It seems like it wasn’t too long ago when a clear sign of trouble for a college basketball program was if it was forced to take a bunch of four-year transfers. Today, if a coach doesn’t have at least one transfer on his roster then he’s missing the boat.
Almost everybody’s got them now – even the Blue bloods.
Take Duke, for instance. The Blue Devils can go out and recruit any player they want … and have been doing so for years. Yet last summer veteran coach Mike Krzyzewski went after Mississippi State forward Rodney Hood like he was LeBron James, beating out another blue blood, Ohio State, for his services. Actually, Krzyzewski has been doing this for quite a while now, once poaching forward Roshown McLeod from St. John’s before getting forward Dahntay Jones from Rutgers and then later going after Liberty guard Seth Curry. All three were terrific players at Duke.
Kentucky’s John Calipari, who right now is signing McDonald’s All-American players at a rate that would have made the late John Wooden envious, also has a pair of four-year transfers on his roster this year.
Fred Hoiberg quickly got Iowa State’s program out of the dumpster by taking transfers, six of them in all during a three-year span, to transform a 15-game winner before he got to Ames into an NCAA tournament participant last year. Hoiberg is counting on two more transfers this year. “I’ve really kind of put a plan together to try and get as much talent in here as possible through whatever means necessary,” Hoiberg was quoted in this year’s Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook.
Frank Haith has turned Missouri into college basketball’s version of the United Nations by adding four familiar names to his lineup this year – Connecticut’s Alex Oriakhi, Auburn’s Earnest Ross, Oregon’s Jabari Brown and Pepperdine’s Keion Bell.
Arizona, Louisville, UNLV, Oklahoma, Pitt, UCLA … you name the school, they’ve all got ‘em.
College basketball writer Jeff Goodman tracks transfers for CBSSports.com
and by his last count last April he had 445 different players switching schools. Dan Hanner, who blogs for the website RealGM Basketball, determined that 814 out of roughly some 4,400 players
left Division I programs with eligibility remaining in 2011 (some of them, of course, went pro while others departed for other reasons).
According to the most recent NCAA statistics, approximately 10 to 11 percent of college basketball players are transferring to other four-year schools on average each year.
“That’s a ton,” said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, himself once a transfer.
Like all good coaches, Huggins keeps up on current trends and accepting four-year transfers is definitely among the trendiest right now in college basketball. He’s got three four-year imports that he’s counting on this year – La Salle’s Aaric Murray
, Dayton’s Juwan Staten
and Boston College’s Matt Humphrey
, the latter actually beginning his college career at Oregon.
“I think it’s societal,” Huggins said of all the transfers taking place in the game today.
He’s right. Huggins’s associate head coach Larry Harrison has been chasing players for years and he believes the trend of players switching schools so frequently today actually has its roots in high school basketball. Harrison estimates that as many as a third of the Top 50 high school players in the country this year have already played for more than one high school during their career.
“Every kid who plays at a high level thinks he is going to play at the next level and he doesn’t have patience,” Harrison explained. “Before, you knew when you wanted to come you had four years until you got better and by the time of your senior year you looked forward to the draft, Europe, or you go to work. Now, kids are coming in with all the hype out of high school and they are thinking one or two years and then they are going to the league.”
In the past, accepting a bunch of transfers was done with great care or was a clear sign that something was awry. When Bucky Waters coached West Virginia in the late 1960s, he was viewed by many dyed-in-the-wool Mountaineer supporters as a pariah for taking so many junior college players. They viewed Waters (quite correctly later on as it turned out) as simply trying to win quickly at the expense of the future so he could get out of Dodge.
Gary McPherson, once a head coach at VMI and later a longtime assistant coach at West Virginia and Cincinnati, said transfers were always evaluated on a case-by-case basis as to the particular needs of the team. McPherson was actually involved in bringing Huggins to Morgantown from Ohio University in 1973, which obviously worked out well for the Mountaineers.
There have been others that turned out well, too. South Florida guard Tony Washam helped the Mountaineers to a pair of NCAA tournament trips in 1982-83. Cleveland State center Ray Foster was the final piece to the puzzle for the Mountaineers in 1989, helping them reach the second round of the NCAA tournament where they narrowly lost to Duke in a hotly contested game in Greensboro, N.C.
And when West Virginia needed players during its move from the Atlantic 10 to the Big East in the mid-1990s, former Ohio State guard Greg Simpson was available to help fill a talent void on West Virginia’s roster.
