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Why the NCAA Struggles with Transfers

Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated dug into the issue of transfers in men’s basketball and went beyond the surface level concerns. Most articles about transfers, particularly in men’s basketball, focus on the sheer number of transfers, the number and inconsistency of waiver decisions, or the NCAA’s restrictions on transfers. Thamel talked to coaches and teased out two core takeaways about why their are so many transfers in men’s basketball:

  1. More and more coaches see transfers as a way to get players they otherwise would not have a shot at; and
  2. The culture which leads to more transfer decisions starts before a basketball player arrives on campus.

Thamel’s article focuses less on the sheer number of transfers (although that is brought up, with the regrettable use of the word “epidemic”) and more on their importance. Better players are available, especially as a “correction” to the market of recruiting. Players who went to programs which were too big transfer down in search of a larger role while players who were overlooked or developed later have a second shot at major conference basketball.

The article details the problems very well but is short on solutions. The current look at transfer waivers and the graduate transfer exception would curb some transfers, especially graduate transfers from mid-major to power conferences. Adam Finkelstein’s ideas for grassroots basketball (ESPN Insider) would start to provide a framework to get the NCAA more involved. But beyond that, the NCAA cannot do much more than it already does to curb transferring.

Take the spring evaluation period, which both Thamel and Finkelstein emphasized as a particularly important recruiting period. Finkelstein bemoans the “setback” which will cause basketball coaches to lose one of the two weekends to evaluate at AAU events. But that change was asked for by the coaches, through the NABC, not dreamed up in Indianapolis to make their lives more difficult. There is only so much the NCAA can do to give coaches more evaluation opportunities if the coaches refuse to take them.

Even bringing some order to AAU basketball might not solve the problem. Jumping from team to team is just as big an issue in high school as in club ball. A more tightly controlled AAU environment with higher stakes might even produce more incentive to change teams rather than tough it out and earn more shots and playing time. The NCAA’s options for making prospects take the recruiting process seriously are either not feasible (like requiring recruits to take all five official visits before signing) or wildly unpopular (like eliminating the early signing period).

This is one reason the transfer review has swung back and forth so far and why the issue will continue to bedevil the NCAA. There is nothing the NCAA can do which will significantly reduce the rate of transferring. So the question is does the NCAA continue to fight transferring and hold back the tide as much as possible or just accept it as a fact of life and reduce the cost of transferring for athletes?

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