LAWRENCE, Kan. – Andrew White III began his career at Kansas, then transferred to Nebraska and redshirted a year before playing another, only to wind up at Syracuse to finish off his unique college basketball odyssey.
All that moving around hardly makes him unique, though.
It’s more like the new norm.
More than 700 players on Division I rosters swapped schools last season, many taking advantage of fifth-year transfer rules that allow them to play immediately. The number could swell to more than 800 by the time this season begins next week. And that has coaches and administrators at every level concerned about the long-term effect on the health and popularity of the sport.
”I do think it’s a big-time problem in college basketball. It’s a problem in college athletics,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, who has three transfers from four-year schools on his current roster. ”But I also think it’s a societal problem because how many kids now, if you don’t play on your high school team, what’s the first thing you do? You switch schools. It happens in football and other sports, too.
”I mean, we’d like for it to be tightened up,” Self added, ”where there’s less transfers and hopefully that will be the case. But I don’t know what the answer is for that.”
That’s the biggest problem: Nobody seems to know.
In interviews with more nearly two dozen coaches and officials, including four conference commissioners, the only consensus was that the transfer epidemic is a problem striking college basketball to its core.
”The numbers concern me. But within those numbers, you have to understand there are sometimes very good reasons to transfer that are beyond just playing time,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said. ”Some of it is societal in nature, in which it’s instant-gratification syndrome of, `If I’m not playing immediately and not playing a big role, I’m going somewhere else. That’s indicative of a larger issue beyond basketball.”
Swofford said the days of kids ”waiting their turn” are a quaint construct of yesteryear. Now, everybody wants to get on the floor right away, and they’re willing to uproot if that’s what it takes.
”My concern is more about the academic part of it as much as anything, and how much can you bounce around and truly receive the kind of education that you’d want,” Swofford said. ”But again, it’s hard to lump that all into one bag. There is a lot going on.”
Transfers are more pervasive in college basketball for a number of reasons.
First, the game is largely the same regardless of where you go. Teams run different offenses, coaches utilize different systems and defenses vary from school to school. But it’s not like football, where a player who transfers has to learn hundreds of complicated plays in a condensed time period.
That makes it easy for a player to get up to speed quickly.
Another reason is numbers: There are only five guys on the floor at a time, and only 200 minutes to go around per game. Compare that to football, where an offense will run about 80 plays and there are 11 guys on the field at a time, not to mention opportunities to play on special teams.
”We need coaches to be frank on the front end, what their program is about,” Belmont coach Rick Byrd said, ”and then we need kids when they make their decision to stay there and not hop around looking for the next best thing because they didn’t play 38 minutes a game as a freshman.”
The NCAA is continually examining the issue through its committee on academics, but has so far stood pat. And that is particularly troubling for mid-major coaches like Byrd when it comes to the fifth-year transfer rule, which allows athletes who have graduated to play immediately somewhere else.
That rule has turned some mid-major programs into de-factor minor leagues.
Most coaches are in favor of eliminating the rule, which would mean those players would have to redshirt a year just like any other transfer. Other ideas to curb the number of transfers include a cap on the number of schools where an athlete can play, and rules that limit where an athlete transferring can go.
”I’m heartened by the fact that the NCAA continues to look at transfer issues,” Ohio Valley commissioner Beth DeBauche said, ”because they’re very complex.”
Now, there are cases where transfers are best for everybody involved: coaching changes, players deciding they want to play closer to home, academics and a myriad other issues that can pop up over the years.
Then there are the benefits to playing in different places.
”Making two moves, it’s kind of kept me on my toes,” White said. ”I’ve seen different staffs, different leagues. I’ve experienced a lot of basketball up to this point and it’s helped me with my overall confidence.
”As far as my Kansas experience, got to see a blue-blood, elite-level program. Got to win a couple of rings. Then Nebraska, obviously a sports town, Big Ten is a great basketball league. I got to play a big role and do some big things and learned a lot from that staff. And then you come here and you learn from one of the greatest coaches (at Syracuse),” White said. ”It’s been good for my well-being as a man and as a player.”
Indeed, the Orange may best encapsulate the trend. Jim Boeheim had a handful of transfers in his first 40 years as their coach. He’ll have three in the lineup this year.
”Transfers that we’ve taken have been very impactful to our program,” Boeheim said. ”We haven’t taken that many, but the guys that we have taken are very impactful.”
As for the transfer outlook for college basketball?
”It’s here to stay now,” Boeheim said. ”So if you need a guy you can’t get a freshman to help you, if you can get a guy that has started for two or three years, that would bring something to enhance recruiting.”