Power Conference Transfers Most Likely to Lead Small Schools to NCAA Tournament
We're all familiar with the up-transfers, guys who dominate for programs struggling to see NCAA tournament action and head to a more successful school for March exposure, if not always playing time.
Players like Seth Curry (Liberty to Duke) and Luke Hancock (George Mason to Louisville) are among the best examples of players who found both.
But what about the down-transfers? What about players who are unhappy or stapled to the bench on a major conference team and simply want to find a place they can play? Some of those guys have landed in decent opportunities themselves.
These seven players—presented alphabetically—have a chance to play serious minutes in an NCAA tournament game this season. That's a claim that most of them couldn't make at their previous power conference home.
Naji Hibbert, Gardner-Webb
Big guard Naji Hibbert was once a top-70 recruit, more highly touted than even fellow 2009 Texas A&M signee Khris Middleton. While Middleton went on to become a second-round NBA draft pick, Hibbert struggled as a reserve in College Station.
Now at Gardner-Webb, Hibbert has his best chance to be a leading man. The Runnin' Bulldogs lost three of their top five scorers from last season, when they finished one game off of the Big South's South division title.
Hibbert was improving an inconsistent shooting stroke when he left A&M. He hit 47 percent from three-point range during the 2011-12 conference season—the Aggies' last in the Big 12—by putting up double-figure scoring games against Texas Tech and Kansas State.
Gardner-Webb will have a tough task in beating out High Point and Charleston Southern for the Big South automatic bid, but remember that Liberty won the tourney last year after a 6-10 regular season.
As for Hibbert, scoring 14 in the Octagon of Doom is great preparation to put up numbers against foes like Liberty or VMI. Expect him to be one of the Big South's true impact newcomers.
Chrishawn Hopkins, Wright State
Just about everybody is returning for Wright State, but Butler transfer Chrishawn Hopkins will find a way to get himself on the court.
Hopkins' dismissal from Butler was a move that left the Bulldogs short of athletic ability in the backcourt.
He averaged 9.1 points in only 23 minutes per game as a sophomore but was wildly inconsistent with that production. One week, he scored 19 against a resurgent Indiana squad. The next, he went for only four against a struggling team from Ball State.
The Raiders return seven players who made at least 11 starts last season, but three are recuperating from offseason surgeries.
Hopkins becomes eligible in December, just in time for coach Billy Donlon to decide who's recovering well and who's not. By season's end, Hopkins could be the Raiders' most dangerous scoring threat.
The Horizon League is wide open now that Detroit has lost Ray McCallum Jr., and Valparaiso has said goodbye to Ryan Broekhoff and Kevin Van Wijk.
WSU has a good opportunity to push for only its second NCAA bid in 20 years.
Tyler Lamb, Long Beach State
Unlike most of the other players spotlighted here, Tyler Lamb wasn't a spare part at a nationally known program. He started 32 of 33 games for UCLA in 2011-12 and played more than 31 minutes per game.
Still, it didn't keep him from bolting after only one appearance in 2012-13 after losing time to hyped recruits like Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson.
Lamb lands at Long Beach State, the longtime kingpin of the Big West Conference. With the Casper Ware/Larry Anderson/James Ennis era over, the Beach is in need of a new star to pair with steady point guard Mike Caffey. Once Lamb becomes eligible at the semester break, he's more than capable of taking over as LBSU's top scoring threat.
During his sophomore season in 2011-12, Lamb ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in steals at 1.8 per game. On the opposite end, he scored nine points per night, putting up double figures against opponents like Kansas (15), Cal (26) and St. John's (18). Those are much tougher tasks than scoring against UC Davis or Cal Poly.
No Big West opponent looks truly prepared to end Long Beach's stranglehold on the conference title. A Caffey-Lamb backcourt would be the league's best, and we all know what they say about guard play in March. Expect to see Tyler Lamb back in the NCAA tournament until proven otherwise.
Trey Lewis, Cleveland State
Trey Lewis' departure from Penn State may have come under a cloud, as rumors persisted of discord between him and coach Pat Chambers.
