Small-School Transfers Set to Make an Impact at Major NCAA Basketball Programs
Last week, I brought you a group of college basketball players who left power-conference schools for smaller leagues in a chase for playing time. We call this phenomenon transferring down.
Now comes the flip side of that coin, those players who are transferring up. Perhaps a player wants to leave a one-bid conference for a realistic shot at going to an NCAA tournament before his career ends. Some may have stumbled across a big-time program with an urgent opening at their position. And there are usually the few who have legitimate family concerns pulling them to a new location.
Whatever the reason, these 10 players have found greener pastures in conferences that are on the national radar. As a bonus, they'll all find a role with their new team, and a few can become names that we're discussing in March.
(NOTE: For the purposes of this piece, the major conferences are defined as: ACC, American, Atlantic 10, Big XII, Big East, Big Ten, Mountain West, Pac-12, and SEC. Any school outside those nine leagues, with the exception of Gonzaga, BYU and Saint Mary's from the West Coast Conference or Wichita State from the Missouri Valley, should be considered a non-major program.)
J.J. Avila, Colorado State
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If J.J. Avila's name doesn't ring a bell, don't feel bad. He spent his first two seasons at Navy, which hasn't exactly been in the national spotlight since at least the turn of the century. And that's being very kind to ex-coach Don DeVoe, who got the Midshipmen to their only NCAA tournaments since David Robinson left.
Avila was a highly efficient player for Navy, averaging nearly 16 points and seven rebounds as a sophomore in 2011-12 while shooting 49 percent from the floor. Academic issues caused him to leave the Naval Academy and spend a year away from basketball at a junior college.
He's now part of a Colorado State team that lost six seniors, including the entire starting five. Adding injury to eligibility, sixth-year point guard Jesse Carr re-injured the ACL that cost him last season, and his career is over.
Avila is the most proven player in the Rams' frontcourt, albeit at a Patriot League level rather than the Mountain West. At 6'6", he'll have to outwork bigger opponents for rebounds the same way former Ram Pierce Hornung regularly did. If he can, expect him to be the primary option for CSU and a potential All-MWC performer.
Perris Blackwell, Washington
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During Washington basketball media day, Huskies head coach Lorenzo Romar was asked who he thought would be his team's most reliable scorer aside from All-Pac-12 guard C.J. Wilcox. His response, as reported by the Tacoma (Wash.) News Tribune, was emphatic.
"Perris Blackwell," Romar said. "Mark it down."
At 6'9" and 275 pounds, Blackwell has plenty of weight to throw around in the low post. In his junior season at San Francisco (2011-12), Blackwell was an All-West Coast honorable mention pick for averaging 12.7 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. He also converted 57.5 percent from the floor, second in the WCC.
With Blackwell and three other players standing 6'9" or taller, the Huskies have enough beef to open a steakhouse. A fine offensive rebounder, Blackwell should make a major impact as a power forward in Washington's high post offense.
For his part, the former Don doesn't lack for confidence or excitement about his new opportunity. "I post up, I can face up, I can shoot, I can dribble, I can pass, " Blackwell said at media day. "I'm pretty well-rounded, and I just want to show that here. I didn't really get to show it at my last school."
Expect him to show it on a regular basis this season.
Jordan Clarkson, Missouri
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The knocks on former Missouri point guard Phil Pressey were his decision-making and his size. If the Tigers utilize 6'5" Tulsa transfer Jordan Clarkson in the role this year, at least one of those weaknesses will certainly be rectified.
Clarkson may have combo guard skills, but he wasn't called upon to create for others very often during his two seasons at Tulsa. As a sophomore in 2011-12, Clarkson took nearly 30 percent of the available shots while he was on the floor, contributing to his 16.5 PPG (second in C-USA).
Coach Frank Haith may never take Clarkson off the floor, merely rotating in guards next to him. He'll fit in next to the even bigger (6'5", 205 lb) Jabari Brown just as well as 6-foot freshman point guard Wes Clark. Next to Clark, Clarkson will get more chances to flex those scoring muscles.
