It’s Not You, It’s Me: ESPN’s Richie Schueler Discusses The College Basketball Transfer Culture.

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.

Credit: Jordan Sperber, Hoop Vision Weekly

“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.

Brandon Clarke (#15) began his career at San Jose State before transferring to Gonzaga. (Photo Credit: slipperstillfits.com)

“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.”

Marvin Menzies was let go by UNLV after 3 seasons and 2 consecutive winning seasons. (photo: azcentral.com)

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.”

RJ Cole, who scored 1,510 points in just 2 seasons at Howard, recently transferred to the University of Connecticut (photo: zagsblog.com)

“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?”

Christian Keeling averaged 17.9 PPG for his career Charleston Southern and will now be a Grad Transfer at the University of North Carolina (photo: tarheelblog.com)

“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.

But A Number: Does Having An Experienced Team Translate To Success in College Basketball?

Data Deep Dive Series: Is Age Really But a Number?

We hear a lot of old adages in the world of sport. One of these recurring themes is that assumption that teams with age and experience are often viewed in a favorable light while more youthful teams tend to struggle a bit.

Sure, at the professional ranks this assumption may be true but how does this hold up when analyzing a larger sample size such as college basketball?

Today, we’re going to take a deep dive and look at what translates among older teams and how often do they find–or avoid–sustainable success over the years.

For the sake of transparency, I have used KenPom’s 10 most experienced teams per year as my main source for data that’ll be presented going forward. The numbers cover a decade’s worth of numbers ranging from 200-2019.

In-Season Performance

At first blush, the numbers are pretty solid and favorable for the teams. Over the years, 71 of the 100 teams finished with a record over .500. To be exact, the records for these 100 teams we tracked came out to 1,834-1,349, which equals out to teams in question holding a .576 winning percentage.

Despite the numbers favoring the experienced teams, there are years that helped cushion the records while others added a bit more a reality check for the, presumably, Senior heavy teams.

The year most kind to the experienced teams came in 2012-13, which saw nine of the ten teams finish with a winning record with all of those teams making it to the Post-Season, seven of whom earned NCAA tournament bids.

Of the teams surveyed, the most experienced team was the 2016-17 North Carolina Central Eagles. The Eagles averaged 2.91 years of college basketball experience, and finished with a 25-9 record and were one of 15 teams in the research to have won 25+ games in a season.

Under a microscope, however, the 25 loses some luster as three of their wins that season came against Non-Division 1 opposition. Their highest ranked win according to KenPom that year came on November 28th when they beat the 156th ranked Missouri Tigers, who would go on to be 8-24 that season.

Speaking of Missouri, the 2011-12 Tigers were one of two teams to notch 30 wins with the other team being the 2010-11 Utah State Aggies.

The experienced Tigers squad would go on to win the Big 12 tournament that year with 11 of their 30 wins coming against KenPom Top-50 teams. The legacy left behind, however, will be that of their NCAA tournament appearance when as a 2-seed, they would fall in the opening round to the 15th seeded Norfolk State Spartans.

Similar to the ’11-12 Tigers, the aforementioned Utah State Aggies also fell in the opening round of the tournament as a 12-seed, to the 5th seeded Kansas State Wildcats. In comparison, four of the Aggies wins that year came against KenPom Top-100 teams, only one of whom were ranked in the Top-50 (43rd ranked Saint Mary’s.)

Even with success, things weren’t always good or even alright for the teams with guys who have been around the block. Take for instance the following:

  • 2016-17: James Madison, 10-23
  • 2014-15: Idaho State, 7-23
  • 2012-13: UT-San Antonio, 10-22
  • 2010-11: Chicago State, 6-26
  • 2010-11: The Citadel, 10-22
  • 2009-10: Idaho State, 7-22
  • 2009-19: Hawaii, 10-20

Seven teams, listed above, finished with 10 or less wins during the given time frame, and 18 other teams finished with 15 wins or less.

15 teams won 25+, 15 won 15 or less. Feast or famine.