Still, there's no denying that Lewis had very productive moments as a Nittany Lion, and he can replicate his best performances at Cleveland State.
Lewis averaged 5.5 PPG as a freshman at Penn State, making approximately 35 percent of his three-point attempts. He hit the ground running with 17 points and four assists in his debut against Hartford.
As the season wore on, however, his playing time began to diminish, and a stress fracture in his back cost him most of the Big Ten season.
After an 11-point performance against Indiana in the conference tournament, it was time for Lewis to go.
He lands at Cleveland State, a school that returns Horizon League assist king Charlie Lee at the point, along with sophomore sharpshooter Bryn Forbes and star forward Anton Grady, who missed most of last season with a knee injury.
CSU should be considered a Horizon League favorite with all this firepower. A Lee/Forbes/Lewis troika could prove to be the conference's highest-scoring backcourt.
Julysses Nobles, Jackson State
In the SWAC, the regular season means nothing. It's all about four days in March.
That's fortunate for the Jackson State Tigers, who have to integrate a large group of newcomers to replace four lost starters. Key among that group will be point guard Julysses Nobles, who debuts this season after transferring from Arkansas.
New JSU coach Wayne Brent was a successful Mississippi high school coach before moving to the college ranks, and Nobles played for him at two different schools. He'll be a natural fit in leading Brent's offense and is potentially qualified to be a literal coach on the floor.
During his term at Arkansas, Nobles started 53 games. He put up a respectable career line of seven points, three rebounds and three assists per game, draining 37 percent of his three-point attempts.
Like so many who transfer out from major-conference schools, Nobles was productive yet inconsistent.
It's anyone's guess what to expect from JSU with Nobles at the helm. The Tigers have so many new faces that the new coach's system should be easier to implement.
If everyone settles into their roles by March, Jackson State could make a conference tournament run, no matter their seed.
T.J. Sapp, Murray State
At Clemson, T.J. Sapp proved himself a great shot taker. Making them, however, was another story.
During Sapp's season and change as a Tiger, he knocked down a mere 31 percent from the field and 30 percent of his threes, struggling to get open looks against ACC defenses.
Murray State, however, doesn't face ACC defenses. It faces OVC defenses. Sapp joins a Racer team that carries on without star guard Isaiah Canaan and his backcourt sidekick Stacy Wilson. Gunner Dexter Fields and playmaker Zay Jackson will man the guard spots until Sapp is eligible at Christmas break.
(UPDATE: Jackson will miss the season after tearing his ACL and LCL in practice, according to a report from ESPN's Jeff Goodman.)
From there, a three-guard look featuring that trio has the potential to be one of the OVC's best. With Belmont retooling after losing Ian Clark and two other starters, schools like Eastern Kentucky and SE Missouri State see an opening in the Belmont-Murray stronghold.
While Sapp was never known as a great defender, Racers coach Steve Prohm can teach a player on that end. Sapp and Fields hitting their shots will be key for Murray's chances of re-establishing itself as the king of the Ohio Valley.
J.D. Weatherspoon, Toledo
Ohio State coach Thad Matta once transferred from Southern Illinois in search of playing time at Butler. Because of that, he was sympathetic to forward J.D. Weatherspoon leaving OSU to find minutes at Toledo.
Now that Weatherspoon is eligible—and the Rockets have served a one-year postseason ban—Toledo fans are ready for liftoff.
And liftoff is an appropriate word to use with the athletic Weatherspoon.
He shot 61 percent from the floor as a sophomore, usually on dunks and other finishes around the rim.
The Rockets have plenty of other weapons, including All-MAC performers Rian Pearson and Julius Brown.
The only downside for Weatherspoon is that UT does not return many serious three-point threats to spread the floor for his forays to the tin.
With D.J. Cooper and his epic group of fellow seniors gone from Ohio, and Zeke Marshall leaving Akron, Toledo has more than enough talent to capture the MAC title.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron. Now Playing: the Conference Calling Preview Series.