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How Big 4 men's basketball coaches have adapted to transfer portal's impact at colleges

How Big 4 men's basketball coaches have adapted to transfer portal's impact at colleges

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In a span of less than five weeks, the Big 4’s men’s basketball rosters underwent massive changes.

Gone were four of the five starters at St. Bonaventure, which was ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 for the first month of last season, and reached the National Invitation Tournament semifinals. All entered the transfer portal.

So did David Skogman, the University at Buffalo’s 6-foot-10 center, who announced April 22 that he would transfer to Davidson. Three days later, Niagara guard Marcus Hammond announced he will play his fifth year of college basketball at Notre Dame. Canisius, meanwhile, had five players enter the transfer portal, including point guard Ahamadou Fofana.

To the untrained eye, it sent a shock wave of sorts, not just through the region’s four Division I basketball programs, but also through men’s and women’s college basketball.

It created a situation akin to free agency, but the men’s basketball coaches at UB, Bona, Niagara and Canisius who saw their rosters dismantled in a matter of days didn’t panic.

They knew they would have to adjust to the sudden changes that arose due to the mass movements, so they dipped into the portal themselves to reassemble their rosters. 

The NCAA has not yet released data regarding the portal for 2021-22, but VerbalCommits.com, a database that tracks commitments and transfers in college basketball, reported that more than 1,750 players have entered the portal.

Bona’s 2021-22 roster took the biggest hit, with 10 players entering the portal. Eight players from Niagara’s roster, five from UB and five from Canisius also entered the portal.

“You are never really prepared because you never know who is going to put their name in the portal,” Bona coach Mark Schmidt said. “You know you’ll have three or four seniors who will graduate in a year, and you know what positions you’re filling there. Now, it’s different, because we don’t have any seniors and we may have a kid who will go into the portal at the end of the year, but we don’t know who those kids are.

St. Bonaventure Bonnies beat Saint Louis Billikens 83-79 (copy) (copy)

St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt saw 10 players enter  the transfer portal.

“It’s different, and the portal is here to stay. It won’t be taken away, and we need to adjust.”

As the Big 4’s men’s basketball coaches prepare for the 2022-23 season – each with a roster that will include players from other Division I, II or III programs on each team – they spoke to The Buffalo News about how they prepared for and worked through the process, and considered the impact of the portal so far this offseason.

Bona added six transfers. UB has five, while Niagara has three. Canisius has two transfers who played Division I basketball last season, and a third who played two seasons of Division I basketball but played in junior college last season.

“It’s changed everything,” Rob Cassidy, a national basketball recruiting analyst with Rivals, said of the transfer portal. “It’s turned mid-majors into feeder schools and it’s taken opportunities, high-major opportunities, away from high school kids.”

How it happened

Implemented in October 2018, the transfer portal is a database of every college athlete who wants to transfer from his or her current school, and the NCAA says it is designed to help athletes, coaches and compliance personnel better navigate the system.

What’s created a recent buzz about the portal is the volume of athletes, particularly in college football and college basketball, who elected to transfer without penalty in the last year, and the high-profile names who have moved to other schools, including Memphis' Emoni Bates (to Eastern Michigan), Kansas State’s Nijel Pack (to Miami, Fla.) and UB women’s basketball player Dyaisha Fair (to Syracuse).  

The mass movement into the transfer portal was a product of the convergence of three factors, coaches and recruiting analysts said:

• In 2020, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic halting college athletics, the NCAA granted athletes who were active that year an extra year of eligibility, as many had lost parts of or entire seasons.

• In April 2021, the NCAA granted a one-time exception to the transfer rule, which allowed athletes to transfer to another program without having to sit out a year.

• Then, in June 2021, the NCAA approved policy changes that allowed college athletes to make money off their name, image and likeness (NIL) through advertising and sponsorships. That change also illustrated that there are more opportunities to be had at larger or more high-profile athletic programs. 

It created a perfect storm of sorts and opened the door for a tidal wave of player movement.

The transfer portal suddenly became a visible – and almost trendy – tool for college athletes. 

“I think a lot of kids jumped in just to jump in,” UB coach Jim Whitesell said. “I don’t think it was always necessary or was a great idea by a lot of kids to do it, but I think it kind of became the thing to do, because of the last year with Covid, and a lot of kids weren’t thinking of retaining that (year), and now you’re able to do that, and they saw, even from other sports doing it, it became a bigger thing.

