were a surprise competitor for the Big East title.
This isn't exactly what Cannon was talking about in his positional flexibility piece, but it is, in its own way, a market inefficiency strategy. The Panthers have found a recruiting niche. They've constructed teams within that niche. It's paid off.
Which is not to say Dixon is immune from recruiting truly elite prospects. After all, he landed McDonald's All-American Dante Taylor last year's class and just landed a commitment from the No. 2-ranked recruit in the 2012 class, Khem Birch, who could be one of those explosive, game-changing freshmen most frequently seen at places like Kansas and Kentucky.
Exploiting inefficiency doesn't mean ignoring the best players in the class, provided you can land them. (And some of this "strategy" might be unintentional; maybe Dixon's hand is forced more often than he'd like to admit.)
What it does mean, though, is spending more time focusing your efforts on the players you can land. For Pittsburgh, that means scouting the attributes most scouting services ignore. No one could argue that strategy, unconventional as it is, doesn't work.