John Beilein enjoyed great success with four-year transfers during his five seasons at WVU as well, using guys like St. Bonaventure’s Mike Gansey and Northwestern State’s D’or Fischer to help the Mountaineers reach the Elite Eight in 2005. Beilein also mined Butler for center Jamie Smalligan and Penn State for center Rob Summers before himself transferring to Michigan after the 2007 NIT championship. When Beilein was at West Virginia, he used to hold at least one scholarship in his back pocket to see if there were any players available at the end of the year, reasoning that a second chance was sometimes a player’s best chance in his program.
Gale Catlett wasn’t a huge fan of four-year transfers because he always believed it only took one bad apple to upset a team’s fragile chemistry.
“Why are they leaving?” asked McPherson, who worked alongside Catlett for many years as his top assistant. “You had to make sure there were no problems there before you took one. It only takes one problem to blow up a good team.”
Also, Catlett possessed a great love for West Virginia University and whenever a player turned down his scholarship offer he viewed that as a personal affront to his alma mater. That position probably cost him an opportunity to sign Greenbrier East guard Bimbo Coles when Coles was unwilling to pull the trigger during the November signing period before signing with Virginia Tech in the spring.
“Gale thought WVU was a great place,” said McPherson. “If we offered a kid a scholarship, especially if he was from West Virginia, he ought to know right away.”
Today, recruiting high school players is a lot like selling insurance – keep all lines of communication open and don’t burn any bridges, because you never know what will happen down the road.
“Every kid can’t come to West Virginia and every kid we recruit we’d like for them to come to West Virginia, but it doesn’t work that way,” explained Harrison.Juwan Staten
is a perfect example of not burning bridges or taking recruiting personally. When Staten decided to leave Dayton two years ago, his first choice was Penn State until coach Ed DeChellis left for Navy, so he called up Huggins to see if he had any room on his roster. It turned out that he did when forward Danny Jennings transferred to Long Beach State, allowing Staten to become a Mountaineer.
Now, Staten could end up being one of the most important players on this year’s team because he’s going to have the ball in his hands a lot of the time as one of the team’s three point guards. Humphrey is a 6-foot-5 swing guy with one year of eligibility left who gives the Mountaineers a much taller shooting option on the perimeter. However, Humphrey’s best asset may be how well he plays with others, according to Huggins.
“He kind of understands how to play,” said Huggins. “Obviously he has to get used to how we play. He may be our best perimeter shooter and if he’s not, he’s in the top two or three, so now you’ve got a 6-5 or 6-6 guy who can make shots, which if you think about who we played in that position before, we struggled to make shots.
“Plus, he spreads the floor for us.”
And then there’s 6-foot-10 Aaric Murray
, listed by Goodman as the fifth-best impact transfer
this year. Murray averaged more than 15 points and seven rebounds per game two years ago at La Salle, and he came to WVU with an aspiration of developing into an NBA player under Huggins.
“I like who he is,” said Murray of his new coach. “He wants us to be successful on and off the court. You just think you can’t quit (on him) because if there are any NBA scouts who ask him, ‘How is he? Does he like to work hard?’ This is a person you are going to need to vouch for you. If you can work hard for Coach Huggins you can work hard for anybody.”
“Defensively, (Murray) gives us somebody around the goal which we haven’t had,” noted Huggins. “There have been times when people got offensive rebounds and we really didn’t have anybody who could challenge the second or third one, and he can do that.”
Huggins, too, has used four-year transfers to his advantage. He had two on his first Final Four team at Cincinnati (Akron guard Anthony Buford and Miami, Ohio forward Jeff Scott) in 1992 while former Louisville guard Keith LeGree was a key player on Huggins’ Elite Eight club in 1996. Ohio State transfer Jermaine Tate was another important contributor on a pair of NCAA tournament teams for Huggins in 1999 and 2000.
“(Transfers) can work,” said Huggins. “Honestly, it’s probably a better situation because they get to practice a whole year before they get to play. They’re so much more ready to play than somebody you go out and recruit and has to learn everything.”
And if a transfer performs well right away and parlays that success into a shot at the NBA draft, leaving school prematurely, that could be even better, adds Harrison.
“If he’s that good then that means we’re going to be good,” Harrison explained.
In the cutthroat world of college basketball, taking four-year transfers is a strategy almost everyone is willing to adopt these days – even the Blue Bloods.Check out Antonik's new book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History now available in bookstores. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.