Florida Gulf Coast, other Sweet 16 teams thriving without highly touted recruits

Congratulations, Kaleb Tarczewski. You are the sole survivor of the college basketball freshman top 10.

The Arizona center is the only member of the Rivals.com Class of 2012 top 10 still playing in this NCAA tournament. Not only that, he's the only player to even win a game in this NCAA tournament.

Five other top 10 freshmen made the tournament but lost in the first round: Shabazz Muhammad (No. 1) and Kyle Anderson (No. 3) of UCLA; Steven Adams (No. 5) of Pitt; Anthony Bennett (No. 7) of UNLV; and Marcus Smart (No. 10) of Oklahoma State.

Three members of the top 10 saw their teams dispatched to the NIT: Nerlens Noel (No. 2) and Alex Poythress (No. 8) of Kentucky and Isaiah Austin (No. 4) of Baylor.

The other top 10 recruit, Ricardo Ledo (No. 6), was academically ineligible at Providence and never played anywhere.

So it's hardly been a banner year for blue chips. The lightning Kentucky captured last year cannot always be bottled, as the defending champions and UCLA both found out the hard way this season. One-and-dones have gotten nothing done in this NCAA tourney.

Instead, it's been a banner March for Cleanthony Early of Wichita State, who was anonymous in high school and went to a Division III junior college in upstate New York. But the Shockers found him and have enjoyed the reward for their diligence: Early had 37 points and 14 rebounds in two wins in Salt Lake City.

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It's been a banner March for Tyreek Duren of LaSalle, a zero-star recruit who scored 19 points in the Explorers' round-of-32 victory over Mississippi. Being a third-tier prospect out of Philly hasn't kept Duren out of a starring role in the Sweet 16.

And it's been a banner March for the motley collection at Florida Gulf Coast, a bunch of recruiting nobodies who have morphed into the surprise team of this tournament. Point guard Brett Comer (24 assists in two games) signed with Florida Atlantic, then backed out and went to FGCU – there was no line of suitors waiting for him. Chase Fieler, the guy who famously threw down Comer's alley-oop against Georgetown, cannot even be located in the Rivals.com recruiting database. Neither can Atlantic Sun Player of the Year Sherwood Brown, who arrived at FGCU as a walk-on. Bernard Thompson, the A-Sun Defensive Player of the Year, was by comparison a big star: he had offers from East Carolina, Murray State, VCU, Wright State, Northeastern and Georgia State. But even Thompson was unranked nationally.

"I wasn't highly recruited out of high school, but I knew that I could play amongst some of the best people in the nation," Brown said. "I just had that type of confidence."

A player's confidence and willingness to work can matter more than how many stars he's assigned coming out of high school. That is not new knowledge, but FGCU has set a new standard in that area.

Yet even beyond the Cinderella-style schools in the Sweet 16, this tournament has become a three-star playground. Yes, there are several Rivals five-star talents left in the Big Dance – Cody Zeller at Indiana, Deshaun Thomas of Ohio State, Vander Blue of Marquette, Gary Harris and others at Michigan State, plus more at Kansas and Florida and Louisville – but they’re sharing the spotlight with players who toiled in their shadows in high school and AAU ball.

This tournament belongs to juniors and seniors who were good coming out of high school, but stuck around and made themselves college stars.

Guys like Louisville leading scorer Russ Smith, an unranked three-star guard out of New York. Three years ago, nobody projected little Russdiculous as the leading man on the overall No. 1 seed.

Guys like Damyean Dotson of Oregon, a three-star freshman who did not crack the Rivals150 but has scored 40 points in two dominant Ducks victories. Dotson is Oregon's No. 2 scorer on the season behind E.J. Singler, brother of blue-chipper Kyle Singler but far less-heralded himself. Beyond the home-state Ducks, Singler had offers from Pepperdine, Washington State and Saint Louis.

Guys like Seth Curry of Duke, a three-star prospect who went to Liberty before transferring to the big time. Seth and brother Steph have to be the most under-recruited family in college basketball history.

The two best players still in the tournament, according to all the national awards voters? That would be Michigan point guard Trey Burke and Indiana guard Victor Oladipo. Burke was Rivals' No. 142 prospect in the Class of 2011. Oladipo was No. 144 in 2010. I don't recall live national broadcasts of their college decisions.

(In fact, the lower end of the Rivals 150 class of 2010 was apparently the place to be for 2013 success. Oladipo teammate Will Sheehey was No. 141; Duke guard Tyler Thornton was No. 140. Ohio State had a pair of guys in the same neighborhood: Lenzelle Smith at No. 132 and Aaron Craft at No. 111.)

Of the five-star guys still in college, most have learned a lot along the way to this point.

Louisville, Florida, Kansas and Michigan State all are populated with highly-ranked recruits who got to college and found out it was going to take a little longer to reach their potential or refine their games for the NBA. Guys like Peyton Siva at Louisville (now a senior), Kenny Boynton at Florida (senior), Elijah Johnson at Kansas (senior) and Adreian Payne at Michigan State (junior).

That hasn't been a catastrophe for any of them. There are worse things than spending three or four years at those schools, being coached by the best teachers in the game and enjoying the perks of campus celebrity while (what a novelty) completing an education and growing up.

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Along the way, Siva, Johnson and Payne have been to a Final Four. Boynton has been to consecutive regional finals. All of them are four games away from winning a national title.

Draft day may belong to the prospects at the top end of each recruiting class. But almost all of them will be sitting at home and watching less-heralded players for the next two weeks. It's their tournament from here through April 8.

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