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Is Poaching To Blame For the High Number of Basketball Transfers?

Dan Hinxman of the Reno Gazette-Journal, quoting Nevada athletic director Doug Knuth:

“The big-time schools have gotten so big, the pressure on them to win is so big that if they have a student-athlete leave early for some reason — they go pro or whatever the issue is — and they’ve got to fill a position, they come down and look at our schools, and that’s not right.”

According to Knuth, this is not just a problem of circumventing the NCAA’s permission to contact rules but also part of the larger transfer problem in college basketball. His theory is the increased poaching of players at mid-majors by power conference is fueling the large number of transfers. Southern Illinois head men’s basketball coach Barry Hinson raised the same concern last year as well.

Step zero in answering this question is to define just how big a problem transferring is in the first place. The transfer list compiled by ESPN’s Jeff Goodman is often referenced as definitive evidence of the problem. But the NCAA’s research staff dug deeper and found Goodman’s list is not a list of transfers (that is Division I athletes who transferred to another Division I institution) but of departures. Of the 455 players on the list as of 10/4/2013, only 44% or about 200 transferred to another Division I school. Another 40% transferred down to Divisions II or III, NAIA, or a junior college, while 16% were not on a college roster in Fall 2014.

So while Division I averaged about 1 1/3 departures per team, it only averaged about two-thirds of a transfer per team. Transfer rates are ticking up but are still under 15%, which is half the rate of college students generally. Basketball’s problem is less about athletes jumping between Division I schools as it is athletes leaving in the first place. For all the control that coaches and athletic directors seem to have over the transfer process, they have no way to stop an athlete from going to a junior college or quiting basketball entirely.

Luke Winn of Sports Illustrated has looked at up-transferring over the last two years and his research shows there might be something there. From 2007–08 to 2009–10, up-transfers were in the single digits. In 2010–11 and 2011–12, they jumped to double digits. In 2012–13 and 2013–14, they almost tripled to 30 and 33 respectively. Graduate transfers made up a significant part of this activity as well. In the five years previous to 2012–13, Winn never found more than 12 up-transfers. In 2012–13 there were 11 graduate up-transfers alone, followed by 13 more in 2013–14.

So the data from the NCAA and Luke Winn show us that transfer rates might be ticking up, the growth is far from the “explosion” or “epidemic” it is often made out to be. But one areas where transfers have grown significantly over the last few years is up-transferring. That raises the question of why.

Knuth and Hinson believe the answer is poaching, specifically that more prestigious programs are violating NCAA rules and enticing athletes at mid-majors to leave before they have permission to contact them. When this happens, and it does happen even if the frequency is debatable, it is almost always through indirect means, like letting a player’s high school coach know there is a scholarship available at a bigger program. But it would take a lot of rule breaking to explain roughly 15% or so of Division I to Division I transfers.

My theory is that actual poaching of players is rare because poaching is not necessary. A college coach does not need to take the (even minimal) risk of contacting a player’s former coach to let him know the player can play at a higher level and a scholarship is waiting. The player’s old coach already believes the former and knows the latter. The athlete or someone in the athlete’s camp also will have heard about graduate transfers getting to play immediately.

There is now a critical mass of departures at the top between transfers and early departures to the NBA that there will always be opportunities for players who have succeeded at mid-major programs. Everyone involved knows this. Even if straight up poaching is widespread, it is unnecessary. If the NCAA had perfect enforcement of permission to contact, it would likely not make a difference in the overall transfer rate or the number of up-transfers, both of which would likely continue their current trends.

Knuth and Hinson might have strong suspicions or are even certain that power programs have poached or tried to poach their players. But it might also be that they feel powerless to stop it. Knuth and Nevada are currently fighting Cole Huff’s appeal of the restrictions the school placed on his permission to contact, which includes Pac–12 schools. In 2012, Southern Illinois denied Treg Setty permission to contact any school, citing the need to avoid losing APR points (Setty eventually transferred to Ohio). Both cases brought national attention and criticism to the schools for not granting immediate, blanket releases to the players.

When this perceived epidemic hits home, it is easy to see why basketball coaches and athletic directors feel trapped between a rock and a hard place. Their options are to just let it happen and risk a falling APR score and loss of talent or to use the one tool they have, permission to contact, and face condemnation. The choice must seem to them like which of two evils to contribute to: “free agency” in college basketball or infringing on an athlete’s rights.

Even if you do not sympathize with their feelings, you can understand why they feel that way. Especially when power conferences are asking for autonomy to change transfer rules for themselves that everyone else may be pressured to adopt. But with poaching a likely red herring and most transfers heading down or staying on the same level, lashing out at impermissible recruiting by the big programs seems like energy that could be better spent elsewhere.


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