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The revolving game: College basketball copes with spike in player transfers

Kids, today.

Maybe they just don’t want to stick it out, hang tough and fight for their success.

Or maybe millennial student-athletes are more willing to take control of their own destiny, rather than leave it in the hands of a system that may not always have their best interests in mind.

There’s a lot of debate over the motivations of Division I men’s basketball players these days.

The issue is transfers, which are up sharply in recent years.

NCAA statistics show the number of men’s basketball players jumping from one four-year school to another four-year school rose almost 40 percent in the 10-year period from 2004 to 2013.

There were 385 such moves in 2004 and 541 transfers in 2013. The last two years the numbers have risen further. ESPN.com’s Jeff Goodman tracks transfers. His list had 687 last year and 657 so far this year (although that also includes players shifting from four-year schools to two-year schools).

It’s an issue that has hit the Big 4 hard, too.

• Niagara lost seven players to transfer this year.

• The University at Buffalo lost its second-best player, guard Shannon Evans, who followed coach Bobby Hurley to Arizona State.

• Canisius lost its top scorer, guard Zach Lewis, who despite being allowed to take the fifth-most shots in the Griffs’ conference, decided he should move to a higher level. He landed at the University of Massachusetts.

“Kids have grown up watching LeBron James leaving the Cavaliers and going to the Heat and saying, ‘I’m taking my talents to South Beach,’” said Daemen College coach Mike MacDonald. “That’s kind of the way kids are.”

“I think social media is one reason,” said Canisius coach Jim Baron.

“It’s a vicious circle, and it’s one of the things I’m very disappointed in our game about, to be blunt and honest with you,” revered Michigan State coach Tom Izzo told MLive.com last year. “I think we’ve got to find a solution. You wonder why it’s harder to discipline kids nowadays. They’ve got 20 people telling them ‘Well if you don’t like it just leave.’ ”

How much of a problem is the increase in transfers? That’s debatable.

Consider that roughly a third of all college students transfer from their initial four-year school before they graduate, according to a 2012 study by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Of course, the vast majority of those students aren’t going for free, like many college athletes.

Also consider there are 351 Division I basketball teams with 13 scholarship players on each team. So we’re talking about two players per team, on average, leaving each of the last two years.

“Is it the worst thing in the world?” asks MacDonald, who formerly coached at Canisius. “Not necessarily. I think there’s a lot of factors. Coaching changes is a big one. So I think it’s tough to paint the situation with a broad brush.”

Here are some of the few definitive conclusions that can be made:

• Players moving down in level to get more playing time always have constituted the majority of the transfers, and nobody generally has a problem with this reason for switching schools.

• Players switching after a coach quits or gets fired might be the second biggest motivation, and not too many complain about these moves, either.

• Players transferring in their fifth year of eligibility – graduate student transfers – have created a problem that needs to be addressed, most coaches and administrators agree.

• Mid-major coaches increasingly are worried about bigger programs “poaching” players from mid- and lower-major programs.

• A lot of observers think there is at least some generational trend – the nature of millennials – at work.

Big picture

The NCAA, the governing body for most of college athletics, takes in revenue of almost $1 billion a year. Amid this backdrop, it’s hardly surprising student-athletes increasingly are trying to look out for themselves, says Dr. William Barba, chairman of the University at Buffalo’s Department of Educational Leadership.

“I think you need to put the transfer issue in the context of the overall picture of collegiate athletics,” Barba said. “It has become a big business, and in fact, everyone is chasing that train.

“Everyone benefits from being in these big-time programs except the student-athlete, particularly in basketball,” Barba said. “They’re trying to get their part of the pie.”

Many college athletes, of course, get a free education and room and board, which can be worth $100,000 or more. Nevertheless, it’s clear the big business environment in college basketball – everything from the big salaries of coaches to the glitzy game-day production in arenas – is not lost on the players.

