Roster revamps are automatic in college basketball. Annual turnover is inevitable, with seniors completing their playing eligibility and hopefully finishing their coursework, receiving their degrees, and moving on to other pursuits. But spring also presents opportunities for player movement of a more voluntary nature, to the chagrin of some and the delight of others.
These days, the protests frequently come from coaches and administrators taken aback by the growing ranks of transfers in a system fraught with unfairness, more for athletes than for the schools left behind. At least 700 Division I players transferred during the 2015-16 academic year. The previous year it was around 850, according to Jeff Goodman and Jeff Borzello of ESPN.com.
“The issue of transfer rules, whether it’s for undergraduates or graduates, is one of the most hotly debated and discussed, I think, in sport right now, whether it’s football or basketball,” Mark Emmert, the NCAA president, said at the Final Four. “The challenge is, it’s really hard to figure out a right way to resolve this issue.”
“A right way” would start with the premise that athletes’ best interests should be protected with as much zeal as the prerogatives of those who control their fate. Such respect has been notably lacking in past NCAA decisions, although that might be changing. A good example of a better balance is evident this spring in the perennial tug of war between the interests of coaches seeking roster stability and players attempting an intelligent assessment of their prospects before making an irrevocable decision to turn pro.
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New rules shaped through painful experience now grant greater leeway for players who choose to engage in the springtime ritual commonly called testing the waters. At last glance, eight ACC players were dipping their toes in the NBA pool, their lack of affiliation with agents affording a chance to return to college before May 25: N.C. State’s Abdul-Malik Abu, Notre Dame’s Victor Eric (V.J.) Beachem, Clemson’s Jaron Blossomgame, North Carolina’s Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks, Louisville’s Chinanu Onuaku, Florida State’s Xavier Rathan-Mayes and Syracuse’s Malachi Richardson.
Meanwhile, four ACC players already declared for the NBA draft and signed with agents – juniors Cat Barber of N.C. State and Demetrius Jackson of Notre Dame, and freshmen Brandon Ingram of Duke and Florida State’s Malik Beasley.
The issue of transfer rules, whether it’s for undergraduates or graduates, is one of the most hotly debated and discussed, I think, in sport right now, whether it’s football or basketball.
NCAA President Mark Emmert
Having an agent creates a divide from which there’s no turning back. Penalizing self-help in business dealings makes little sense but fits the NCAA’s generally misguided approach to governing player movement. The organization needs a pathway for athletes spurned in the NBA draft to return to college, or for players to re-enroll after wisely engaging representation. Imagine, for instance, how differently Trevor Lacey and the ’16 Wolfpack would have fared if the All-ACC guard was able to return for his senior season after failing to get drafted in June 2015.
The quick fix
But even as fans and media fixate on losing players early to the pros, a process that’s become almost routine, Emmert noted at Houston the angst in the college ranks over players moving between schools.
Graduate transfers and the quick fix they embody is regarded by some coaches as unwelcome roster raiding and by others as a godsend. Graduate students can depart one school, enroll at another for a year, get to play immediately, and then move on, an athletic approximation of Paladin from the old TV Western, “Have Gun – Will Travel.”
This past season, three graduate students were among the ACC’s top 20 scorers – Boston College’s Eli Carter, Louisville’s Damion Lee, and Adam Smith, who departed Virginia Tech and led the league at Georgia Tech in 3-pointers made per game (3.03). A minimum of three more grad students will join ACC ranks in 2016-17 – Tony Hicks left Pennsylvania for Louisville, and Wake Forest recruited wing forwards Austin Arians, late of Milwaukee, and Central Florida’s Matt Williams.
Grad students are like free agents, the equivalent of waiver-wire acquisitions. What increasingly chafes coaches is a broader phenomenon, the rising tide of transfers among undergrads. With 351 Division I schools and a possible 13 scholarships per men’s basketball squad, there were potentially 4,563 players on grants-in-aid in 2015-16. About 15 percent of that total have transferred so far, hardly an alarming rate when 1 in 3 college students overall switches schools at some point, according to a 2012 report cited in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
So far in 2015-16, the transfer rate in the 15-member ACC has declined, with 14 players leaving for other schools, among them Duke’s Derryck Thornton, State’s Caleb and Cody Martin, and Wake’s Cornelius Hudson, Andre Washington and Rondale Watson. The ACC lost 27 transfers in 2014-15, and 22 in 2013-14, including five from Maryland, then a league member.
“It’s hard now (to keep players) because of the culture,” explains North Carolina coach Roy Williams, who reported only six transfers in 28 years at Kansas and North Carolina. “Everybody around the players – the family some, but moreso the people around them – you have to get your satisfaction immediately. It’s got to be results immediately.”
Transfers on the rise
To hear coaches tell it, footloose tendencies are consistent with the lack of discipline that deters modern youngsters from practicing fundamental skills, or from patiently fighting through tough situations rather than give up. That could be. But the characterization also sounds suspiciously like the judgment most every generation levels at those who come after.
The fact player transfers are on the rise is particularly notable considering the hurdles erected by the NCAA to discourage mobility. The primary deterrent is the familiar requirement athletes must sit out a year before returning to competition at a different Division I school. On one hand, the NCAA insists athletes are just like other undergraduates, woven deeply into the fabric of the student body. On the other hand, they endure restrictions that don’t apply to classmates.
Timothy Davis, a law professor at Wake Forest University with an expertise in sports law, notes “we want to over-generalize about athletes and view with a very narrow lens the various factors that influence them to choose a particular institution.” Once recruits enroll, NCAA rules protect the interests of coaches understandably concerned with roster predictability and poaching by unscrupulous colleagues. If you can’t trust other professionals, you can at least keep them away from those under your control.
Davis agrees athletes do sometimes switch schools because they want more playing time or have problems with a coach or coaching change. However, the professor observes it’s equally likely an athlete is simply experiencing second thoughts about a decision made when 17 or 18 years old. “It could be the institution isn’t a good fit,” Davis says, “so these restrictions really inhibit the ability of student-athletes to transfer to schools that might be a better fit as far as the overall environment, apart from anything related to athletics.”
Reform, forced from without and within, is ostensibly the order of the day in the NCAA, particularly among the power conferences. If respecting athletes’ rights truly is part of the contemporary equation, it’s fair to let players transfer once, if only once, without restriction just like ordinary students. Punitive measures to regulate freedom should be the exception, not the rule.