“I think it will calm down in the next couple years, and I think with kids having that extra Covid (eligibility) year, that they’ve been here for a while, and now, ‘I want to try something different.’ The big challenge for us was try to anticipate it, but along with it, be on top of it and evolve with it, because it’s not going to go away.”

Schmidt, who enters his 16th year as coach of the Bonnies, said that the four starters who left Bona after last season – Osun Osunniyi, Jaren Holmes, Dominick Welch and Kyle Lofton – left in part to pursue NIL opportunities. Osunniyi and Holmes are at Iowa State, Welch at Alabama and Lofton at Florida.

“They didn’t leave because they weren’t playing,” Schmidt said. “They left because there was money to be had. I don’t blame them. That’s the way the system works. They can get paid for endorsement opportunities.”

The four players did not respond to messages from The News.

At Canisius, seventh-year head coach Reggie Witherspoon makes a point to discuss with players the risks associated with entering the transfer portal.

“You have to continue to amplify the information, relative to what it means to go into the transfer portal,” Witherspoon said. “We try to tell them all the stories, that some have worked out and some haven’t. They know the stories of the kids that worked out, but I can’t say if the kids do or don’t know the kids and the stories that haven’t worked out.”

Battle of the Bridge, Canisius at Niagara men's hoops (copy)

Canisius coach Reggie Witherspoon strategizes with Ahamadou Fofana, who entered the transfer portal after the season.

According to NCAA transfer portal data released in April, 63% of the 1,692 men’s basketball players at the Division I, II and III levels who entered the transfer portal from Aug. 1, 2020, to July 31, 2021, moved to another program. Seven percent withdrew or were taken out of the portal, and 31% have not transferred or remain “active” in the portal.

Of the 28 players from Big 4 men’s basketball teams who entered the transfer portal following the season, five have not publicly announced their next destinations – or may not have committed to a new program – as of Monday morning. 

How the transfer portal impacted spring recruiting

With their own players entering the portal after the season ended, coaches were forced to recruit transfers from college programs, junior college programs and high school programs, all in a short window in the spring, usually at a time when they're preparing for a set incoming class to join the program, or starting to plan future recruiting classes.

At Niagara, Greg Paulus and his staff took a measured approach to mining the transfer portal for potential additions. Other schools can contact an athlete once his name has been entered in the portal by his current school's athletic compliance department.

“When different individuals go into the transfer portal, we look into that and learn about them, why they’re in there, watching the film to see if they are the right fit in terms of their style of play or the skill set they may have or their strengths,” Paulus said. “Then, you try to get to know them to see if there’s a mutual interest. Because even when you’re recruiting, it doesn’t matter what level, there has to be interest on both sides for it to be a good fit in a good situation.”

Battle of the Bridge, Canisius at Niagara men's hoops (copy)

Niagara University coach Greg Paulus said coaches need to adjust their recruiting schedules because of the transfer portal.

Whitesell, UB’s fourth-year coach, likened the expedited spring recruiting process to speed dating.

“It goes very quickly,” he said. “A player comes open, you pursue that player, you see there’s a likeness, an attractiveness of it, and now we can go further. Is there a need? Can that person impact us? Are we going to fulfill that person’s needs, and vice versa? Tell me about yourself. Why are you leaving the program you’re leaving? You’re doing a little more background checking.

“In that spring period, you’ve got to have your eyes and ears open and be on top of it.”

Schmidt called it “recruiting on steroids.”

“You’re recruiting kids for months and years, and this is done in days, maybe a week or two weeks,” he said. “It’s a quick process and the kids are trying to narrow things down. You have to get in quickly and get things going.”

Added Witherspoon, “It creates more work for everybody. You’re going to have to be willing to be patient in some cases, which is very difficult, and work for longer on some cases. 

“You get players (in the portal) who are completing their season, rather than still in high school. It’s completely different. They’re done with where they were playing. The next school they decide on, that’s where they’re going. You could sign a kid today and he could be on campus two days later.”

UB coach Jim Whitesell

UB coach Jim Whitesell talks with Sy Chatman, left, and Armoni Foster, right, during practice at the school in Amherst Tuesday, July 12, 2022.