“Transfers and college athletics is a complicated topic, but the way the NCAA has sort of monetized it and turned it into a large business is a factor,” said UB graduate Will Regan, who capped his college career by helping the Bulls make the NCAA Tournament this year. “It puts pressure on the coaches, which puts pressure on the players. … You have coaches demanding a ton from the players in terms of the hours and requirements. They’re always keeping tabs on the players, which is good for the players. But also, you’re an 18-year-old kid with all these responsibilities.

“Some players fold under the pressure,” Regan said. “Some expect to see a little more reward because they’re putting in so much time, and it may not happen overnight. Then there’s people who expect it to be handed to them. If it’s not, they want to bounce.”

Good reasons

Regan is an example of how moving to get more playing time can work out perfectly. He played one season at the University of Virginia, a high-major program where he averaged 4 minutes a game, then transferred to mid-major UB. He thrived for three years and helped the Bulls to their first Mid-American Conference title.

“I think the driving force behind most transfers is people want to play more,” Regan said. “There’s not a lot of people trying to get less playing time.

“It came down to what my role was going to be,” Regan continued. “They never forced me out. But at the same time, I’m not stupid. I knew based on how things were evolving where my career path was headed. I think that happens with everyone. It’s the reality, the way practice and drills unfold. If you pay attention, you get a feel for it.”

It’s hard to begrudge players who want the chance to move up a level. Take UB’s Evans, who jumped at the chance to play in a “Power Five” school, Arizona State. Will he be a star, like he was at UB, playing against tougher competition? Some observers are dubious. But Evans saw an opportunity to chase a dream, and he’s going with a coach (Hurley) who he knows very well.

Or consider MacDonald’s son, Matt, a former Canisius High School star who played the last two seasons at Fairleigh Dickinson in New Jersey. Not only did he average 29.5 minutes and nine points last season but he was a team co-captain as a sophomore. Yet he decided to transfer to the University of Pennsylvania.

“You could look at it and say why would you transfer?” admitted his father, the Daemen coach. “He wanted a better fit. It was a quality-of-life decision. He’s going to get a degree from an Ivy League school. And he’s moving up in league.”

Niagara’s situation is an example of how coaching changes can precipitate roster upheaval. When Joe Mihalich left Niagara for Hofstra two years ago, two top players followed and three others left right away. Overall, nine players recruited by Mihalich left Niagara.

Niagara coach Chris Casey and his staff essentially have been scrambling ever since. A couple of Niagara’s transfers this postseason (Ramone Snowden and Wes Myers) were unusual in that they were key guys averaging 30 minutes a game. But a bunch of the transfers (including Snowden) were players who picked Niagara very late in the recruiting process. Was Niagara a last-resort selection for some? It seems so.

“I was still undecided about going to prep school or going to college,” said James Suber, who left Niagara in May after two seasons and has enrolled at Panola College in Texas. “My choosing Niagara, I didn’t take any other visits because it was so late, so I ended up there.

“Of course if I could go back, I wouldn’t want to be rushed,” Suber said. “It was my fault anyway because I was undecided until so late. If I had it in my mind that I wanted to go to college from the start maybe things would have been different, maybe not.”

For his part, Casey takes the high road, saying: “I don’t hold it against them, and I hope they find what they’re looking for. We’ve moved on.

“There has to be some freedom of movement for players,” Casey said. “There are reasons for transfer. Some guys maybe go to a level and don’t play as much as they wanted to play. Sometimes a coach changes and maybe they don’t fit into what that coach is doing as well as the previous coach. Maybe there’s a sick member of the family. Those are things that warrant an opportunity to transfer.”

At the same time, Casey acknowledges the frequency of transfers nationwide is too high for his liking.

“Part of what we do as college coaches is to educate these kids,” he said. “In life there has to be some stick-to-itiveness or fortitude or reinforcement of commitment to get what you want, to succeed in life. I don’t know we’re teaching that by having so much movement.”

