The NCAA projects itself to the audience at large as “amateur” level athletics. Yet, between the glorification of individual athletes to help drive ticket sales, the hyper-marketing of March Madness and holding games around the globe, the NCAA may be playing coy when it chooses to ignore the characteristics it shares with the NBA. And, be it by choice or happenstance, the NCAA now has it’s own version of free agency in the ever emerging transfer market.
Over the course of the past few years, the NCAA has seen a drastic increase in the amount of transfers it sees. Be it the underclassmen who must sit out a year after they transfer per NCAA rules or the immediately eligible graduate transfers and Junior College transfers, teams are seeing more and more value in this relatively untapped market.
As of this moment, there are 861 players who have entered their name in the transfer portal. If that number alone wasn’t enough to catch your attention, how about this Tweet from CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander:
The constant roster turn-over is nothing new. According to Jordan Sperber of Hoop Vision, we’ve seen similar transfer numbers in 2015 (831), 2016 (799), 2017 (894) and 2018 (844.)
Curious to see what others think of this trend, I spoke with ESPN’s Richie Schueler to hear his thoughts on the emerging trend in college basketball.
The What, When and Why of Transfers.
Imagine being a teenager pursuing a dream at such a young age. Your dream leads to free education, and with the growth of basketball around the world, potentially a professional career and a sum of money you may have not dreamed possible.
During the recruiting process you’re swooned over for years by coaches trying to get you on their campus. Inevitably you’re drawn to one coach, or a certain staff, and choose to play for them.
Then a year later, they’re fired. Now what?
“A lot of the times it’s because there was a coaching change,” Schueler says of why he feels kids transfer out. “The guy who recruited them is no longer there as their head coach or as their assistant coach. And sometimes that new coach may not want that current player, they may want to recruit a different style of player.”
This is not an uncommon take. According to Jordan Sperber of Hoop Vision, who tackled transfer trends recently in his Hoop Vision Weekly newsletter, found that last year alone there was an average of 2.4 transfers per coaching change at the Division 1 level in college basketball.
“Sometimes, it’s ‘this isn’t the right system for me’,” Schueler noted. “That happens quite a bit and sometimes people get home sick or they have family issues at home that they want to be a little bit closer to. I think there’s a whole variety of reasons why a kid may transfer out of the school.”
Among transfers, players have three classifications for which they can fall under: up-transfer, down-transfer, lateral transfer.
The meanings behind these are simple; should a player move to a bigger program they are deemed an “up-transfer” whereas a player moving to a smaller program would be a “down-transfer.” Lateral transfer indicates a player went to a program of a similar to size to the one they had left.
With talent evaluation being an imperfect science, some players may develop at a later time than others or maybe they get exposed against certain competition which leads to these intriguing cases.
“I can’t say this is the case all the time-I don’t want to be one of those old coaches who are griping at all-but the transfer culture has trended in the direction that [allows the players to think] ‘If I’m not happy, let me just up-and-go and try something different.'”
Richie points to the common occurrence of players leaving AAU programs with regularity and also transferring from high school-to-high school in order to up their profile as a potential precursor to the transfer culture.
“The grass is greener mentality…I don’t really like it because it doesn’t teach accountability. I do know as a competitor and as a former player, you do want to play at the highest level. If you’ve proven yourself at a Low or a Mid-Major and want to transfer up to a Mid or a High-Major, I understand that. But I also think that comes with a lot of risk as well.”
Schueler went on to highlight an up-transfer success story in Brandon Clarke who left San Jose State after two years for Gonzaga. After sitting out the 2017-18 season, Clarke averaged 16.9 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.2 steals and 3.2 blocks per outing for the Bulldogs in ’18-19.
The New Recruiting Trail
There’s a clear value to be had with players who decide to transfer out. Whether they are the star Low-Major kid who can step in and play valuable minutes for a High-Major, or the High-Major kid who becomes a stud at the Mid-Major level, there is value to be found.
But the transfer market isn’t the most even of playing fields.
“Just because kids can get into one school, doesn’t mean they can get into another,” Richie noted. “It’s up to the institution to have the academic standards to get into the new institution. That’s the thing, Ivy Leagues, Stanford, there’s a lot of high academic schools that won’t take Grad transfers. They won’t take transfers at all if their academics aren’t good.”
“Recruiting is based on, yeah you have to get after it and recruit, but so much of recruiting is what kind of academic requirements does your college or university have? If they’re higher, you’re going to lose out on some of those players.”
