Kentucky spent more on basketball recruiting last year than any public university in the six biggest conferences in college sports.
Kentucky spent $434,095 in fiscal 2010. Kansas was second with $419,228; and Florida third with $326,306, according to expense reports from 53 schools obtained through open-records requests. Private schools such as Duke aren't required to divulge the information.
Kentucky starts three freshman who score 60 percent of the team's points. Last year, the Wildcats lost four first-year players to the NBA Draft after being eliminated in the regional finals of the NCAA Tournament.
"Kentucky basketball is one of the most important things in our state and we are going to direct resources to ensure that it stays that way," said Mitch Barnhart, UK's Athletics Director.
The only other team to make the Sweet Sixteen with three freshmen starters is Connecticut, which defeated San Diego State 74-67 on Thursday night to advance to the West regional finals against fifth-ranked Arizona, a 93-77 winner over defending champion and No. 1 seed Duke. UConn's freshmen combined to score 25 percent of the team's points this season.
Kentucky's starting freshmen — Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb — are playing for a program that has won more games, 2,050, than any other Division I basketball program and has appeared in a record 51 NCAA Tournaments. Barnhart said the team's success compels the athletics department to dedicate resources to recruiting.
"There is an expectation that we continue to be in that group of schools that talks about championship performance," said Barnhart, 51. "We've got to match resources to expectations."
On the other hand, Wisconsin spent the least ($57,397) on recruiting of public universities in the six biggest conferences: the Big Ten, Big 12, Big East, Southeastern, Atlantic Coast and Pac-10.
Wisconsin, a Big Ten school, spent the money on a recruiting effort that stayed local. Of the team's 17 players, 15 come from Wisconsin or a neighboring state, including all four freshmen. The Badgers made it to the Sweet Sixteen and lost to Butler, a private school from Indianapolis, Thursday night. Butler will face Florida in the Southeast regional finals Saturday after its 61-54 win over the Badgers.
Wisconsin associate head coach Greg Gard, who coordinates recruiting, said the Badgers are undaunted by big spenders such as Kentucky and Kansas. He said they recruit players from their region and develop them over a four-year college career.
"Most kids want to play where their family and friends can see them," Gard said. "So we recruit in our own backyard and have found a lot of great players who, with a little support, can turn into terrific players."
Unlike Kentucky, which recruits players who are good enough to jump to the NBA in a year, many of Wisconsin's recruits don't develop until later. Gard said that gives Wisconsin the added benefit of keeping the team together.
Kentucky's recruiting budget includes accommodations for official visits, scouting, communications and traveling expenses, Barnhart said. The team's coaches traveled to Oregon, Florida, New York and Europe to recruit this year's freshman class.
The Wildcats successfully recruited Turkish forward Enes Kanter, then the NCAA ruled him permanently ineligible to play because he was paid by a professional basketball club in his native country.
Knight, 19, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Jones, 20, of Portland, Ore.; and Lamb, 19, of New York are Kentucky's three leading scorers this season.
Last year, the Wildcats' freshman point guard, John Wall, was chosen with the first pick of the NBA Draft. He's averaging 16.1 points a game for the Washington Wizards.
The professional success of last year's freshman class helps Kentucky's recruiting efforts, said Len Elmore, who played 10 years in the NBA and is Maryland's all-time leading rebounder.
"You have to have a marketing pitch," said Elmore, 58, who is a basketball analyst for CBS. "John Calipari's staff can say, 'If you come with us, we will develop you into NBA material,' and back it up with empirical evidence."