Time and speed were of the essence for coaches this spring, too. Whitesell and his staff would watch film of a prospective transfer, then find out the next day he had signed with another program.

Bona guard Jaren Holmes had the quickest transfer turnaround – he announced April 21 that he was entering the transfer portal, then announced eight days later he had committed to Iowa State. Otherwise, many players who left Big 4 programs did so in about a two- to three-week window of announcing their intention to transfer.

“The more you did it, the more comfortable you got doing it,” Whitesell said. “But, to be truthful, the stress level went up because we were in uncharted territory."

Paulus has found that some coaching staffs adjust their recruiting calendars to what fits their needs.

“Some schools are using those different recruiting periods and focusing more on those,” Paulus said. “Some coaches are focusing more on using the spring recruiting period maybe more extensively than summer because you’re able to have college-level film, or look at the body of work of someone that’s played in college for one, two, three or four years.

“That’s part of the case-by-case philosophy, or where a program is. How many do you need? Maybe you need one or two (players) or maybe you have a lot of guys returning.”

Will this pace last?

Considering that college coaches already multitask and sometimes micromanage, it’s fair to ask if the intensity of the spring recruiting process will be tenable in the future. 

The NCAA announced last week that its Division I board of directors has delayed consideration of proposed changes to the transfer portal until Aug. 31.

The Division I Council in July originally endorsed a recommendation that would eliminate a rule that prohibits an athlete from transferring more than once without sitting out a year, and would implement "entry windows" for the transfer portal: a 45-day window following a championship selection such as bowl game pairings or the NCAA Tournament's Selection Sunday, and a second window May 1-15 – a window at the end of each season and a window in the spring. 

Brandon Jenkins, a national basketball recruiting analyst with 247Sports, has seen the accelerated recruiting process and the change in the recruiting cycle, combined with the popularity of the transfer portal, wear on some coaches.

“It’s made the lifestyle for coaches way more stressful, and the jobs,” Jenkins said. “You see some of the top-tier coaches retire early, like Jay Wright (at Villanova) and you see it, too, when assistant coaches and head coaches go on the road and evaluate. Some coaches have to stay on campus just to host visits, and that happened a lot in April when transfers visited campus while others coaches were recruiting prospective athletes. You see that time spent, and you see burnout.”

While the transfer portal is not new, Jenkins pointed out that the volume of players entering the portal, and how coaches are reconstructing rosters is new.

“In the past, there would be a rare, big-name guy," Jenkins said. "Now, you have 30 guys in there that can be impactful scorers and defenders, and they can come in and fill an immediate void. Coaches always knew the importance of the portal, but now it’s accelerated.

“People knew this rule was coming, and there was a lot of talk of it for one to two years leading up to it, but I don’t think anyone was prepared for this drastic of a change.”

But coaches also realize the transfer portal is a two-way street, that it’s another tool or a resource in filling holes or rebuilding a roster. Players can enter the transfer portal to leave programs, but coaches can go into the transfer portal to quickly reconstruct their rosters.

Sometimes that means evaluating players in a matter of days, or sometimes that means rekindling a relationship. At Bona, Schmidt and his staff found some potential transfers were easier to evaluate because they had an existing connection with a player they might have recruited in the past.

But ultimately, it means continuing to adapt, as the spring has suddenly become a hot recruiting period.

“You knew there was going to be some changes,” Paulus said. “Do you really understand what it’s like until it comes through? I think it’s difficult to fully prepare for and grasp and understand, and then be able to navigate that, as soon as it comes out. You try to do as much work as you can, and try to understand and get educated, but as these things come through, the experience of going through it and adapting to decisions you make, or didn’t make, recruiting or not recruiting an individual, the more you’re able to do it, you learn a little more as you have each experience.”

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College/high school sports enterprise reporter

I'm a college/high school sports enterprise reporter at The Buffalo News. I've worked in sports journalism since 1997 and I have covered everything from college football to the Stanley Cup playoffs, high school sports and the NCAA Tournament.

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Welch finished his fourth season with the Bonnies averaging 12.3 points, six rebounds and 37.5 minutes in 33 games. He helped the Bonnies reach the National Invitation Tournament semifinals in March. Welch was named to the NIT's all-tournament team after scoring a game-high 25 points against Xavier, including 7 for 10 on 3-pointers.

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