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Padding the Stats: Transfer Portal Paranoia

April 14, 2021

We’re a week-and-a-half into the college basketball offseason and the NCAA Transfer Portal has already seen nearly 1400 names entered as a record number of players seek other opportunities.

Over these last couple of weeks, I’ve seen plenty of people voice concern about the number of transfers in the portal, worrying that it is running college basketball. Kids don’t want to compete, or they don’t know what commitment is anymore, they say. The stigma against transfers is still very much real, and it’s being fueled by some of the game’s biggest voices.

The problem with takes like Vitale’s is it comes from a place of what’s best for his coaching buddies and broadcasters like him who want things to stay the way they’ve always been because it makes their jobs easier. There’s little to no concern for what’s best for the individual student-athletes that make up college basketball as a whole.

There’s certainly something to be said for continuity being good for the game in terms of both the level of play and the fan attachment to players and programs. What’s “best for the game” is certainly worth considering when evaluating potential changes, but not at the expense of the student-athletes who actually play the game.

Would I, as a fan, love to be able to cheer for the same group from year to year? Yes. Would it it be easier for me as a sports writer covering college basketball to feel pretty confident about who’s coming back next season? Of course. But what I want, and what the coaches making significant sums of money want, shouldn’t matter more than what the players who are putting their blood, sweat and tears into their craft want.

There are so many reasons players transfer: coaching changes, false promises, lack of playing time, poor scheme fit, poor culture fit, homesickness, desire to play at a different level of competition, “run-off” situations, general unhappiness and many others. A lot of the players in the portal are walk-ons seeking opportunities at different levels as well, which pads the overall numbers.

Are there plenty of “grass is greener” cases? Sure. But is it really such a big loss if a player who wasn’t interested in putting in the time and effort to work his or her way up the depth chart heads elsewhere? Do you really want the “kids who don’t want to compete” in your program anyway?

College athletes only have a four, five and sometimes six years to play their sport, and I’m not going to hold it against them for trying to maximize that time however they see fit. Sometimes it will work out for the better, sometimes it won’t, but either way they deserve the option to find out. These “kids” are adults who can make their own choices and don’t need us holding their hands. Every year student-athletes go into the portal and don’t find a landing spot. However, under the current system there are many players who feel stuck in a bad situation as well.

Low- and mid-major coaches are inordinately impacted by increased player mobility, and I’m definitely sensitive to that. It has to be tough to develop a player over two or three years into a star at your level only see him to jump ship and head elsewhere. However, if those players show they’re good enough, they deserve the opportunity to play at the highest level. And while high-majors often pilfer the best players from the mid-major ranks, there are plenty of players that drop down from the high-major ranks as well and go on to have a greater impact at the mid-major level.

The NCAA Council is expected by all reports to make significant progress towards passing the one-time free transfer rule that has been discussed for so long. Players and coaches have been operating as if transfers won’t have to sit out this year, which has contributed to the surge in portal entries.

This offseason is unique for many reasons and not necessarily indicative of the long-term outlook of college basketball. First, it seems pretty clear there’s been a backlog of players who haven’t been happy with their previous situation and now will have more freedom to seek another one.

Second, the COVID-19 pandemic has had significant fallout on college sports. This past year wasn’t anything like what a typical college year is supposed to be. Players have had to sacrifice so much of the college experience to be able to stay healthy and eligible to play, and it’s not hard to see why that kind of a grind and isolation could lead to some sort of burnout for athletes in their current situation. I’d imagine this was even more true for class of 2020 recruits than it is for older players who have had a chance to experience normal life at their school.

The NCAA’s pandemic-related decision to freeze eligibility this year has also provided a whole extra class of players to the portal as many returning seniors are choosing to capitalize on their extra year of eligibility elsewhere (and for some, the option to return to their former school isn’t even on the table). This will be the case for the next few years before returning to normal as the student-athletes who played during the pandemic cycle out and move on.

Eventually, the transfer portal growth will level out. As I just detailed, there are some pretty special circumstances that have led to this year’s rise. Perhaps as more athletes see that the grass isn’t always greener over the next few years, and as coaches adjust to players having more freedom, we’ll work back more towards where things stood when the NCAA first created the portal (which didn’t create transfers, it merely streamlined the process).

Few student-athletes head to college wanting to transfer at some point down the road. Usually that decision is made as a result to what they experience once they get to campus. Many are worried about college basketball turning into a free-for-all where all the best players change addresses every offseason. Well, an easy way to prevent that is for coaches to build real relationships with their players and to create programs that players want to be a part of.

Change is coming, and that’s OK. It will require a bit of adjustment from all parties — players, coaches, fans and media — but the game itself isn’t going to change. Fight songs and school colors aren’t going to change. College basketball will be fine, no matter how many names you see in the portal.

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