A free-agent culture: How transfers are killing Cinderella
Transfers are making it more difficult for mid- and low-majors to build teams capable of making Cinderella runs in March.
By Pete Thamel
As the beginning of the NCAA tournament nears on Tuesday night, America waits to embrace the next small-school wonder. Fans have scoured their brackets to see if an obscure university—East Tennessee State? UNC Wilmington? Vermont?—can become the next March darling. But there’s a new reality facing schools outside college basketball’s six power conferences that’s made it exponentially more difficult to author a so-called Cinderella story.
In just five seasons, the sport’s “up-transfer” transfer culture has shifted the landscape of college basketball so dramatically that runs like George Mason from the Colonial Athletic Association in 2006 and Butler from the Horizon League in 2010 and 2011 are dramatically more difficult.
A Sports Illustrated study of transfer data reveals that since 2012, the amount of players who’ve transferred up to higher-rated leagues from the low- and mid-levels of college basketball has more than tripled. This has gutted rosters, led directly to coaches losing their jobs and twisted the culture to the point where star players leaving small schools has gone from an anomaly to an expectation. Consider that when Valparaiso star and NBA prospect Alec Peters opted against transferring to a big-time program with immediate eligibility this summer, his decision surprised most media members and he was praised for his loyalty to the Crusaders.
“Small colleges are becoming the minor leagues for the big schools,” says Sonny Vaccaro, a longtime sneaker company executive who has been involved with college basketball for decades. “The small schools are being penalized for their success recruiting and developing players.”
SI’s study found that in 2012, 28 players left their schools for distinctly higher levels—19 traditional transfers and nine graduate students who were immediately eligible. Last off-season, that number jumped to 91, with 42 traditional transfers and 49 graduate transfers who were immediately eligible. (SI defined an up-transfer as a player who jumped to a distinctly higher league or more prestigious school, using kenpom.com’s conference rankings as a guide. This does not include transfers from a program in one of college basketball’s six power leagues to another, such as Mississippi State’s Malik Newman leaving for Kansas).
For years, mid-major programs thrived thanks to players who transferred down a level when their initial stop didn’t work out. The trend has come full circle, with programs like No. 1 Villanova (Eric Paschall from Fordham), No. 4 Florida (Canyon Barry from College of Charleston) and No. 6 Maryland (L.G. Gill from Duquesne) using up-transfers as key parts of their rotations. “I wouldn’t want to be a mid-major coach these days, I feel for those guys,” says Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, who started his career at mid-major Delaware. “And the transfers aren’t going away. I wouldn’t want to try and build one at that level. The recruit you steal, you’re just renting.”
Robert Morris coach Andy Toole knows this all too well. In 2015, the Colonials reached the NCAA tournament and lost to Duke, 85-56, in the first round. The future looked bright, as underclassmen Rodney Pryor and Marcquise Reed combined for 45 points in that game. Two seasons later, Pryor is Georgetown’s leading scorer (18.0) and Reed a key rotation player at Clemson. Pryor left by graduate transfer last season and Reed by traditional transfer two years ago. Toole says his mindset has shifted from optimism to concern when a young player has a breakout game. “The first thing you are thinking is, ‘That’s great! But is it too great?” he says. “It’s not fair, but that’s the way your mind works.”
Those departures have led directly to Robert Morris enduring back-to-back losing seasons. Toole averaged 22 wins in his first five seasons as a head coach. The past two years, he’s gone 10-22 and 14-19. Adding insult to the attrition, coaches from Georgia and Georgetown sent mail to Toole’s office last year to be forwarded to Pryor after he’d been released from his scholarship. “It’s disrespectful and really brazen,” Toole said of the mail. “It’s almost like there’s the BCS world and everyone else is there for the pickings.”
Maine went 8-22 last year and lost three players to bigger programs—VCU, Colorado State and Rider. UNC Asheville lost star players to up-transfers to Marquette, Louisville and Arizona the past two years. Sacred Heart coach Anthony Latina lost NEC Player of the Year Cane Broome to Cincinnati last year and now pitches the chance to develop and transfer up in recruiting. Poaching has become so common that mid-major coaches have resorted to tactics like slowing down players' academic schedules so they can’t graduate early. (Graduation allows them to transfer without sitting). “We better get used to it at our level,” says Maine coach Bob Walsh. “There’s a free-agent culture in college basketball now.”
Coaches and administrators point to the careers of high-profile transfers Luke Hancock and Seth Curry as the tipping point for the trend. In May of 2011, Hancock transferred from George Mason after coach Jim Larrañaga left to take the head job at Miami. Hancock averaged a modest 10.9 points per game for George Mason as a sophomore and ended up landing at Louisville. Hancock helped lead the Cardinals to the national title, winning the Most Outstanding Player of the 2013 Final Four.
