Not long after Virginia was beaten soundly by Florida in the NCAA tournament last month, Coach Tony Bennett asked an assistant to compile a list that since has consumed the assistant’s offseason. It features every player in major college basketball who is currently seeking a transfer, and it hasn’t stopped growing.
As of Tuesday it contained more than 390 names. That’s good news, because Bennett is in the market for transfers after four of the six players from his first recruiting class at Virginia have departed over the past two seasons in search of more playing time. But even as he tries to replenish his own roster, Bennett is part of a growing group of coaches concerned that roster turnover is out of control.
“It’s an epidemic, without a doubt,” said Bennett. “I think players have always been anxious to play, I really do. But when they thought, ‘I don’t know if this is the right place,’ the advice was always ‘Wait your turn. Stay put.’ But the times of waiting and being patient, well, it’s a different time.”
In recent years, the NCAA itself has made it easier to transfer by allowing more exemptions to traditional rules that forced transfers to sit out a season after moving to another Division I school. More players have been given waivers to compete right away if they transfer to be closer to home or an ailing family member.
Former Connecticut big man Alex Oriakhi likely will not have to sit out a year after transferring to Missouri this month because of academic sanctions that will prevent the Huskies from qualifying for the NCAA tournament next season.
But many point to the AAU basketball culture in which today’s college basketball player is raised.
“They don’t like their high school situation, they transfer. They aren’t happy with their AAU team, they transfer,” said ESPN senior recruiting analyst Dave Telep, who has covered the AAU scene for more than 15 years. “There’s so many opportunities for them to go to the next best thing that they’re never held accountable, they never fight through any adversity. And what do we expect when they get to college and things get rough? They do exactly what they’ve been taught to do: transfer.
“We see it on the floor. We see it in their play.”
Transfers are not a new phenomenon in college basketball. Whether a player clashes with a coaching staff or doesn’t fit in on campus academically, transfers have long been a way to a better situation.
The most recent NCAA data suggest the number of transfers between four-year colleges actually declined slightly from 2008-09 to 2009-10, from 440 players to 422.
But those same figures also show college basketball’s transfer rate at 10.1 percent, higher than in any other NCAA-sanctioned sport.
And basketball transfers suddenly have become a hot button issue. Last week, Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan created a furor when he tried to block freshman Jarrod Uthoff from transferring to any of 26 different schools, including the entire ACC. The move was prompted by Virginia contacting the Badgers about Uthoff’s availability.
Under pressure, Wisconsin’s administration relented Thursday and prevented Uthoff from transferring only to other Big Ten schools.
Top Washington area programs are part of the trend. On Monday, Maryland announced Michigan transfer Evan Smotrycz had decided to continue his career in College Park, just weeks after former Terrapins guard Mychal Parker became the first transfer since Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon arrived last year.
This has been the first offseason since 2005 without a player transferring from Georgetown for more playing time. George Washington Coach Mike Lonergan is counting on Villanova transfer Isaiah Armwood to help turn around a 10-21 team, but he has lost two transfers since returning to Washington last spring.
Last season, George Mason’s NCAA tournament chances took a serious hit when forward Luke Hancock transferred to Louisville after Coach Paul Hewitt was hired.
Bennett lost two transfers in the middle of last season, defections that left Virginia short-handed in the postseason. The Cavaliers have hosted two potential transfers: Duquesne guard T.J. McConnell, who visited before deciding to play at Arizona, and South Carolina forward Anthony Gill, who came to Charlottesville this month.
Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg has accepted only one transfer during his nine years in Blacksburg, but after three of his players left over the past two seasons, he is actively looking for transfers to refill the roster. The Hokies are in the running for several players, including Rice’s Dylan Ennis, a guard who also is considering Virginia.
Coaches aren’t blameless. Even Turgeon concedes that players are more likely to transfer because “coaches today are in ‘win soon’ type deals, so I think they help push guys out the door — even though they’re not supposed to — by telling them they’re not going to play.”
But Turgeon disagrees with the notion that transfers are more pervasive today. He simply considers them part of the offseason at this point, and his track record backs that up.
At Turgeon’s first two head coaching stops — Jacksonville State and Wichita State — he had great success replenishing his roster with transfers. Before he left Texas A&M last year, Turgeon also brought in transfer Elston Turner from Washington. After sitting out a year, Turner led the Aggies in scoring last season.
Turgeon also admits that he has made adjustments to his own roster management with the fickle nature of athletes in mind. The Terrapins had seven open scholarships this year but signed only five recruits to increase their chances of“keeping everyone happy,” he said.
“With the culture of today, you’re gonna see kids jumping to the pros that aren’t ready and you’re gonna see kids transfer a lot for not really good reasons,” Turgeon added. “I think there are some legitimate reasons to transfer, but it doesn’t mean the grass is always greener and it’s gonna work out.”