- Myron Medcalf, ESPN Staff Writer
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We all know about the powerhouse programs that sign nationally ranked recruiting classes every year. But the following schools might emerge as options for more high major prospects in the coming years based on their respective investments and growing support for college basketball.
Auburn: At this point in the school’s history, Charles Barkley is certainly the most recognizable figure in Auburn basketball. The general knowledge of the program rarely extends beyond Barkley’s affiliation with it. The school is an SEC stud in football, but the hoops program hasn’t reached the NCAA tournament since 2003. But things might be changing. Tony Barbee signed two Top 100 freshmen (Shaquille Johnson and Jordan Price) in 2012, and the $92 million Auburn Arena opened in 2010. Football will always be No. 1 at Auburn. If Barbee continues to build, however, the Tigers might possess their own winning tradition -- and attain the support that comes with it.
Creighton: Last season, Doug McDermott took the Bluejays national again with one of the top performances (22.9 ppg, 8.2 rpg) of the 2011-12 season. But Creighton’s human marketing campaign also magnified the spotlight on one of the gems in college basketball. Bluejays fans fill up the CenturyLink Center, a $291 million arena that was completed in 2003. The facility’s average attendance of 16,665 was good for sixth in the country last season. That number should rise as the Jays, who have won 11 Missouri Valley tournament titles, should enter this season with a Top 25 ranking. Off the court, Creighton holds its own, too. The small Jesuit school (enrollment 4,206) is one of the finest private universities in the Midwest. With its strong basketball culture and top academics, Creighton could attract more McDermott-type prospects to Omaha in the coming years.
Iowa State: Last season, Fred Hoiberg led the Cyclones to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005. Hoiberg’s return to his alma mater and last season’s success added more energy to the basketball climate in Ames, Iowa. Sure, prospects drive past a stream of cornfields on their way to the small city (59,042), which is dominated by the university’s presence. But the Sukup Basketball Complex is a state-of-the-art practice facility. Hilton Coliseum’s average attendance of 13,015 last season was top 25 in the country. The community embraces the program, and the Cyclones return the favor. The school is nationally recognized for its science and engineering programs. (The city is nationally recognized, among sportswriters at least, for Hickory Park Restaurant Co., one of America’s top barbecue joints.) It’s all helped Hoiberg earn commitments from a pair of four-star guards (Matt Thomas and Monte Morris) in the 2013 class.
Long Beach State: It’s tough to compete against schools such as UCLA and USC. But Long Beach State can sell recruits on more than warm weather, SoCal and beaches. Those attributes alone, however, should help Dan Monson’s cause. Every year, he compiles one of the most competitive road schedules in the country. During the nonconference season, the 49ers play the best teams in America so prospective 49ers know they’re going to face top competition each season. Monson has molded the program into a perennial contender for the Big West title and the league’s automatic bid. But there’s more. The 49ers play in a pyramid. Really. The Walter Pyramid “is believed to be the largest space-frame structure in North America,” according to the school’s website. It’s a unique venue for a team that’s become one of the top mid-major programs in the country.
Marquette: The Golden Eagles have a ton of tradition and play in the Bradley Center, an NBA arena that’s the home of the Milwaukee Bucks. They don’t fill it up, but their average attendance of 15,138 was ranked 13th in the country last season. They train at the Al McGuire Center, a $31 million practice facility that opened in 2003. The Big East contender, however, rarely signs top-ranked recruits. That’s surprising, because Marquette is a small private school (8,387) with big-city attractions. The university is in downtown Milwaukee. It’s surrounded by Milwaukee’s nightlife and local attractions. And it’s also one of the top universities in the country (ranked No. 82 by U.S. News).
Nebraska: NU is nationally recognized for its football program and the dedicated fans who support it. But the Cornhuskers are now serious about basketball, too. They’ve invested more than $200 million in facilities in recent years. The team’s new, two-level practice facility, Hendricks Training Complex, opened last fall. And the Huskers will start next season at Pinnacle Bank Arena in downtown Lincoln. Tim Miles has a lot of work to do; Nebraska went 4-14 in the Big Ten last season. But the program still finished 40th in average attendance (10,019). With their new facilities and energetic coach, the Huskers have received interest from high-major recruits who might not have considered the program even a year ago. The buzz surrounding basketball in Lincoln is growing.
Oklahoma State: Gallagher-Iba Arena, originally constructed in 1938, is one of the oldest arenas in the country. Major renovations within the past decade turned the facility into one of the premier modern arenas in the country. Google “OK State Cribs” for a tour of the team’s players’ lounge and locker room. A billionaire booster, T. Boone Pickens, likes to donate money to Oklahoma State athletics. No need for the Cowboys to call the bank when their wealthiest fan has a private airport on his Texas ranch. Freshman Marcus Smart, a 6-foot-3 combo guard ranked 10th in RecruitingNation’s ratings of the 2012 class, could guide the Cowboys toward the top of the Big 12 and help Travis Ford mold Oklahoma State back into a national contender in the coming years.
Oregon: I still have a hard time focusing when I look at the floor at Matthew Knight Arena. But the $227 million facility is a statement that was made by Oregon's most popular supporter. Nike founder Phil Knight, who financed the facility and named it after his late son, is arguably the most powerful booster in college sports. He’s been the catalyst for the growth of Oregon athletics. Ducks football has become a national title contender. The men’s basketball program, however, has failed to really take off. Two trips to the Elite Eight have been surrounded by mostly mediocrity. But the new arena and world-class facilities could help the Ducks draw more elite prospects as they recognize that the school and Knight are serious about elevating the program.
Tennessee: When people talk about basketball in the state of Tennessee, they immediately mention Memphis. It's a recruiting hot spot that’s produced nationally ranked talent for years. One problem for the University of Tennessee and Cuonzo Martin: The Volunteers are 400 miles away and the hometown Tigers are one of the top programs in the country. But the Vols crack this list because Martin is adding to the school’s tradition with the help of a committed fan base that really took off under Bruce Pearl. The massive Thompson-Boling Arena is “the largest on-campus, single-sport” building in the country, and underwent a $35 million renovation in 2008 that makes it look like it houses an NBA team. And UT fans pack it. Tennessee has finished in the top five nationally in attendance for a remarkable seven straight seasons. That might not be enough to woo a ton of Memphis kids. But it’s a start.
Virginia: Tony Bennett’s incoming freshman class features three players ranked in the ESPN 100 (Justin Anderson, Evan Nolte and Mike Tobey). Since his arrival in 2009, Bennett has left his mark on the ACC by adding high-level prospects to the program. The Cavaliers reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007 in March, which will only help Bennett in the future. Plus, the team plays in the $131 million John Paul Jones Arena (opened in 2006). The University of Virginia is also one of the top academic institutions in the country. It’s ranked 25th overall among national universities by U.S. News. The Cavs are coming.