No matter how well he manages the offense, Haith says Clarkson's biggest impact may come on the other end. Haith told Missouri's student paper, “Jordan is our best defender. He’s really good on the ball. He’s good off the ball. He has great instincts. He runs down loose balls. That’s a great quality to have, your point guard as your best defender.”
Whichever end he's excelling on, Clarkson will be the key to Missouri's success this season.
Josh Davis, San Diego State
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San Diego State has to replace Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley, two guys who will one day go down with the program's all-time greats. The addition of 6'8" Tulane transfer Josh Davis will go a long way toward keeping the Aztecs close to the Mountain West's summit.
Davis exploded for the Green Wave last season, posting an offensive rating over 110 according to StatSheet.com. He emerged as an authoritative scorer, putting in 17.6 points per game. He padded that figure by drawing an insane number of fouls and leading the nation with 282 free-throw attempts.
In addition, Davis ranked among C-USA's leaders in offensive rebound percentage (fourth) and defensive rebound percentage (first), all of which added up to 10.7 rebounds per game, eighth-most in America.
Even though veterans like Xavier Thames, Winston Shepard and J.J. O'Brien return, it should be Davis who becomes the focal point of the attack. One of SDSU's major weaknesses last season was low-post scoring, and Davis will fill that bill very well in 2013-14.
Richie Edwards, Arizona State
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All the buzz around Arizona State's offseason additions has centered on ex-Penn State guard Jermaine Marshall and Michigan State transfer Brandan Kearney. Somewhat lost in the shuffle is 6'7" ex-Valparaiso forward Richie Edwards.
Edwards flew a little under the radar even at Valpo, playing behind the Crusaders' superb frontcourt duo of Ryan Broekhoff and Kevin Van Wijk. He started only one game after joining the team as a junior college transfer in 2011, but few players in America filled the instant bench scorer role better.
In less than 18 minutes per game, Edwards poured in 9.4 PPG on 58 percent true shooting. In a December 2011 win over Butler, he scored 18 in only 23 minutes. A later run in February saw him score 16 or more in six straight games, and he hung 16 on Miami (FL) in Valpo's first-round NIT loss.
Edwards should become a difficult matchup in his first season in Tempe. The Sun Devils don't have much size aside from centers Jordan Bachynski and Eric Jacobsen, so Edwards may see time as a power forward.
He'll drag opponents to the perimeter with his ability to knock down the three, but don't sleep on Edwards at the rim, either. He converted 67 percent of his close range attempts according to Hoop-Math.com.
Derrick Gordon, UMass
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At 6'3" and 190 pounds, Derrick Gordon will make a solid complement to his 5'9" UMass running mate, point guard Chaz Williams. Together, the two will be a nightmare for opponents that like to do crazy things like not foul out.
In his freshman season at Western Kentucky, Gordon shot a mere 36.7 percent from the floor, but he finished second in the Sun Belt with 196 free throw attempts. Gordon actively sought out contact at every opportunity, not just on the offensive end. He finished fifth in the Belt with 6.7 rebounds per game.
Minutemen coach Derek Kellogg would like Gordon to expand his shooting range and become more of a three-point threat. In the meantime, though, his physicality and athletic ability will make him a perfect fit for the uptempo UMass attack.
No other active Minuteman has NCAA tournament experience, either. Gordon—who produced 12 points and five rebounds in a 2012 loss to eventual champion Kentucky—will be a major factor in helping his teammates change that in 2014.
DeAndre Kane, Iowa State
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For two seasons at Marshall, DeAndre Kane was primarily a scorer. He averaged 15.8 PPG as a redshirt freshman and sophomore. Last season, he took over at the point for the Thundering Herd and became one of only two players in America to average 15 points, four rebounds and seven assists per game. (Chaz Williams of UMass was the other.)
With one last year of eligibility, Kane has headed to Iowa State, where head coach Fred Hoiberg has mastered the art of stitching together a roster from transfers of every shape and size.
