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Recruiting: How mid-major schools can land high-major talent

As mid-major schools continue to win on the recruiting trail, players, coaches, and experts weigh in.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Alex Copeland dreamed of playing basketball at Stanford and the Cardinal offered him. He was intrigued by UCLA's storied program. The Bruins offered him. Other Pac-12 schools followed.

The 6-3 shooting guard from Los Angeles chose Yale.

Copeland is just one of dozens of recruits each season to eschew offers from Power 5 schools in favor of mid-majors. In fact, as the 2017 recruiting class takes shape, 12 of the top 50 recruiting classes come from non-major conference schools, according to 247Sports.

And while there are myriad reasons to go to the biggest name school — exposure, competition and past success to name a few — the reasons to go to the smaller school are just as diverse.

Often, however, it starts with opportunity.

"[Mid-majors] identify kids that were picked over by top tier schools because they had some kind of deficiency overriding their profile," NBC Sports basketball reporter Scott Phillips said.

Arkansas-Little Rock assistant Solomon Bozeman described recent NCAA Tournament star Josh Hagins as one of these players. Once labeled as too small, Hagins worked with Bozeman and the rest of the UALR staff for four seasons. The result was a 31-point effort in the Trojans' double-overtime upset win over Purdue in the First Round and a shot with the Sacramento Kings during the 2016 NBA Summer League.

But it's not only about mid-major schools taking chances on players that the Power 5 is too picky to accept.

Take, for example, the Ivy League, which has become a popular destination for players with exceptional talent on the court and in the classroom.

"You could be a Yale and stun Baylor and almost beat Duke," Copeland said, speaking from experience.

The combination of a dark-horse mentality and preparation for a non-basketball future has succeeded in attracting players.

"[The Ivies] are getting better because they somehow got a group of guys several years ago to buy into their schools," Copeland said.

The Ivy basketball renaissance seems to have started with Harvard coach Tommy Amaker and current NBA point guard, Jeremy Lin.

Now, former Yale forward Brandon Sherrod sees the Ivy as "an up-and-coming league" that could have multiple teams in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.

Along with their power to create a vision for a team's future, coaches can sell their recruits on their specific place on a team.

Copeland chose Yale because he says he felt wanted. Although he received interest from the Pac-12, he never felt he would be a team's go-to guy. Mid-majors tend to recruit more directly, actively seeking the best recruits for their team, not the best recruits in general.

"They understand and identify what fits their program," Phillips said.

For each mid-major team to thrive, they must stick to their identity.

Phillips credits Stephen F. Austin for discovering defenders who can press and VCU for its streaky shooters. They both "find diamonds in the rough," he said.

And that's an important distinction to make. Although mid-major schools may find off-the-grid players, coaches say they aren't settling for below average recruits.

"We're not gonna just settle for people who are supposedly low major," said Donyell Marshall, former NBA forward and current head coach of Central Connecticut State.

Marshall said mid-majors find "players who've slipped under the cracks," but also target highly ranked recruits.

"Some of the guys are looking for something a little different," Florida Gulf Coast head coach Joe Dooley said. "They're looking for more immediate playing time."

The Eagles thrive on overlooked players, including recent Michigan transfer Ricky Doyle, who left the Wolverines because of their system, according to the Detroit Free Press.

It's a tactic that has become more important in recent years, because as SB Nation college basketball guru Ricky O'Donnell put it, schools are no longer recruiting in a vacuum. Every coach seems to know, or know of, every player, regardless of geography.

Still, even if mids can offer something Power 5 schools cannot, it helps to get in on the process early. That's just one tactic that they tend to rely on in order to land high-major talent, according to former head coach at high school basketball powerhouse Harvard-Westlake, Greg Hilliard.

"If [small schools] are quicker before anyone else cares, they might get a commitment and sometimes kids honor those commitments," Hilliard said.

This often starts with earlier official visits, which can get a recruit to see the campus as a "basketball school."

"A lot of these Power 5 schools are built around football, whether it's their culture, whether it's their fan base, O'Donnell said. "You go to Northern Iowa and visit that campus and you realize that's a basketball school."

Wisconsin native Paul Jesperson transferred from Virginia to Northern Iowa not only because of its proximity to home, but because of the basketball community present. He had seen Northern Iowa make a run at the NCAA tournament and soon enough, he was the one draining the winning bucket in the 2016 tournament against Texas.

Dooley has helped grow a similar culture at Florida Gulf Coast.

"We have guys on unofficial visits sit down and they see the crowd and that's a selling point," he said.

Former Gonzaga guard Matt Santangelo knows firsthand what camaraderie at a small school looks like. Not only was he the point guard who brought the Bulldogs to the 1999 Elite Eight, he helped put Gonzaga on the college basketball map to begin with.

And that was after he was recruited by Northwestern, Oregon and Stanford.

"When you walk on campus, you know you're part of something greater than yourself," Santangelo said, explaining why he chose the school in 1996.

Unlike major state schools that are focused on football until January, many mid-major schools live and breathe basketball.

The NCAA Tournament is when that basketball-crazed mentality takes center stage. Bozeman, for example, acknowledges that after his team's win over Purdue last March, recruits have started to recognize the team.

"The Power Five may be getting the bulk of the resources, but that doesn't mean they're getting the bulk of the attention," Santangelo said.

It seems that whether you go to Iowa or Northern Iowa, Texas or Texas State, people tend to recognize talent.

Perhaps Dooley put it best:

"If you're worried about playing after college and they can find you in Bulgaria or Slovakia, they can find you in Fort Myers, Florida."