Forget freshmen, transfers are the new prized recruits in college hoops
WASHINGTON -- A few blocks from the United Nations D.C. offices on K Street, George Washington University has emerged as the free-market face of college basketball. A program picked 10th in the 13-team Atlantic 10 has catapulted out to a 12-2 start and is on the cusp of the program's first NCAA Tournament bid since 2007.
The dim expectations appeared justified. The Colonials stumbled to a 13-17 record last season, and two of their top players transferred -- Lasan Kromah to UConn and David Pellom to Memphis. But thanks to Indiana transfer Mo Creek and former Villanova captain Isaiah Armwood, George Washington has defeated Creighton and Maryland and become an archetype for building a modern college basketball program.
Pick a program that's leapt out to an eye-opening start this season -- UMass, Iowa State, Oregon, Villanova, Toledo -- and transfers are indelibly intertwined in their uprisings. More than a dozen coaches SI.com interviewed for this story agreed that transfer recruiting has become as integral, if not more so, to a program's success as traditional high school recruiting.
"I don't know if it's more important, but it's as important," said LaSalle coach John Giannini, who led a transfer-filled team to the Round of 16 last season. "I think you're foolish if you don't try and get transfers, and you're foolish if you don't try and get good freshmen. It's all the same now. It's a totally mainstream thing, from Duke to Florida."
The Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA Tournament last season, Louisville's Luke Hancock, transferred from George Mason. Duke named Rodney Hood, a transfer from Mississippi State, a captain this year before he'd ever played a game for the Blue Devils. Top-ranked Arizona starts a Duquesne transfer, T.J. McConnell, at point guard.
Call it free agency. Call it the waiver wire. Or even call it an epidemic. But don't dismiss it, as the model of building through transferring is here to stay. In the latest official data available from the NCAA, nearly 12 percent of players transferred in 2011-12.
Of the 1,039 Division I men's basketball freshmen to enroll in 2010, 412 of them have transferred or left their initial school. That's a 40-percent clip. While four-year transfers have increased less than three percent since 2004, the caliber of players readily available has overhauled the traditional recruiting model in college basketball.
And that's why the George Washington coach Mike Lonergan found himself attending a flurry of holiday basketball tournaments around Washington, D.C. He was as hopeful to hear about a 4-man interested in transferring back home as he was finding one to recruit. With the D.C. grassroots scene often over-recruited, GW offers a bounce-back home to kids who aren't happy with where they ventured.
"If you had told me 10 years ago I was doing this, I'd tell you that you were crazy," Lonergan said. "But I don't feel like I'm a used car salesman. For an area kid, and most families here, the player has a great little set up."
Both Creek and Armwood have found exactly what they wanted in Foggy Bottom. Each desired to win, and found a talented young core, led by sophomore star Kethan Savage (13.8 ppg), that provided a strong foundation.
They also had individual goals. Creek couldn't get on the floor consistently at Indiana after injuries set back his career. He sought a fresh start as a one-year graduate transfer and is averaging 16 points per game, returning to the form he showed before his freshman season at Indiana (16.4 ppg).
Armwood wanted to do more than screen and rebound in Villanova's guard-centric offense. Armwood said he "loved" his time at Villanova, but the former Top 50 recruit didn't want to be a career grunt.
"I wasn't satisfied with my role on the team," he said. "I felt like if I had continued there, it would not have expanded the way that I had expected it too."
And in the free-market college basketball world, if a 6-foot-9 blue chipper wants a bigger role, there are plenty of places willing to take him.
Back when he coached at Delaware from 1995 to 2000, Mike Brey took so many transfers that then-Washington coach Bob Bender came up with a running joke. He teased Brey that his recruiting philosophy revolved around going to games at Villanova and Rutgers, standing on the baseline in Delaware gear and batting his eyes at the former blue chip recruits who weren't playing.
"He'd say, 'You do the July stance on the baseline during January games,'" Brey recalled with a laugh. "I joked with him, 'I haven't done that yet, but it's a good thought.'"
Giannini recalls early in his career when taking transfers was reserved for rogues like Billy Tubbs and Jerry Tarkanian. But Brey, who transferred to George Washington from Northwestern State as a player, never worried about the stigma. He inherited Ryan Humphrey (Oklahoma) when he got the Notre Dame job and has dotted Irish rosters with transfers ranging from Dan Miller (Maryland) to Scott Martin (Purdue) to Ben Hansbrough (Mississippi State) to starting center Garrick Sherman (Michigan State).
"It's a completely different game now," Brey said. "It's as competitive, if not more, for a solid transfer than a recruit. I think everyone has become a believer in it."
So what's changed? Coaches point to a confluence of factors, from the impact of social media to the increasingly corrupt nature of high school recruiting to the sporadic enforcement of NCAA transfer rules. Players are more willing to leave schools as well. Low-major coaches privately admit that they'll sit their leading scorers at the end of games in an attempt to "hide their stats" and supposedly make them less likely to be poached.
