The Notre Dame basketball staff opened its weekly recruiting meeting Monday by discussing the high school prospects it would target at a tournament in Dallas this weekend.
The conversation lasted five minutes.
“The other 15 minutes,” Fighting Irish coach Mike Brey said, “we talked about transfers. There’s a valuable pool of players out there. We’re shopping every day.”
For Brey and other Division I coaches, there are certainly plenty of options.
According to a list compiled by ESPN’s Jeff Goodman, more than 500 players have left their teams since the end of the 2013-14 season in search of a fresh start with a new program.
“And frankly,” Goodman said Tuesday, “I’ll be shocked if the list isn’t at a record 600 by the end of the summer. It’s getting out of control.”
Indiana coach Tom Crean agreed.
“This is as close to NFL free agency as anything I’ve seen,” Crean said.
Issues with playing time, conflicts with a coach and a desire to be closer to home are among the main reasons athletes decide to transfer.
Whatever the situation, the trend has turned what used to be a relaxing April and May into one of the busiest times of the year for coaches, who not only face pressure to lure new players but also to keep their current ones from leaving.
“The season ends,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said, “and you immediately start thinking, ‘Who is going to stay or go? Who do I have to re-recruit?’
“It’s obviously a problem in our game.”
At least for some schools.
For every team that benefits from adding an experienced player, there is a program that suffers by losing one—or more.
No squad took a bigger hit this spring than Maryland, where four rotation players, including starting point guard Seth Allen, have announced their intentions to transfer.
West Virginia standouts Eron Harris and Terry Henderson—who combined to average 28.9 points last season—are leaving Morgantown. Texas Tech starters Jordan Tolbert and Dusty Hannahs have signed with new schools and, at Purdue, point guard Ronnie Johnson became the seventh player to leave Matt Painter’s program in the last five years.
NCAA rules force most players to sit out a season after transferring. But those who have already obtained their undergraduate degrees are eligible to play immediately. The NCAA can also issue waivers to players transferring close to home for family reasons, such as the desire to spend more time with an ill parent or sibling.
“Back when I played, you never thought about leaving,” said Turgeon, who has coached just four seniors in his three years at Maryland. “Very few kids transferred. Something’s not going well? Figure out how to make it go well. It’s not that way anymore.”
The reasons for the trend are plentiful.
Today’s players, coaches say, were raised in a different culture and weren’t ingrained with the same principles as the generations that came before them. Athletes enter college expecting to be significant contributors from the get-go, often feeling entitled to a certain amount of minutes.
“These days it’s all about instant gratification, instant satisfaction,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “Instead of fighting through something and being patient, the thought process is, ‘If I don’t like something, I’ll just change it.’
“It’s not just in sports. Academically, if you take a hard class and you bomb the first test, you drop the class. That seems to be people’s solution to everything.”
Baylor coach Scott Drew said the habits usually develop well before college.
“Some kids are going to three or four high schools and switching AAU teams every year,” Drew said. “So for them, leaving a college team after a year or two isn’t a big deal. It’s what they’re used to doing when things don’t go their way.”
Crean, whose Indiana team had two scholarship players transfer this spring, said today’s athletes often have difficulty seeing the bigger picture.
“College sports is as big of a microcosm of our society as there is,” he said. “It’s getting harder and harder for players to have perspective on where they stand, perspective on what they need to get better at and what they need to learn.
“It’s just so much easier to transfer. It’s a seller’s market out there with so many opportunities available to these kids. Even after they get to college, they’re being recruited non-stop.”
Coaches said another factor is the increasing influence of high school and AAU coaches on today’s players, some of whom seek to benefit financially from a player’s success. If their protege isn’t getting significant minutes or producing the type of statistics that turn the heads of NBA scouts, the coach may convince the player to transfer—even if it’s not in his best interest.
“Some of them want a payday so bad that it clouds their judgment,” said one Division I coach, who asked to remain anonymous. “They’ll call a kid and say, ‘You’ve gotta leave. They’re doing you wrong—and all of these other schools want you.’ Sometimes they’re not even telling the kid the truth. It’s amazing how much power and influence they have.”
|Player||Old School||New School|
|Seth Allen||Maryland||Virginia Tech|
|Ryan Anderson||Boston College||Arizona|
|Kareem Canty||Marshall||South Florida|
|Bryce Dejean-Jones||UNLV||Iowa State|
|Eron Harris||West Virginia||TBA|
|Jalen Jones||SMU||Texas A&M|
|Jamal Jones||Texas A&M||TBA|
|Anthony Lee||Temple||Ohio State|
|Jordan Tolbert||Texas Tech||SMU|
|Robert Upshaw||Fresno State||Washington|
Of course, there are plenty of occasions when a player’s reasons for transferring are completely understandable. Kansas sophomore Andrew White, for example, could start for a lot of teams from power conferences. But he could hardly get off the bench in Lawrence, where he was stuck behind NBA-caliber players such as Wayne Selden, Andrew Wiggins and Ben McLemore the past two years.