That same season, Curry closed out his career at Duke by averaging 17.5 points per game. He’d transferred there after one season at low major Liberty. It was a move that his older brother, Steph Curry, elected not to make. Steph Curry played three seasons at Davidson (2006-2009) in the low-major Southern Conference before going to the NBA. But the success of Seth Curry, now with the Dallas Mavericks, and Hancock changed the paradigm of collegiate transfer possibility. They certainly weren’t the first players to transfer up, but they’re credited for making it mainstream. “Those are the two that got it going,” Toole says. “And it’s just become crazy.”
In an odd twist, two of the coaches of the consummate mid-major teams of the last generation have ties to these trendsetters. Bob McKillop, who coached the Steph Curry-led Elite Eight team at Davidson in 2008, said the Curry family informed him of intermediaries calling to gauge Steph’s interest to transfer. They told McKillop he had nothing to worry about. Larrañaga led George Mason’s 2006 Final Four run and said he’d like to think his players wouldn’t get wandering eyes today because they enjoyed their experience. McKillop says building a mid-major power less than 10 years after he did it at Davidson is “incredibly more difficult” and “sad.”
“I think the answer to that is definitely yes,” Larrañaga says when asked if it’s harder to build a Cinderella today. “I think the whole mid-major and low-major experience has changed in the last 10 years because of transfers. I think it’s our culture. Everyone is one and done.”
Larrañaga means that if a player is good enough at a high level, he leaves for the NBA. If he excels at a lower level, he leaves for a higher level. At the same time, if a player at a higher level struggles, he’s just as likely to transfer down another level.
Change is seemingly the only constant in college basketball, as NCAA transfer data shows that nearly 40-percent of players who enter Division I out of high school transfer by the end of their sophomore year. “Even thought there’s only one Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz, that dynamic impacts almost all levels of college basketball, as crazy as it sounds,” says Texas coach Shaka Smart. “The thought process and culture is affected.”
Arizona coach Sean Miller pinpoints when John Calipari arrived at Kentucky in 2009 and began building the Wildcats with multiple one-and-done players as the start of that shifting mindset. Since then, only Duke has really managed to recruit and develop high-end one-and-done players on a similar level as Kentucky. “I’m not saying this in a negative manner at all,” Miller says. “Kentucky changed the rules and re-created college basketball.”
Arizona has thrived in recent seasons thanks to transfers, including graduate transfer Mark Lyons from Xavier (2012), traditional transfers T.J. McConnell from Duquesne (2013-2015) and Ryan Anderson from Boston College (2015-16). All emerged as All Pac-12 caliber players. Miller points to former Arizona center Kaleb Tarczewski, a top 10 recruit in 2012, as an example of how the sport’s culture has shifted expectations in the past decade. By Tarczewski’s senior year in 2016, Miller found himself sticking up for his career rather than celebrating him as the all-time wins leader in program history. “I defended him more in his last year more than anything,” Miller says, rattling off accomplishments like graduation, production and wins. “Instead of me talking about all these things in glowing terms. That’s the hardest part about being college basketball player today.”
On the night of August 18, Hartford coach John Gallagher got a call at 11:30 from star guard Pancake Thomas. Thomas informed Gallagher he’d be transferring from the America East school to Western Kentucky for his final season. Thomas averaged 18.9 points for Hartford and would have been one of the league’s three best players. The move decimated Gallagher both because he lost his best player and he didn’t have any time to recruit any replacements. Gallagher went 9-23 this season and admits he’s thankful to have his job. (Thomas scored 13.8 points per game for a 15-17 team at Western Kentucky.)
With the amount of graduate up-transfers increasing more than five-fold in the past five years, according to SI’s research, coaches are presented with what Gallagher calls a “twisted moral dilemma.” He and Thomas discussed his return multiple times in the spring, with Thomas assuring him he’d be back. By graduating early, however, Thomas had the option to transfer without sitting out. Gallagher can now relate to coaches who slow down players’ graduations to protect their programs. “I have a hard time going to church on Sundays if I’m going to tell someone they’re not going to graduate early and play a game with them,” Gallagher says. “Maybe I have to rethink it. Now having been through it, and the way it worked out for our program, I don’t blame coaches that don’t graduate people.”
NCAA rules are famous for their unintended consequences. In 2006, when the graduate transfer rule passed with academic opportunity in mind, few could have imagined coaches intentionally keeping graduation out of reach as a way of self-preservation. But what was once considered unfathomable has now become a common dilemma, as coaches can’t afford to lose their top players.