From Facebook to Twitter, players are inundated with opinions and expectations. The result has been high-profile recruits fleeing situations when minutes and statistics don't come instantly. According to data compiled by SI.com's Luke Winn, the number of Top 100 players who transferred rose to 34.3 percent in the 2010 class from 26.5 percent in 2007. The best players need immediate gratification.
"It's a very dysfunctional culture these kids belong to," said the Louisville coach Rick Pitino. "They're starved for attention. If I take away Twitter or their phones, it's like an addictive drug. They need constant recognition. It's very sad."
From his years of fishing around the transfer market, one of the biggest adjustments Brey said he's made in recent seasons is constantly monitoring his own roster. He said it's important for coaches to not complain about the current environment, but rather focus in on the players they have.
"It's hypocritical," said GW associate head coach Hajj Turner of the current environment. "You don't want your guys to transfer, but at the same time you keep an eye out."
Brey constantly brings up the mental state of his current players in staff meetings, always probing his assistants for a pulse. From dealing with so many transfers, he knows what to look for.
"I'm very paranoid about that," Brey said. "So and so didn't play much last night. How's he doing? How's his head? A lot of times you're the last guy to know."
A few days after saying this, Brey lost sophomore Cam Biedscheid, a former Top 50 recruit, to mid-semester transfer. The transfer game works both ways.
The Trickle Up
Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley knows exactly why transferring has become intertwined with the culture of college basketball. He saw players doing the same things while a high school coach at St. Benedict's in Newark from 2001 to '09. Hurley laughs when recalling how frequent it became to face an opposing player on two different teams during a season.
The college recruiting environment also proved unstable. There was a list at the security desk at St. Benedict's of Division I colleges that were not allowed in gym. (Hurley politely declined to name names.) Hurley went 223-21 at St. Benedict's and dozens of his players earned Division I scholarships. Year after year, however, players and handlers made poor college choices.
"I saw so many kids in my nine years make so many mistakes on why he selected a school or someone else selected a school for him," Hurley said. "Not enough decisions are made on substance."
The transfer culture begins in high schools, where transfer rules are especially lax at private schools, prep schools and the fly-by-night schools that appear and disappear from the landscape each season. It's not uncommon for a high school player to be thrown out of a school for disciplinary reasons and find himself in uniform for another school within 48 hours.
And there are no rules for AAU programs, where players change teams week by week, often depending on who can offer them more gear or perks. The lesson becomes obvious in high school: If you are tall and talented, there's always greener grass or a second chance.
"It's definitely out of control," said Chris Sparks, the coach at Wilbraham & Monson Academy, a prep school in Massachusetts. "I think transferring is at a point right now where it's condoned."
And after leaving a transient high school environment, players have found themselves in a college atmosphere where transfer rules have evolved into suggestions and loyalty and patience are as en vogue as Filas.
NCAA rule changes have helped increase the number of transfers. In 2006, the NCAA passed the graduate transfer rule, which allowed players who graduated to transfer and become eligible immediately as long as the school they were going to had a graduate program that their old school didn't offer.
"What I've been surprised about is the fifth-year transfer is probably the most sought-after recruit in the country," said Miami coach Jim Larranaga. "Even greater than a McDonald's All-American."
The other rule is the controversial transfer waiver rule for a sick relative. This allows a player to transfer closer to home and be eligible immediately if he can prove someone close to him is ill. This led to a flurry of sick relatives when a player didn't put up big numbers and eye rolls around the sport. In men's basketball in the 2011-12 season, the NCAA granted 34 of 52 waivers, prompting many coaches to ask for clarity or a change.
"Make it open season where everyone gets a chance to play right away," said Oregon State coach Craig Robinson. "Not just the people willing to do the shenanigans."
Multiple coaches also pointed to a polluted high school recruiting environment, which the NCAA has been both hapless and helpless in stopping. Coaches say that it's virtually impossible to recruit an elite high school player without compromising ethics. When asked if corrupt high school recruiting has led to the transfer market being more attractive, Larranaga said, "I would say that's very true."
Larranaga added that the NCAA has set rules in recruiting, but not everyone follows them. "The problem with our society in general is that we're so driven to win and succeed that the temptation to circumvent the rules or bend them is too tempting," he said. "Especially when the reward is so great. I don't think the risk is worth the reward. Other coaches may feel differently."
What perhaps sped up the trend is the NCAA's elimination of the spring evaluation period from 2009 to '11, which robbed coaches of valuable windows to evaluate players. That led to schools and players making ill-informed choices, and hence more transfers.
And with so many players available, Atlantic 10 coaches like Hurley are now competing with blue blood schools for transfers.
This month, Alex Murphy picked Florida over Rhode Island after deciding to leave Duke. A decade ago, elite programs like Florida rarely ventured into transfer recruiting.