The graduate problem

The overwhelming number of players who transfer must sit out a year before playing for their new school. One prime exception is a player who has earned his degree, still has a year of eligibility remaining and transfers to a school that has a graduate program that does not exist at his current school.

Not requiring them to sit out was designed as a reward for good students who, perhaps, did not play as much as hoped at their school of choice. It has evolved into a chance for players to bolt for higher-profile programs or for big programs looking to fill roster holes with experienced players.

NCAA statistics suggest only about 30 percent of such players wind up getting their master’s degree.

“It’s almost like kids say, ‘What master’s program does that school have that we don’t have so that I can transfer?’ ” said St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt.

“The problem is we invest in these kids,” Schmidt said. “In that redshirt year, we’re working them. Our strength and conditioning coaches are investing in them. The assistant coaches are working with them every day. Once he gets to his fifth year, where we’re expecting him to be a main guy, he leaves. To me it’s not right.”

Canisius Athletic Director Bill Maher is one of 40 members of the NCAA Division I Council, which conducts the day-to-day business of D-I athletics. He’s also on an ad-hoc committee studying the subject of transfers in college basketball.

Maher expects the committee to propose changes to the council in the fall for possible adoption at the NCAA’s January convention.

“If the decision of a fifth-year transfer really is academic in nature, then what’s the best way to allow them to make that decision?” Maher said. “Where the discussion nationally is at the moment: Let’s let them transfer but they have to sit that year. We’ll give them the year of eligibility back, and they’ll have two years to finish their graduate degree. Most graduate programs take two years.

“In my mind that causes a pause to really make sure is this the right thing,” Maher said. “On the school side, you have to say, ‘Are we going to invest two years in a student for one year of eligibility?’ And on the student side, ‘Do I really want to take a year and focus on my degree and have an opportunity to play after that?’ ”

It’s worth noting Canisius benefited from a graduate-student transfer two years ago when guard Chris Perez left Stetson and excelled for the Griffs in 2013-14. Perez did, in fact, graduate from Canisius with a master’s degree in sport administration. Canisius got another grad transfer this year, adding fifth-year senior Malcolm McMillan from Central Connecticut.

Coaches concerned

There is no question the “musical chairs” aspect to the college basketball offseason and the pursuit of transfer players gets a lot more attention than ever before.

“Kids are looking at big schools and win the press conference but then two months later I’m a getting telephone call that they want to leave the Big East and come play for me,” said Canisius’ Baron. “You have a lot of visions of grandeur.”

And coaches think that social media can feed those visions.

Siena coach Jimmy Patsos describes a scenario that has happened: “I tell a kid, ‘You’re an average MAAC player but you’re really going to get a good education. What I think you should do is get an internship at HSBC.

“ ‘No, no, coach you’re not hearing me. I’ve got people following me saying you’re not using me right.’

“Before it was a case where I want to talk to your parents and your high school coach or your AAU coach,” Patsos said. “Now you can get support for some far-fetched, unrealistic dreams. … I think social media can be a huge problem.”

Schmidt describes another scenario:

“What I’m against is kids that are moving up who are being poached. A low-level guy plays against a higher-level team and he scores 30 points. The concern now is that higher-level team calls that kid’s AAU coach and says, ‘Look, he can play higher. It’s the coaching.’

“Some kids who move up, that’s fine,” Schmidt said. “But kids are being poached. During the middle of the year, the kid is getting phone calls. To me it’s on us as a coaching profession. We need to handle our own business.”

Baron thinks moving up from low- to mid-majors is risky.

“What a lot of kids don’t understand is you have a trial-and-error period with them where you’re able to absorb their mistakes because you’ve got other good players, and you’ve got a winning culture that can absorb those deficiencies,” he said. “You can work through their mistakes, and not a lot of programs will give you that time.”

For now, at least, more movement is the new normal in Division I basketball.

“I think in a couple years some of these guys are going to regret that they transferred,” Patsos said. “I think this is the most volatile it’s going to get. I think in the next few years it’s going to settle down.”

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com