Anyone seen college basketball’s bluebloods lately? Depending on your definition of lately, us neither. To understand the season ahead, it’s useful to consider the year that was. And save for UCLA’s unexpected Final Four run back in March, nearly all the traditional men’s hoops powers went out on the downswing. Kansas and North Carolina suffered grisly tournament losses. Indiana remained in Big Ten purgatory. And the men’s NCAA tournament went on without both Duke and Kentucky for the first time since 1976.
It’s normal for top programs to have down years, but it’s unusual for all of them to do so at once. Even UCLA’s success seemed like an anomaly; the Bruins had to win a play-in game as a No. 11 seed to simply crack the field of 64. Of course, it’s hard to qualify anything that happened last season without considering the impact of COVID-19. The pandemic thrust players and coaches into adverse situations, directly impacting physical health and safety and, in many cases, mental health.
Still, apart from the pandemic, the arc of the season was defined by Baylor and Gonzaga’s high-stakes collision course, and the anticipation that paid off in the national title game. Even the stars were scattered: Iowa boasted the top player in the country, and the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft came from Oklahoma State. Amid dire circumstances and unexpected challenges, the sport’s spotlight not-so-subtly shifted away from its most iconic programs.
The most powerful change agent in sports is embarrassment, which tends to accompany healthy amounts of losing. And no matter how storied your program or how many career wins a coach has, there’s always a breaking point. Adapt to the times or face the consequences. And this season will be shaped in some form by how these top teams—replete with new talent, and facing the same high expectations—bounce back. The whole sport already stands on uneven ground, after a storm of changes to its essential processes and the longtime bones of team-building, making it harder to recruit and retain talent than ever. In April, the NCAA implemented a one-time transfer rule, allowing athletes across all sports to change schools once without sitting out, no questions asked. The ever-ubiquitous transfer portal was flooded: At one point this summer, more than 1,600 men’s basketball players had declared intent to switch teams. Unsurprisingly, those changewinds bore arguably the most active offseason in the history of the sport.
There was a time when the “transfer epidemic” was widely and sanctimoniously panned by many of the game’s most prominent figures, in favor of a status quo that limited player movement and allowed for optimal program stability. Many college coaches once thumbed their noses at the thought of patchworking a roster full of transfers. Traditionally, championship teams were laden with upperclassmen, and forged on multiple years of continuity and collective identity. Players stayed put. And whatever honor code kept coaches from aggressively recruiting away other teams’ stars was abetted to some extent by the fact that transfers had to sit out a year upon arrival, anyway.
The stakes changed with the advent of “one-and-done” stars, following the NBA’s 2005 raising of its minimum age to 19 years old (and subsequently, the success of John Calipari’s freshman-heavy Kentucky teams), as elite talent became more transient in its progression to the pros. Top programs were incentivized to cater to those players, or lose out. The development of widespread transfers unfolded similarly, with early loopholes becoming cracks in the levee that recently burst. Player freedom has rightfully become more of a priority in college athletics.
Starting with relaxed graduate transfer rules in 2011, the NCAA gradually became more lenient in granting instant-eligibility waivers for various hardships. Player movement became the norm, whether coaches liked it or not, and quality, experienced talent became available. Top programs have been forced to play ball to improve their rosters each year. And here we are.
If proof of concept was truly needed, look at last season’s Final Four. National champion Baylor finished with two seniors, four juniors and two sophomores in the rotation. Four of them were transfers who sat out upon arrival, building added continuity, chemistry and trust that paid off with a resounding win over undefeated Gonzaga in the title game. The arrival of instant eligibility for all means it won’t work quite the same way moving forward, but the Bears have certainly laid the blueprint. Four of Houston’s starters—all upperclassmen—were transfers. UCLA’s leading scorer, Johnny Juzang, transferred from Kentucky, and Gonzaga’s top assist man, Andrew Nembhard, transferred from Florida. The latter two were eligible immediately. The value of adding older, experienced talent, rather than plugging holes with freshmen, was obvious as the stakes rose in March.
Kentucky’s Calipari was once among the most vocal critics of the shifting transfer system, notably airing his concerns back in 2016 in a voicemail he left for The Philadelphia Inquirer. His comments came after close friend Bruiser Flint (now on staff at Kentucky) was fired as Drexel’s head coach, after the team missed the NCAA tournament following the departure of its best player, grad transfer Damion Lee, to Louisville. “It’s not about the school that took him,” Calipari said. “It’s about [the fact] we let it happen.” But the Wildcats have often been at the forefront of change, and Calipari’s approach has been a useful bellwether of the times. He’s shifted course in recent years, selectively adding grad transfers at positions of need, while still leaning primarily on one-and-done hopefuls to carry his teams.