But they're here to stay now. In the last six years, Florida coach Billy Donovan has taken former blue chippers such as Vernon Macklin (Georgetown), Mike Rosario (Rutgers) and Dorian Finney-Smith (Virginia Tech). He finds the players mature and refreshing to coach.
"There's a little bit more of an ownership they take the second time around," Donovan said. "You're getting a guy who is a little bit more calloused and hardened."
As a player at Seton Hall in the 1990s, Hurley considered transferring and he remembers telling the Newark Star-Ledger that he was considering going to Notre Dame or should have gone there. He said Seton Hall fans turned on him and viewed him as disloyal. "Back then it was looked at different," said Hurley, who didn't transfer.
How different is it? Hurley took three transfers at URI when he arrived there from Wagner two years ago, and he acknowledges that the environment won't change anytime soon. He said the numbers will continue to increase because every Top 20 recruit expects to be one-and-done. Combine that with so many early commitments leading to uninformed decisions and regrets are inevitable.
"As long as those two factors are in place," Hurley said, "to me that number is always going to be high."
Who is next?
A basketball recruit dies. At the pearly gates, he's greeted by God and the devil.
God: We're going to allow you to make a decision on what you'd like to do.
Recruit: Really? I know what I want to do.
God: You have to check out each place.
The recruit goes with the devil to hell. It's absolutely awesome. Guys are playing ball every day in front of packed arenas. There's eating, drinking and partying with pretty women.
Recruit: If this is hell, I can't wait to get to heaven.
He goes to heaven. It's sedate, not much going on. His family, friends and dog are there. But it's pretty quiet.
God: So what do you want to do?
Recruit: I've made my decision, I'm going with the devil.
He goes with the devil, walks into the gates of hell. It's fire and brimstone and everyone is screaming. It's the worst thing he's ever seen.
Recruit: Wait a minute? What happened to all the ball playing? And food? And women? And partying?
Devil: That was your official visit. This is what it's really like.
Larranaga punctuates the punch line with a slap of his knee. He gives credit for the joke to Miami baseball coach Jim Morris, but the Hurricanes are poised to be the again be the face of Transfer Nation in 2014-15.
The current flux of the Hurricane program -- a year of purgatory between ACC title contention -- reveals a portrait of a modern program in the transfer era.
Miami won the ACC title with three transfer starters last season -- Shane Larkin (DePaul), Trey McKinney Jones (UMKC) and Kenny Kadji (Florida). They'll be in contention for it again next season thanks to transfers Angel Rodriguez (Kansas State) and Sheldon McClellan (Texas), both of whom are sitting out.
"They practice on the same team every day and beat the white team a lot," said Larranaga, referring to the current starters.
Miami's white team has lost to St. Francis (Brooklyn), UCF and Nebraska. An injury to promising freshman guard Deandre Burnett, who is redshirting this season, has left the Hurricanes bereft of scoring options. While Rodriguez and McClellan hate watching their new teammates struggle, they are confident they made the right move. They'll have two years of eligibility left, and both will be 23 year-olds poised to dominate the ACC as seniors. For now, they discuss their plight while riding bikes on South Beach.
"I'm just so happy as a person right now," Rodriguez said. "There's so many times that we just talk to each other and say, 'Wow, we're really happy about what we're doing. We're getting after it.'"
Yes, the social scene for Rodriguez is upgraded from Manhattan, Kansas. He grew up in Puerto Rico and attended high school in Miami. But contentedness also stems from an opportunity to improve his body and refine his game.
Rodriguez, who averaged 11.4 points and made the Big 12 second team last year, used the past few months to heal his balky left knee. He said he played at 60 percent last season and it hurt from the moment he woke up until he went to bed. Rodriguez credited trainer Wes Brown for getting it to 90 percent this year with far less pain. Rodriguez has expanded his game, which he said had been limited to three-pointers and drives to the hoop. He credited assistant Chris Caputo for adding a floater and mid-range shots through relentless drilling.
"You can really dive in," Caputo said, "and try and help a guy to make improvements."
Miami coaches called around the Big 12 to find out what each player needed to work on. The focus for McClellan, who averaged 13.5 points per game in Austin, has been on the defensive end and three-point shooting. McClellan shot just 27 percent from three-point range last year, which has led to subtle footwork adjustments. He's also enjoyed a one-on-one drill in the lane where there's a close out defender and a manager with a pad that ensures he finishes with contact. He's put on five pounds of muscle from a weight training regiment he found much tougher than the one at Texas.
"I could never see myself sitting out a year," McClellan said. "I used to question why people transfer all the time. In the end, when I think about it, we're getting better every day."
And next season, when Miami bursts out to a hot start like George Washington, Iowa State, Oregon, Toledo or UMass did this season, no one should act shocked. The balance of power in college basketball has transferred to those savvy enough to collect and develop top transfers. And it's not changing anytime soon.