Towson coach Pat Skerry forwarded a 14-page list of nearly 400 potential graduate transfers that a recruiting analyst sent out in early March. The list is primarily composed of players who’ve taken redshirt seasons—some ironically because of transfers—and could be available this spring. It lists their statistics, including points per game and Win Shares. (Coaches have begun to instruct their sports information directors to stop listing redshirt years in online bios and media guides to avoid drawing interest from other schools).
Heading into this season, Skerry was concerned enough about losing graduate student William Adala Moto, who had transferred from Wake Forest, that he hired his brother in an off-court coaching role. Adala Moto was happy at Towson after averaging 13.9 points per game as a junior, but Skerry wanted to take no risks. “I would have considered hiring him,” Skerry said of Parfait Bitee, Adala Moto’s brother who played at Rhode Island when Skerry was an assistant there. “But his resume was more attractive to me because of the fear and paranoia. If you’re not on alert and you don’t talk about that stuff as a staff at this level you’re out of your mind.”
That’s how valuable a building block is for a mid-major school like Towson (20-13), which finished third in the CAA. Bucknell, which won the Patriot League and is a No. 13 seed in the NCAAs, has won primarily by keeping star players like junior Zach Thomas (16.0). That’s because of the power of a degree from the school and the throwback ideals of playing for your school and teammates. When Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen left for George Mason in 2015, Thomas says he and his teammates got text messages from intermediaries saying things like, “Are you happy where you’re at? If not, let me know.”
Thomas didn’t respond, as he never felt tempted to transfer. “We’re not focused on going to a different school,” Thomas says of he and his teammates. “That’s more like guys trying to get to the pro level which is a little bit more selfish, but I don’t think we have that here. It’s why we’ve been successful.”
In a locker room at Barclays Center after Clemson’s ACC tournament loss to Duke last week, Reed expressed no regrets over his move from Robert Morris to Clemson. After redshirting, he’s averaging 10.1 points per game and could end up on a trajectory to being an all-league guard by the time his career is over. He says at Robert Morris there wasn’t “as much luxury,” naming charter flights as an example. “It was the best decision for me,” he says. “The coaching staff understood, and my previous teammates were happy for me. It wasn’t a very hard decision. They knew I could have a better opportunity.”
Up-transfers have taken such a strong hold on the landscape that coaches have essentially resigned themselves to the new era. Walsh says he jokes often in staff meetings at Maine that “we need to recruit players that are just mediocre enough” because the good ones transfer up and the bad ones transfer down. Toole says he’s more reluctant to scream at a high-end player, knowing that a transfer is just a frustrated post-practice phone call away.
Transfers up from Division II and Division III have become more common, and low-major coaches recommend the best players at rival schools to high major coaches to hurt their in-league competition. “To be surprised by it or frustrated by it,” says UNC Asheville Coach Nick McDevitt, exhaling deeply while searching for the right words. “I don’t know. I’m trying to find a way to say it. It’s just a fact of life right now. It’s just the way things are.”
Few know that better than coaches like Drexel’s Bruiser Flint, Tulane’s Ed Conroy and Cleveland State’s Gary Waters. They can link their dismissals in the past two seasons almost directly to players transferring out of their programs to higher levels. Waters has perhaps been hit the worst. He led Cleveland State to an upset of Wake Forest in the 2009 tournament behind Norris Cole, who ended up an NBA first-round pick. But players of Cole’s caliber seemingly don’t stick around mid-majors anymore. In the past three years, Waters lost star players to Michigan State (Bryn Forbes), Louisville (Trey Lewis) and Wichita State (Anton Grady). Waters went 18-45 the last two years and lost his job earlier this month.
Coaches recommended two tweaks to help the transfer environment—a crackdown on tampering and changing the rules to force graduate transfers to sit out a year. The tampering has gotten so bad that coaches have white boards in their office of players on other teams they’re targeting to poach.
NCAA data reveals that just 34% of basketball players receive a master’s degree after transferring, which suggests their intentions are to further their basketball career and not their education. “In low majors, we have to be able to accept that we’re educators first,” Gallagher says. “The Hall of Fame guy who sits on a panel and says, ‘I’m an educator first.’ That’s not true. Let’s not sit here and say XYZ coach is an educator. Come on, man.”
None of the coaches interviewed predicted anything that will slow the transfer culture. That’s why coaches like Sacred Heart’s Latina have embraced the notion of pitching kids on developing them for the higher levels. In the NEC Conference this year, there’s 13 players on the all-league teams that aren’t seniors. It’s reasonable to predict that nearly half will transfer. That’s why Latina is using the potential to transfer up as a recruiting tool, as he said Broome’s transfer to Cincinnati wasn’t a negative at all.
“That’s the only way we can look at it right now,” he says. “It’s that or beat your head in the ground every year you have a good young player leave. In fairness to the NCAA and everyone, I don’t know what they do. I don’t think there’s anything they can do.”