This is the offseason for talking about transfers. NCAA president Mark Emmert made them a frontburner issue in May when he expressed concern over the fact that 40 percent of men's basketball players are not at their original school by the end of their sophomore year, and said, "You don't want a coach to do his recruiting by sitting on his couch and watching TV and saying, 'Oh, that kid looks unhappy sitting on the bench. I'm going to recruit him.'" Transfer-related articles have been appearing all over the country, from the Houston Chronicle ("Transferring becomes a trend"), to the St. Louis Post Dispatch ("Players transfer in large numbers"), to the Knoxville News-Sentinel ("College basketball experiencing transfer epidemic").
Transfers are hardly a new problem in college basketball. The overall Division I transfer rate for men's basketball players, according to the most recent data available from the NCAA, remained in the range of 10.0 to 10.7 percent from 2003-04 to 2009-10, without a clear upward trendline. An unofficial estimate from CBS' Jeff Goodman, who compiles the web's most comprehensive transfer list, put 2011-12's rate in that same range, but he projects that the 2012-13 rate could hit 12 percent, with more than 500 transfers. That would be an alltime high, but a two-percent jump does not constitute an epidemic. It would be more accurate to say that an already fickle group of players is getting slightly more fickle, and some juicy, transfer power-struggles (in particular, Jared Uthoff vs. Wisconsin) made big news, pushing the conversation to a tipping point. What was a glossed over issue a few years ago is now hot button.
The real change in the sport's transfer data -- and this might actually represent a statistical surge -- is the spike in what I call "up-transfers." Whereas transferring used to be predominantly an exercise in downward or lateral movement, for players in search of bigger roles or more appropriate fits, SI's research shows a recent rise in the number of players upgrading teams and/or conferences by transferring. While the overall transfer market is growing at a max of two percent, the number of up-transfers more than doubled between 2011-12 (when there were 12 who became eligible) and 2012-13 (when there are 25, led by Kentucky's Ryan Harrow, formerly of N.C. State; Louisville's Luke Hancock, formerly of George Mason; and a host of fifth-year graduate transfers). Early tabulations for 2013-14 suggest that it will feature an equally large amount of up-transfers.
Why does this matter? Because recruiting, some of it legal, some of it tampering, plays a much bigger role in up-transferring than it does in down-transferring. The stakes are higher when NCAA tournament teams are fighting over experienced players who can fill rotational needs. As Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski opined in June, "There's so much recruiting for transfers or fifth-year players right now it's incredible. They get recruited harder, I think, than high-schoolers. It's not a good time."
Krzyzewski was saying that it's not a good time for the sport. But two weeks later, his Blue Devils beat out Ohio State for the commitment of former Mississippi State swingman Rodney Hood, the best available player on this offseason's transfer market. When the 6-foot-8 Hood is eligible as a redshirt sophomore in 2013-14, he could very well be Duke's best scorer and an All-ACC candidate. Even the coaches who bad-mouth transfer culture -- and really, all of them do -- know that it feeds a burgeoning secondary recruiting market they can't afford to ignore.
After tracking seven seasons of up-transfers -- from players eligible in 2007-08 to those who will be eligible in 2013-14 -- I believe the practice has become significantly more popular of late. Because the NCAA does not publish official transfer lists, I made my best effort to combine information from news reports, Goodman's lists and Rivals.com's Transfer Trackers, and received invaluable research assistance from Dan Hanner, who was been following player movement over at RealGM.com. I defined up-transfers as players who either:
• Moved from a mid-major to a major.
• Moved from a less-decorated major to a recent national champ (Kentucky, UConn, Duke, UNC, Kansas, Florida, Syracuse).
• Moved from an off-the-map school to an elite mid-major (Xavier, Gonzaga, Butler).
(Players taking advantage of the graduate transfer loophole that allows them immediate eligibility as a grad student at a new school, as long as they've completed their undergrad degree and enrolled in a grad program not offered at their previous institution, were included in this study. I did not include junior college transfers, walk-ons or players who were forced to escape programs that were dropping to D-II, such as New Orleans or Centenary.)
From 2007-08 to 2009-10, up-transferring was a limited activity, at an average of only six cases per season, with only one known graduate up-transfer, Bassirou Dieng, who went from St. Francis (Pa.) to Georgia Tech in 2008. The headliner of this stretch was Wes Johnson, who left Iowa State for Syracuse, led the Orange to a No. 1 seed in his lone season (2009-10), and then was the No. 4 pick in the 2010 NBA draft. He goes down as one of the best up-transfers of all-time.
It wasn't until 2010-11 and 2011-12 -- during which there was an average of 10.5 up-transfers per year -- that the graduate-transfer craze started in earnest. There were five grad up-transfers each season, including valuable starters Jake Anderson (Northern Illinois to Iowa State), Olu Ashaolu (Louisiana Tech to Oregon) and Brandon Wood (Valparaiso to Michigan State). The most prominent regular up-transfers were Arnett Moultrie, who developed into a first-round pick at Mississippi State after leaving UTEP; and Seth Curry, who jumped from Liberty to Duke, choosing a different path than his older brother, Stephen, who declined to up-transfer from Davidson after emerging as a mid-major star.
The real up-transfer outbreak occurred in the class of players eligible in 2012-13: The total of 25 is more than double the previous season's, with 16 regular up-transfers and nine graduates. A host of up-transfers are stepping into high-impact situations, including Harrow, who'll be Kentucky's starting point guard; Hancock, a captain for a Louisville team that's No. 2 in SI's preseason Power Rankings; and Mark Lyons, the troubled ex-Xavier guard who'll start in the backcourt for potential Pac-12 champ Arizona.
This new up-transfer rate continues into 2013-14, where 15 are already on board, including potential stars such as Hood and T.J. McConnell, an underrated point guard who left Duquesne for Arizona. (With him and Lyons, the Wildcats are likely to start back-to-back Up-Transfers at the point.) The graduate transfers won't be revealed until the 2012-13 season ends -- unless, that is, the NCAA moves to close that ever-more-popular loophole.
Does this situation need to be remedied? I don't believe up-transferring is an inherently evil practice; players should have the right to better their situations, especially since many of these transfers were spurred by coaches leaving to better their own situations. But it's also reasonable for the NCAA to fear the rise of a "poaching" culture in conjunction with its overall transfer problem, and it would be wise for Emmert to aggressively investigate any future allegations of tampering. The more the transfer market starts to resemble the high school recruiting world, the less ethical it's likely to become.
While up-transfers only account for around six percent of the overall pool, they may be the most important six percent: They're the most aggressively recruited, the most likely to impact the national title race, and they've grown by 100 percent since last season, while the overall transfer rate is still within two percent of where it was in 2003-04. If we must talk about the transfer craze in 2012, the only true boom is in players moving up.