Local college hoops recruits tend to perform better, provided the coach stays

March 13, 2014

Like the personnel markets of corporations, the search for NCAA basketball players has gone national and even international, with scouts and coaches looking far and wide for the best talent available.

But is there an advantage to playing close to home?

A study originated at the University of Washington Foster School of Business finds that the decision to play college ball close to home generally benefits both individual and team performance (as measured by game statistics and NBA draft status)—so long as there is stability in the coaching staff.

“We looked at the distance from a prospect’s home to his school,” says Tom Lee, a professor of management at the Foster School. “And the clear effect is the closer you live, the better you and your team do. But that is contingent on the coach staying put through your career. The statistics indicate that when the coach leaves, all of those positive effects of proximity go away.”

Basketball Jones

This unique organizational study grew from the shared passion of two of its authors for NCAA hoops. Jeff Barden, an assistant professor of strategy & entrepreneurship at Oregon State University, is an ardent North Carolina Tar Heel fan, and Terry Mitchell, a professor of management at the Foster School, is a life-long Duke Blue Devil.

Setting aside the long and bitter rivalry of their respective teams, Mitchell and Barden collaborated with Lee and Dustin Bluhm for the study. As a novel arena in which to study the growing geographic and demographic dispersion of organizational recruiting efforts, they looked to a particular kind of organization that teems with observable data: college basketball.

The authors analyzed the top 100 NCAA Division I basketball recruits (as selected by Rivals.com) over multiple years, and followed their careers through college and into the professional ranks.

From the abundance of available recruiting data, game statistics and NBA draft status, they discerned a clear advantage, on average, to players who choose a school close to home.

They also found that when team leadership involuntarily changes—as when a coach is sacked—the positive effect of proximity on individual performance disappears.

“The coach is boss. He sets the policies, the expectations, the culture, the tone,” says Lee. “When the coach goes, all bets are off.”

Why proximity matters

To find some explanation for their finding, the research team interviewed 30 current and former NCAA basketball players. A common theme emerged: familiarity is a plus.

“We heard over and over again that hometown players feel the support of the community, know the program, know the coach, probably grew up with some of their teammates,” Mitchell says. “Such familiarity reduces the adjustment required when you go away to college and leave that comfort zone.”

“When you have your friends and family nearby, it heightens the motivation,” Lee adds. “You don’t want to let them down.”

The authors stress that lack of proximity does not doom a recruit to underachievement. There are always outliers, exceptions. And in the case of basketball, those outliers tend to be the exceptional superstars whose talents transcend coaching tumult or the unfamiliarity of playing far from home.

Are corporations like hoops teams?

Though they caution against extending these findings from college to corporate arena, these management scholars do find some elements to consider more broadly. The importance of stability at the top, for one.

“When a firm is thinking about making a change, this is one more thing to consider,” Lee says. “The change may be totally legitimate, but you have to take into account the effect on the performance of employees who stay.”

Mitchell points out that some organizations, such as the military, successfully operate on the assumption that leadership will change frequently. They hold important lessons in the value of strong organizational culture and a network of social support.

“College basketball teams can develop social support systems to help individuals and teams overcome the kind of challenges we all face when we’ve come from afar or experience a change in leadership,” he says. “The same would be true for any organization.”

“Hometown Proximity, Coaching Change, and the Success of College Basketball Recruits” is published in the May 2013 Journal of Sport Management. It’s the work of Jeffrey Barden of Oregon State University, Dustin Bluhm of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and Terence Mitchell and Thomas Lee of the University of Washington.