All in all, it’s rather mixed bag when analyzing wins.

Stacking The Deck: Factors That Prevent Success

It doesn’t take a wealth of knowledge to understand why experienced teams aren’t always the one atop the mountain. In fact, the way recruitment and player development has evolved, it’s damn near impossible for these teams to maintain some sort of roster stability in terms of quality.

Of the 100 teams highlighted in the research, only 11 teams were in conferences that would be deemed Major or High Major conferences.

It’s no secret that the landscape on the recruiting circuit often favors teams of higher repute. Various factors such as location, prominence, facilities, or the exposure they receive, the theoretically better players tend to land higher up the food chain.

With one year aside (2015-16 which provided insufficient data), the average yearly recruiting class according to 247Sports has the given teams ranked 162nd.

With the One and Done rules and certain programs such as Kentucky and Duke providing the proper feeder system the NBA thrives for, it’s easy to see why programs such as UT-Martin, North Texas, and even Iowa State end up where they are.

Even when certain programs crack the Top-100 for their given class, that’s no guarantee it equals out to success. Be it players not qualifying, falling to injury, or the most recent trend of transferring, it’s supremely challenging for programs to sustain success outside of a small scope of schools.

So what’s the verdict? Does experience provide a useful advantage to teams in the NCAA? Well, in any given year, yes it does. Does it usually help form an elite program who will cut down nets?

Not really.

But, much like a nice glass of wine, this theory could only get better with time.

A New Normal: The Pro Basketball Combine Is Offering a New Path for NBA Hopefuls.

Credit: @ProBBallCombine

Alexander Graham Bell once said “When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.” For many, especially those pursuing their dream of playing pro basketball, a door gets slammed shut should they not receive an invite to the NBA Draft Combine held every year in Chicago.

Rather than letting players dwell on their dreams possibly eluding them, Jake Kelfer took it upon himself to make sure that another door opened when he birthed the Pro Basketball Combine.

PBC founder Jake Kelfer (photo credit: hallpassnetwork.com)

The NBA Combine invites 80 players from the college and international ranks. Over the course of a few days, players are tested for skills such as speed and agility, to their jump shot being dissected, to interviewing with NBA executives, to being measured up, down and sideways to playing live games.

However, as the basketball world continues to rapidly expand and leagues being more-and-more profitable and sustainable, the need for talent similarly expands. Which is why Jake Kelfer, once an aspiring agent, saw an opportunity with the Pro Basketball Combine.

After graduating from USC in 2015, Kelfer landed with the Los Angeles Lakers on the corporate side in Kobe Bryant’s final season. After dipping his toes into the agency waters through helping with pro days and combines alike, in less than two years, with the expansion of the NBA G-League and their 2-Way contracts, Exhibit 10 contracts and the ever evolving international landscape, Kelfer crafted the concept for the PBC in January 2017.

“The PBC found it’s spot,” Kelfer said of the landscape in early 2017. “[It helped players] expedite their journey.”

Before the process can even kick off, Kelfer and his team track players and map out potential invitees for their event held in May.

“Twenty four guys,” Kelfer says of how many players the PBC will look to invite to their event. “And that’s based on the NBA pre-draft rules. You can only have six on the court at one time, 3-on-3 workout, [and we do] four groups of six over two days.”

Now more than ever, with the NBA continually reassessing their Draft rules, we see a drastic spike in players declaring for the draft on a yearly basis. As of late April, 233 players have entered their names into the 2019 NBA Draft pool.

With such a large range of players making their names available, Kelfer makes sure he has contingencies in place to deal with this madness.

“Every declaration that happens, we track it,” Kelfer tells me. “It’s so fluid, and we take it into consideration, but with us, we’re not going to fill-up half our spots with underclassmen testing the waters.”

While their focus is geared towards Seniors, the PBC have invited players who declared as underclassmen in years past such as UIC’s Dikembe Dixson and Louisville’s Deng Adel, both of whom were 2018 PBC participants.