Another point Schueler made was that teams might lean on the transfer market to help expedite the winning process as opposed to getting younger talent which could take longer to cultivate.
And this ties with the constant revolving door that is coaching changes.
“At the Division 1 level, they don’t get that much time to build before they let them go,” Richie pointed out. “Look at Marvin Menzies at UNLV. They fired him after a winning record, and he was doing it the right way, with a bunch of Freshman and Sophomores in just his third season.”
Schueler himself spent four years as the Head Coach at D-2 St. Andrew’s University and even he tapped into the transfer market. “I went the transfer route because I wanted to win quicker, and the school I was at, I couldn’t keep kids more than two or three years. So I figured if I’m going to have them, I’m going to make it their last stop instead of their first stop.”
The Impact On Non-Power 5 Programs
As non-traditional powers begin to see the emergence of star players, the threat of them becoming an up-transfer looms large. In recent years Howard enjoyed success with RJ Cole who is now a UConn Huskie while Brown lost the ultra-athletic Desmond Cambridge to Nevada.
While these moves might be small sample sizes, it’s hard to ignore what the transfer market, for better or worse, could mean for the smaller programs.
“For non-Power 5 programs, this transfer culture makes it difficult to build a program because players are leaving all the time,” Schueler says. “If I’m a Low or Mid-Major coach, it’s a double edged sword. I want to get the best player that I can get that’s not going to leave after a year or two. That’s hard to find. So they’re trying to find the best talent that’s going top fit their program, but they don’t want to rely on this player who ends up leaving.”
“They thought they were going to have him for four years and only ended up having him for a year or two, maybe three, and now they have to go and get back on the recruiting trail and find someone who is less experienced or replace him with another transfer.”
Schueler has a strong stance against how the NCAA has streamlined what he feels is a process that takes responsibility off of the players.
“Players don’t even have to go speak to their coach to transfer out,” Richie notes. “They go to the compliance officer, that compliance officer can suggest they go speak to the coach, but once that player requests to be put into the transfer portal, the school has 48 hours to do so. If not, they’re against NCAA violations.”
Valuing Graduate Transfer vs. Sit Out Transfers.
Each year we see a Grad transfer hit the scene who found success at a small program. Be it Joe Cremo who graduated from Albany and landed at Villanova, Geno Crandall who went from North Dakota to Gonzaga, or more recently Christian Keeling who graduated from Charleston Southern only to land at the University of North Carolina, there is clear value to be had.
And for Schueler, this says a lot about Low and Mid-Major coaches.
“You have to give smaller college coaches a pat on the back for being the one who does the initial evaluation of these players and developing them, making it much easier for higher level programs to not evaluate as much or develop as much, because they can just pluck them out of the transfer portal.”
“Look at all the Power 5 signings just this year,” he added. “Look at Arizona. They have three transfers coming in, two from Mid-Majors and one from Kentucky just this Spring that they’ve signed. How much easier is that on Arizona?”
“If a kid goes into the Transfer Portal, and I’m a Top-25 perennial program, and I see this kid averaged 15 points per game at a very strong Mid-Major conference with six assists and five boards? Oh my gosh, he’s good! And I call him, and I’m an Arizona coach or wherever I’m at? Of course he’s going to be impressed! They want to play at a Power 5. My job just got a lot easier. A lot easier. And as long I can manage egos, we’re in great shape.”
One man’s gain is another man’s loss. While the traditional powers are able to essentially have the pick of the litter, it leaves the smaller schools continuously scrambling to fill the void.
The Future of the Transfer Trend.
As each season comes and go’s, it seems we get closer and closer to flirting with 1,000 players on the transfer market. If the number grows or even holds steady with where it’s at currently, the NCAA could be looking at a new trend that could force schools to adapt.
So what is the future of this transfer culture?
“At some point, they’re going to tinker with things,” Richie states. “I do think the NCAA made this change because of public pressure where a coach can just get up and go whenever he or she wants.”
“I think at some point the NCAA will find a good balance. It’s just got to be fixed.”
Until then, it seems we just have to get used to this emerging landscape in college basketball. Change can be a bit tricky at times, us sport fans can tend to get stuck in our ways.
Yet, if there’s one thing that the game of basketball has proven to us time-and-time-again it’s that it constantly evolves into something different and unique from where it once was.
So while we wait to see if a change will indeed occur, it’s best to just sit back and watch the great minds in this sport adapt to this trend and use it win games and even more importantly, provide young men and women with a platform they have fought so hard for.