When Self couldn’t guarantee that White would receive increased playing time next season, he opted to transfer.
“I was disappointed, but I understood,” Self said. “There are usually one or two players who have legitimate reasons to be frustrated. Some kids, like Andrew, work their hardest every day and they want to know ‘Where do you see me in the future?’
“Sometimes, after they give it a fair chance, they realize it simply isn’t working out and that it’s best to move on. It’s hard to be happy when you’re not in the top seven or eight.”
The increase in Division I transfers has forced coaches to adapt new routines. No longer do they throw away the notes and files on a prospect after he signs with another school. After all, they may have another chance to recruit him a year or two down the road.
They said they also watch players from other teams—in person, on tape and on television—with a different eye, knowing they could be available someday. And they spend more time coddling their own players in meetings and on the telephone to help ensure they’ll remain a part of the program.
“It’s tough to spend time re-recruiting players while you’re trying to prepare for a game on Saturday,” Crean said.
Nebraska coach Tim Miles said he meets with players individually at least once a month to attempt to gauge what they might be thinking.
“I’ll sit them down and say, ‘Look, we love you. I know you’re not playing much, but there’s a spot for you here. Just hang in there with us.’ You want them to feel valued," Miles said.
“If they're planning to transfer, they almost never admit it. But then you lose your NCAA tournament game and they go home for a few days and hang around their friends and family. Before you know it, they’re back in your office asking for a release. There’s only so much you can do."
Brey said it’s unfair to place blame for today’s transferring fad completely on the players. He said the onus is on coaches to communicate with their athletes and to do a better job of evaluating character during the recruiting process.
“I get tired of hearing coaches complain,” Brey said. “It’s on us, as coaches, to get to know our guys. Don’t point the finger at the culture. It’s the world we’re in. It’s part of what we signed up for. You'd better adapt, because it’s prevalent and it’s not changing.”
Brey began to embrace the transfer culture years ago, before it became en vogue. He said he had little competition in 2008 when he signed transfers Ben Hansbrough (from Mississippi State) and Scott Martin (Purdue).
But when he pursued transfers Jon Horford (Michigan) and Anthony Lee (Temple) this spring, Brey was up against some of the top programs in the country. Horford eventually signed with Florida while Lee opted for Ohio State.
Duke (Rodney Hood), Kansas (Tarik Black), Oregon (Joseph Young and Mike Moser) and Iowa State (DeAndre Kane) all featured impact transfers last season.
“Coaches everywhere are seeing the benefit of it,” Brey said. “You’re getting an older guy that’s got 30 or 60 games under his belt.
“By the time they sit a year to get eligible, they’re 21 or 22 and have probably developed a really good work ethic. Those guys can impact a team a lot more than an 18-year-old freshman. I call it 'roster management.'"
That’s why Brey and his staff will continue to work relentlessly in the coming months to sign another player or two who could help them a year or two down the line.
Naadir Tharpe (Kansas), Anthony Hickey (LSU) and Tashawn Thomas and Danuel House (both of Houston) are among the most well-known players still available.
For the most part, transfers are courted in the same fashion as high school recruits, although the process obviously moves much more swiftly. After being granted a release by his original school, a player can take five official visits, although it's rare for that many trips to actually take place.
Former Memphis forward Tarik Black, for instance, took official visits to Duke, Oregon and Kansas during a two-week span last spring before deciding on the Jayhawks.
"I was just looking for something more," Black said last summer. "I know I still need to develop and get a lot better if I want to get to the next level, and Kansas is the best place for me to do that."
One year later, hundreds of other players are operating under that same mindset as they seek new schools. And the number will continue to grow.
Some coaches wait until the end of the spring semester to grant disgruntled players their release because it forces them to finish in good academic standing. Other times athletes return home for the summer and cross paths with family members, friends and former coaches who convince them to transfer.
“There’s definitely going to be another wave of them,” Brey said. “It’s a whole new phenomenon, a whole new sweepstakes. Fans and reporters are starting to follow the transfer circuit just like they do recruiting.
“Every morning I walk into the office and say, ‘Who popped today?’”
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.