Deng Adel, #32, played in 19 games with the Cleveland Cavaliers in ’18-19 (photo credit: Sportingnews.com)

“There’s a lot of factors that go into it, I think we do our best jobs tracking everything that we can track but there’s no one system that tells [you everything.] Because every year you have guys who stay in and guys that go back and you’re like ‘Really? I think you would’ve been incredible to say in, I’m very surprised.’

“Every year, except this year, there hasn’t been too many guys in the Top-30/40 who have gone back to school so that makes it very interesting. Whereas in the past, there’s been a couple of lottery picks each year go back [to school]; Miles Bridges and Robert Williams to name a couple.”

When the event gets underway, Kelfer and the PBC try to simulate an atmosphere that resembles that of the NBA combine while providing experiences players in the event may not have gotten while playing at their respective universities.

“We do a lot of the same things as the NBA combine. We have combine testing, we have an entire team interview component and then we have a lot of other things that the NBA combine doesn’t necessarily do; we’ll try new technology, we’ll do a photo shoot for the guys like the Rookie Paninni Shoot, something that, typically guys–unless they’re at the top–don’t necessarily get. And then we have a PBC Prospect Development Program for an educational component.”

PBC alum, Troy Caupain, earned a 2-way contract with the Orlando Magic thanks to the event (photo credit: orlandomagicdaily.com)

The event provides a platform for many of their hopefuls, and draws a good portion of the NBA front offices, their agents and a wave of social media attention. To assure they reach an ever broader audience, the event will send out measurements to international clubs thus expanding the scope of the teams benefiting from the event, allowing them to have a more immersive pool of intel to work off of when making personnel decisions.

“Overseas teams don’t typically travel for it, but there is a network that we have with overseas teams to help get data out there and share it with them.”

Once the event wraps, and players go on their way, the impact of the PBC can be seen as the deals eventually fall into place.

When asked to highlight some players who benefited the most from the PBC in it’s infant stages, Kelfer was quick to answer.

“One that might surprise you when I say it is Antonio Blakeney, who was a guy from the first year we did the event, he came out as a Sophomore, 17 points per game at LSU. Originally pegged as a draft pick, dropped, fell through the cracks at the NBA Combine and came to our event.

“One of the biggest things was-yeah, he was really good, we already knew that-but what was really interesting was that so many teams said that when they interviewed him at our event, their whole opinion about him had changed. And that wouldn’t have happened if he wasn’t at our event.”

Despite going undrafted in 2017, Blakeney would play for the Chicago Bulls in the Summer League, leading to him signing a 2-way deal with them for the 2017-18 season. By 2018-19, he would sign outright with the Bulls, playing in 57 games and averaging 7.3 PPG, 1.9 RPG and 1.7 APG in just over 14 minutes per game.

“Troy Caupain from Cincinnati, the Magic saw him at our event, loved him, immediately invited him to a workout the following day, ended up on their G-League team, this year they signed him to a 2-way deal and he’s been a great player for them.”

Antonio Blakeney is one of the many benefactors of the PBC (photo credit: nola.com)

“Last year we had a kid, Todd Withers, from a D2 school ended up playing with the Pistons on their G-League team. We had the smallest kid in college basketball, Junior Robinson, go to the Hawks for Summer League and is now scoring 18 a game in Spain at a high level.”

The list goes on. Be it the NBA, G-League or overseas, the PBC has helped provide a platform for players trying to further their basketball lives. For them, the process continues with their next stop in the road while for Jake Kelfer and the Pro Basketball Combine, things will eventually begin again at it’s original starting point.

“The big thing for me is to be innovative and find ways to grow it,” Kelfer said of his plans going forward. “As long as it’s providing a value for players, agents and teams then it’s a great deal. It comes down to that. As long as it keeps providing value and continues growing, we’ll keep thinking about doing it every year.”

In the meantime Kelfer and his crew will continue to provide a stage and shine a spotlight onto players who are searching for their opportunity to make it. The man who once had dreams of being an agent has taken a different path, but his impact on the lives of dozens of professional basketball players is evident.

And he’s just getting started.