For the Cyclones to do maximum damage to their opponents, Kane will need to reverse the negative trend that his shooting has taken during his career.
All of his shooting efficiencies have steadily dropped each season, with last season's field goal percentage dropping to 40.3 and his three-point rate falling below 25. Of course, if there's anyone who can help a shooter find his rhythm, it's Hoiberg, the legendary Cyclone sniper.
Hoiberg needs Kane to lead the backcourt by example, since only one of ISU's other five guards has any Division I experience. He'll be the Cyclones' primary perimeter threat on both ends, and should claim the Big XII's top newcomer honors.
Rayvonte Rice, Illinois
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In two years at Drake, Rayvonte Rice proved he could dominate games in the Missouri Valley Conference. In both seasons, Rice took about 30 percent of the Bulldogs' shots when he was in the game, and last season's 16.8 PPG ranked third in the league.
Now, Rice has two years of eligibility left at Illinois to prove he can be a top player at the Big Ten level. The graduation of guards Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson leaves Illini head coach John Groce searching for a reliable go-to scorer on a roster that returns only three scholarship performers.
The 230-pound Rice is not only a quality mid-range scorer, but at 230 pounds, he's got plenty of strength to battle on the glass. He pulled 5.8 boards per game as a sophomore, part of what made his 2011-12 season truly historic.
According to Sports-Reference.com, only five guards since 1997-98 have put up a line that matches Rice's 16.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.9 steals and 0.8 blocks per game. That includes Dwyane Wade doing it twice for Marquette.
Groce has nothing but praise for the improvements Rice made in his year off.
"I don't know if I've seen a guy who's sitting out on a transfer make the number of strides that Ray did," Groce told the Chicago Tribune. "It's hard for guys … to understand that there's a light at the end of the tunnel and they have to grind every day to get to that light. He grinded."
The coach considers Rice capable of playing four positions, and look for him to see time at all of them.
Malik Smith, Minnesota
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Minnesota's backcourt was already expected to be a strength, with Andre and Austin Hollins forming the Big Ten's most experienced guard duo. While the Gophers did lose Joe Coleman to St. Mary's this offseason, he'll be replaced by new head coach Richard Pitino's star at FIU, 6'2" guard Malik Smith.
Smith will be playing for his fourth college in as many seasons, seeking a place where he can truly show out and become a pro prospect. He enjoyed playing in Pitino's uptempo style enough to follow him from sunny Miami to frigid Minneapolis, and he should see plenty of shots as a Gopher.
At FIU, Smith ranked 16th in America in three-pointers made (96) and 12th in attempts (265). That's 36.2 percent from deep, if you're not a math major. If nothing else, Smith will see opportunities as a designated sniper, and he knows it.
Sharing his intimate knowledge of Pitino's offense, Smith told the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press, "If he thinks you can shoot, there's really no limit to the shots you can take, as long as you're open."
The Gophers may not be Big Ten championship contenders this season, but as they move the ball and fire shots, they'll be supremely entertaining.
Matt Stainbrook, Xavier
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Last season was the first in the last eight that Xavier didn't play in the NCAA tournament. Despite the heroics of stud freshman guard Semaj Christon, there simply wasn't enough production from the supporting cast, particularly in the post.
Western Michigan transfer Matt Stainbrook, all 6'10" and 260 pounds of him, will render immediate help in that regard. As a sophomore in 2011-12, Stainbrook put up 11.4 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, posting four double-doubles for the second straight season.
The Xavier offense heavily revolved around the pick-and-roll when former point guard Tu Holloway was in charge, but the emphasis lessened a bit last season. Part of the reason was Christon's ability to beat opponents off the bounce without a screen, the other was the lack of threat Xavier's bigs posed on the roll.
Stainbrook is not only capable of being a low-post scorer when Christon gets him the ball, he'll also be in prime position to snare the offensive rebound when others get the shot. Stainbrook posted offensive rebounding percentages near 12 in both of his seasons at WMU.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron. Now playing: the Conference Calling 2013-14 preview series.