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Is College Basketball Facing a Transfer Epidemic?

Dick Vitale has the latest in the never-ending series of articles decrying college basketball’s “transfer epidemic”. Most of Vitale’s complaints are in the same vein as others who have remarked on the issue. Too many players are taking the easy way out. The graduate transfer rule is being abused. Movement by coaches is fueling the movement by players even though they do not have the same freedom to change schools as a coach.

Vitale’s article shows the difficult of addressing the problem though. He identifies a number of issues, including even junior college transfers. And he offers or hints at a couple changes. But one of the two changes he suggests, freeing up players to play immediately if they are released by the previous school, would likely lead to more transfers, not less. The other, eliminating the early NLI signing period, would probably reduce transfer rates, but is unlikely to be considered in the near future.

To start solving college basketball’s transfer issues, those issues need to be defined. Calling it a “transfer epidemic” suggests the high rate of transfers is a recent development. There has been an uptick recently in the number of transfers onto Division I rosters. In the 2009–10 APR cohort, 10% of Division I college basketball players transferred from another four-year school, the lowest rate since 2004–05.[1] Over the next three years that rate has climbed to 10.6%, 11.9% and now sits at 13.1%. In raw numbers the 2011–12 APR included 490 four-year transfers, followed by 541 in 2012–13.

But the numbers have always been high compared to other sports. The lowest rate of four-year transfers in college basketball was in 2003–04 at 9.4% or 385 players. That would drop basketball from second amongst men’s sports behind tennis to fifth, falling below soccer and skiing. It would still be more than 2.5 times the current rate for the other revenue sport, FBS football. But compared to students generally, men’s basketball transfers rates are a little low.

It is also important to recognize that the overall rate of transfers (including both four-year and junior college transfers) has been relatively stable over the 10 years it has been tracked using the APR. The high was 28.1% in 2006–07, while the low was 25.3% in 2009–10. Until recently the number of transfers tracked more closely to the number of two-year college transfers. The overall rate has started to go up as the more significant rise in four-year transfers is not being offset by a corresponding drop in two-year transfers.

Combine all this together and there definitely is a recent increase in transfers but it is not nearly as severe as Jeff Goodman’s transfer list increases would make it seem. Division I has less of a “transfer epidemic” than it does a “Division I to Division I transfer epidemic”. In many cases transfers between two Division I schools are displacing other transfers, either from junior colleges or from four-year colleges outside of Division I. It is only in the last couple of years that transfers have taken the place of four-year recruits.

Division I also has a “departure epidemic” which has resulted in fewer players in Division I overall. 323 Division I men’s basketball teams submitted usable APR data for all 10 years. Those 323 teams included a high of 4,198 players in 2005–06 (one short of the maximum). That number fell to 4,135 in 2012–13. That’s the equivalent of almost five teams worth of scholarships that were not used. Division I is bigger now, so those spots have been replaced by the other 20-odd teams in Division I.

Those 63 “lost” players though suggest that departures in Division I men’s basketball have reached a rate where scholarship players cannot even be replaced as fast as they are leaving to go somewhere else. That somewhere else is not necessarily another Division I school. It could be the professional ranks, a Division II, III or NAIA school, a junior college, or out of basketball entirely. Transfers might not be a pandemic-like outbreak, but general turnover has definitely reached a significant point.

Next time we’ll look at the possible reasons transferring has gotten to that point in men’s basketball.

  1. All of these numbers are looking at only the 323 Division I men’s basketball teams which submitted usable APR data for the entire time it has been in existence, so this is an apples-to-apples comparison unaffected by the growth of Division I.  ↩

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