INDIANAPOLIS – When Baylor and Houston meet here on Saturday in the men's NCAA tournament national semifinal, they will start more transfers (six) than they will players they signed out of high school (four).
The No. 1 seed Bears start two transfers, and the No. 2 seed Cougars start four. Earlier this season, Baylor used a starting rotation that featured a third transfer.
The connections between these two teams are a much talked-about reality. They reside 180 miles from one another in the same state, for one. Baylor’s athletic director was most recently Houston’s athletic director and hired Houston’s current coach, Kelvin Sampson. The two coaching staffs even share bloodlines: UH assistant coach Alvin Brooks’s son is an assistant at Baylor.
But there is another connection: transfers.
The teams regularly use 10 transfers, relying heavily on players who, in some cases, just arrived at the program last spring after spending their early years in another place. Their best players, the ones who helped push them into the Final Four, came not from the prep level or a junior college—they came from the transfer portal.
In fact, transfers account for 52% of Baylor’s playing time and 54% of its points this year. Houston transfers have scored 61% of the team’s points and account for 121 of the team’s 155 total starts.
“That’s just the way it is today,” Sampson said. “Thirty years ago, people that didn’t know what they didn’t know turned their nose up at transfers. They thought something was wrong with them. It shows you how little they knew though.
“Now, if you’re not taking transfers, you’re behind.”
Or, at least, you’re not in the Final Four.
The teams meeting in the other semifinal, Gonzaga and UCLA, don’t use as many transfers as Houston and Baylor, but they do heavily rely upon a selected few. For example, the Bruins' leading scorer, Johnny Juzang, is a Kentucky transfer. The Zags’ leader in assists, Andrew Nembhard, and their seventh man, Aaron Cook, are both transfers.
But they have nothing on the Bears and the Cougars. Three of Baylor’s top five scorers are transfers: MaCio Teague, Davion Mitchell and Adam Flagler. And two of Houston’s top three: Quentin Grimes and DeJon Jarreau.
Between the teams, the 10 regularly used transfers came to south Texas from as far away as UMass (Jarreau) and as close as Auburn (Mitchell). And they arrived, some of them, for very different reasons. Three of them left their former school after a coaching change. One, Grimes, lost his roster spot at Kansas when he entered the NBA draft and then returned to school.
Justin Gorham, Houston’s rebound leader, only signed with his original school, Towson, to stay close to home to care for his ailing father. His father passed and he decided to move on. Reggie Chaney, who leads the Cougars in two-point shooting at 65%, left Arkansas after his production dropped, and many other players, like Baylor’s Teague, sought a brighter stage, leaving mid-major UNC-Asheville.
In fact, of the 10 transfers, just three left power conference schools.
“The world has changed,” says Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne, whose second-year coach Nate Oats brought in four transfers (two from Division I schools, two from JUCO) who contributed to the Tide’s Sweet 16 run. “The transfer market has changed how our approach is. You have to pay attention to the grad transfer and other guys who transfer.”
There is an inherent risk of course. Sometimes, a player is transferring for a reason that may raise red flags. Was he a poor teammate? Did his off-the-court behavior lead to the decision?
Just like the normal recruiting of high school and junior college players, due diligence is a must. Coaches are not being as responsible as much as they should, says Arkansas coach Eric Musselman, himself having brought in seven transfers in his two years in Fayetteville to help the Hogs’ Elite Eight run this year.
“At our very last [staff] meeting, a year ago, I told our assistants that transfers were going to be over recruited and there’s going to be a million mistakes,” Musselman says. “Now the high school market is not recruited as heavy. That’s why we got four freshmen signees [three starters]. We sat back and watched mistakes after mistake in the transfer market.”
Sampson and Baylor coach Scott Drew are, apparently, not in the group to which Musselman is referring. They brought in some of the best players at the mid-major level. Cameron Tyson, now at Houston, broke the Idaho scoring record his rookie year. Before arriving in Waco, Flager was the Big South Freshman of the Year, and Teague led UNC-Asheville in scoring.
They all jumped ship for a bigger stage.
“I think it all comes back to one thing, and that is knowing your team and knowing your culture: who’s going to fit in and represent your program the way you want it represented, if you bring in people that add to that,” Drew said. “No matter which avenue you look to bring in someone, do they meet what you are really looking for?”
The transfer market is completely saturated, more than it’s ever been. More than 1,100 D-I men's basketball players are in the transfer portal, according to a 247Sports database that tracks portal movement. Considering each of the 340 D-I teams has 15 scholarship spots, one-fourth of them are in the transfer portal. Players are jumping in by the dozen each day, it seems.
Some are hoping to take advantage of their latest success. For instance, on Thursday, Abilene Christian forward Joe Pleasant, who hit the game-winning free throws to beat Texas in the NCAA tournament just last week, entered the portal, according to ESPN.
In the SEC, at least half of the league’s teams have three or more players in the portal and Ole Miss has a whopping six.
“Welcome to 2021!” says one athletic director at a power conference school.
The trend is only expected to rise. The NCAA anticipates approving on April 15 new legislation granting athletes the right to transfer without penalty at least once in their career, abandoning a 60-year rule that has forced football and basketball players to sit out their first year at a new school.
What’s it mean? Even more transfers. For those like Baylor and Houston, programs that work the transfer market with the best of them, maybe that means more Final Fours.
“It’s going to be the way it is and those that are complaining about the way it is trending are going to be left behind,” says ESPN analyst Jay Bilas. “They’ll have to get with it. We’re not going back to everybody sits a year.
“It is going to be like the NBA,” he continues. “You're not only scouting new players but you’re scouting the league for players you want to pick up. There’s going to be more player movement.
"It’s easy to say, ‘This is not the way it used to be!’ Well, this is the way it is.”