Isaiah Reese was bewildered by the question Tuesday, not completely processing what was being asked and entirely uncomfortable with the direction in which the conversation was headed. OK, so the sophomore at Canisius looked at me the way my kids do before suggesting I'm from another planet.
"What did you ask me?" he said.
I'll keep it short: Have you entertained any thoughts of leaving?
"No, no, no," Reese said. "I'm only focused on winning. We're doing something here that hasn't been done for a while. We're a young group of guys. If we're doing this now, imagine what we can do in the next two years or what me and the guys can leave for the future."
Reese admitted later that he was stunned somebody would have the audacity to ask him about transferring, especially on the eve of the Canisius-Niagara game at the Gallagher Center. The 6-foot-5 guard is having a great year on a very good team and had not entertained any thoughts beyond trying to win a conference title.
But that's the state of college basketball these days. The numbers are staggering.
In December, the NCAA released a report stating 40 percent of Division I basketball players transferred before their junior years. At the time of the report, 689 players from 287 programs switched schools since the end of last season. Last year, only 60 of the 337 Division I teams retained every eligible player. Eighty-five teams lost at least two players while 107 lost three or more.
In many cases, players are encouraged by family and friends who believe they should be playing in bigger and better programs. In fact, some 61 percent leave for similar or smaller programs.
"We have a problem in the sport," Canisius coach Reggie Witherspoon said. "It’s good when a kid is at least trying to be committed to what he says. But it's not going to change the overall problem. It's not going to stop other people from getting involved. It gives them another chance to make themselves relevant in a kid's life."
Canisius watched guard Kassius Robertson, another terrific shooter who led the Griffs in scoring last season, walk out the door. He graduated and transferred to Missouri. NCAA transfer rules don't apply to graduate students. He played right away this season and is leading the Tigers in scoring.
Five years, ago Niagara had a mass exodus after Joe Mihalich left for Hofstra. One was T.J. Cline, who transferred to Richmond and became the top player in the Atlantic 10 conference. There was constant talk of Jaylen Adams leaving St. Bonaventure. He stayed for all four years and will leave as one of its best players in history.
Players leave for various reasons, but many want larger roles or have a desire for more exposure (see: television) like players they watched growing up. In November, Reese sounded like one of them. The Griffs were playing a tournament in Stockton, Calif., against the likes of Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Pacific, when he wondered aloud while watching Marist play 23rd-ranked West Virginia on TV why Canisius wasn't invited to the tournament in Orlando, Fla.
So it wouldn't have been a total shock if Reese was prepared for takeoff considering the impact he made over his first two seasons and adding up other variables. People back in Miami, his hometown, asked him numerous times over the past year whether he would transfer. He told them what he told me Tuesday.
To be clear, crystal clear, he's staying at Canisius.
"I'm not going nowhere," he said. "Write that down."
Reese, 21, is an intelligent young man who knows a good situation when he sees one. He was barely recruited in high school and didn't exactly set the basketball world ablaze during his one season with DME Academy, a prep school in Daytona Beach, Fla., where he averaged 10 points and five assists. He was a borderline D-I player.
Witherspoon, at the time an assistant coach at Tennessee-Chattanooga, saw more when he spotted Reese playing in an AAU tournament in Kansas. The first player Witherspoon signed, after he was hired at Canisius, was Reese. The kid has blossomed into one of the best guards in the MAAC.
Last summer, he made a stronger commitment to the game and took more than 1,000 shots in a day during certain workouts. When the season began, he was ready to become a better scorer while still running the offense. He was prepared to take off with Canisius.
"Everyone wants to be a scorer but not everyone wants to be a facilitator," Reese said. "That had been my role (before Canisius). That's what we needed to do to win. When Kass left, I knew that role was going to be there for me. I needed to step up if we wanted to start winning games. I put in a lot of work, and it's paying off."
Reese is seventh in the conference in scoring (16.4 points per game), 12th in rebounds (5.9), fifth in assists (4.7) and first in steals (2.3). He torched St. Bonaventure for a career-high 31 points in a non-conference game earlier this season and has scored 21 points or more six times in his past 11 contests.
Canisius, which is 13-3 in conference play and 19-10 overall, is second in the MAAC and one spot ahead of Niagara (11-5, 18-11). The Griffs could win 20 games for the first time in four years. If they go deep enough in the conference tourney, they could win 23 games for the first time in their 114-year history.
Reese is right where he belongs, and he believes the Griffs are just getting started. While others wondered whether he would stay, he asked himself a more important question: Why would I leave?
"We're winning games," he said. "At the end of the day, that's what I want to do. I want to win. We're going, and we can continue doing this. Maybe we'll be ranked (in the Top 25) my senior year or maybe next year. You never know what can happen. I look at the future and see bright things for the program."