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Why Are College Basketball Transfers So High?

In the first installment of this miniseries on college basketball transfers, I looked at whether the sport had an actual “epidemic”, i.e. whether the high rate of transfers was some recent phenomenon. The numbers suggest that college basketball transfer rates have always been high, are comparable to the general student population, but are accelerating in recent years. The next question to ask is why college basketball has this problem.

The best work on figuring out why college basketball players transfer has been done by Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn. In both 2011 and 2013, Winn produced lengthy and detailed articles examining when and why players decide to change schools.

What separates Winn’s work from many others is the breadth of what he studies. Luke looked at every change in school a top–100 player made including transferring high schools, decommitting from a college, or transferring between colleges. From Winn’s articles, two major truths emerge.

First is that fickleness in deciding what school a player wants to attend often starts early and continues through college. Between the two studies, Winn found correlation between all three types of player movement: high school transfers, decommits, and college transfers. Additionally, Winn found a connection between early commitments and decommitments. Tracking the timeline of commitments, he found that more of the class of 2013 waited until their senior year to commit than any other year studied. 2013 also had the lowest rate of decommitments at 11.8%

The other is that schools play an increasing role in why college basketball players transfer. This is Winn in 2011 on transfers and coaching changes:

While transferring seems to be more of a player-driven issue, it’s still worth considering that they play in a climate where coaching changes occur with alarming frequency. In the 2010 offseason, 15.7 percent of D-I head coaching jobs changed hands, and in the 2011 offseason, 16.2 percent of head jobs changed. D-I coaches are switching places at a higher rate than overall four-year transfers.

And here is Winn in 2013:

We shouldn’t be surprised that half of the extra-early committers go on to decommit. Why? During the course of this study (from 2007-on), the average annual rate of turnover in the Division I coaching ranks was 13.5 percent, which outpaces the average annual transfer rate for men’s basketball players during the same stretch (10.8, according to the NCAA).

So, let’s say a player commits to a school during his freshman year of high school, and goes on to play four years of college ball. In that eight-year span, it’s likely that there will be more coaching changes than there are teams in D-I. (Maybe we should be calling that an epidemic.)

Similar numbers and slightly different topics but a very different conclusion in those two passages. The logic is easy to follow. Early commitments were down in 2013, as were decommitments (which were also down in 2012). That suggests players were taking a longer time to make more considered decisions to commitment a school. But the transfer rate continues to go up. Perhaps the problem is not solely the “moral decay of the modern player”.

NCAA data backs this up as well. In the NCAA’s 2010 Growth, Opportunities, Aspirations and Learning of Students in College (GOALS) study, only 42% of Division I men’s basketball players surveyed agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I would have attended this college even if a different coach was here.” Compare that with 59% of Division I football players and 58% of other male DI athletes. So a majority of basketball players would have at least been more hesitant about selecting the same school with a different coach. No wonder they might be looking to leave when the head coach is gone.

That still does not explain why college basketball players are willing to change schools so quickly and so often. When in doubt about why something is happening in college basketball, the best guess is always the same: the NBA. So many players believe they are going to be in the NBA and are looking for the fastest or surest way to get to the NBA that many are willing to do almost anything to increase the odds or decrease the time they spend in college.

Switching high schools might get you more exposure. Players decommit as soon as a bigger program or more early playing time comes along. If a new coach you did not choose is going to come in, sitting out a year might be worth it compared to the risk of not fitting into the new system.

Everyone in the system is looking out for themselves. Coaches are searching for the next job while players are looking for any shortcut to the NBA. Combine it all and you get turnover which generates even more turnover. Rinse and repeat enough times and you reach the point where people notice the “epidemic”.

For the last piece in this series, we’ll explore what the NCAA should do about college basketball’s transfer issues.

Are you ready for the NEXT STEP!