But following a tumultuous 9–16 season (the Wildcats’ first losing campaign since 1988–89)—and the NCAA’s rule change—six of Kentucky’s 14 players are now transfers. Kellan Grady (a career 2,000-point scorer at Davidson), Oscar Tshiebwe (a former five-star recruit who left West Virginia), Sahvir Wheeler (who just led the SEC in assists at Georgia) and CJ Fredrick (a career 46% three-point shooter at Iowa) all arrived in Lexington this summer. For contrast, Kentucky added just three freshmen: TyTy Washington Jr., Daimion Collins and Bryce Hopkins.
Washington and Collins could be one-and-done, as has been the program’s way, but it’s a far cry from Calipari’s star-laden teams of old. It’s hard to be overly critical of his changing stance, when the entire landscape has shifted in that direction. The retooled Wildcats sit ninth in Sports Illustrated’s preseason top 25 despite coming off an unusually rough year. There’s the old adage about how getting old (and staying old) is the best way to win. But the best way to add experience is now through the portal. Why even pretend to be above it?
Even Duke and North Carolina—each entering a transition phase—added transfers (coincidentally, both from Marquette) to boost their short-term hopes, as their legendary coaches step away from the game. Mike Krzyzewski, 74, is set for a farewell tour, taking the Blue Devils on one more ride before handing the reins to assistant Jon Scheyer. Hubert Davis has already taken over for 71-year-old Roy Williams. Both teams project to improve significantly, with Duke adding blue-chip freshmen Paolo Banchero and AJ Griffin and UNC expecting more from its sophomore class, led by guard Caleb Love. There’s been a widespread sense around the industry that Krzyzewski and Williams’s decisions to retire were, at the very least, accelerated by the destabilization of once-familiar program-building tenets. As SI reported in June, roughly 40% of men’s basketball players who join Division I programs out of high school have left their initial team by the end of their sophomore year.
On the far reaches of the spectrum, Texas is stretching the paradigm to a breaking point. Chris Beard left Texas Tech for a rival job at Texas and promptly recruited six of the top available transfers. The Longhorns still have to sort out chemistry and minutes but approached the transfer market like a European soccer club. Beard brought in just one freshman, a recruit (Jaylon Tyson) who flipped his commitment from the Red Raiders to the Longhorns. And it was widely rumored in industry circles that Beard made an effort to bring star forward Terrence Shannon Jr. from Lubbock with him.
Texas will be the favorite in the Big 12, although Kansas lurks right behind, with a brand-new backcourt led by, yes, three transfers, most notably point guard Remy Martin, a three-time All Pac-12 selection at Arizona State.
It’s no coincidence that all this change comes in an era when it’s immensely more challenging for ambitious programs to not just retain but merely win recruiting battles for top high school talent. The NBA’s G League Ignite program has siphoned top recruits away from college basketball in each of the last two seasons since its inception as an alternative, professional training ground for top players, plucking five-star recruits Jaden Hardy and Michael Foster for its ranks this season. The fledgling Overtime Elite League—with big-name backing from Jeff Bezos, Kevin Durant and others—has secured commitments from 24 players, 19 of whom were previously based at U.S. high schools. After signing professional contracts, those recruits—most of whom would have otherwise been juniors and seniors—are off the board for D-I programs moving forward.
Complicating matters is the implementation of NIL legislation, which greatly levels the playing field for what college programs can (legally) offer players in terms of financial incentive. Athletes are free to license their name, image and likeness for their own gain, opening up new pathways to profits and granting them much-needed agency over their own careers. That shift seems likely to favor high-profile programs that can increase their players’ marketability with TV airtime and lean on donors and alumni to help create attractive and lucrative NIL packages for prospective recruits. Duke’s freshman star Banchero—SI’s projected top pick in the 2022 NBA draft—recently inked a deal with 2K Sports, allowing him to appear in their popular video game series before ever playing a minute in college, much less the NBA.
While it’ll take some time to truly assess the long-term impact and ramifications of NIL on the sport, college hoops has already started to benefit. Over the summer, Memphis landed a commitment from top prospect Jalen Duren, which was followed by a pledge from his close friend and fellow five-star recruit Emoni Bates. Both players decided to reclassify and attend college a year early while turning down contracts with the G League. Bates is still two years away from being draft-eligible. But the amplified earning power certainly played a factor here, and Penny Hardaway’s club immediately vaulted near the top of most preseason rankings. In a world where elite high school players often double as social media celebrities, the myriad pathways to making money makes college much more attractive. Whether this is the new normal or a very loud blip remains to be seen.
Amid all the chaos, there are teams who enter the fall comfortably following a more traditional script. Purdue could win the Big Ten with eight rotation players returning, including sophomore star Jaden Ivey, and not a single transfer. Jay Wright and Villanova are favored to win the Big East yet again, having lost only Jeremiah Robinson-Earl to the pros. All three teams have enough quality to beat just about anyone. But that type of stability has become the exception, not the norm. And of course, there’s real buzz around UCLA, where Mick Cronin managed to return all five starters from a Final Four team. That type of continuity amid sweeping roster turnover is scarcely found in the D-I ranks, particularly in winning programs.
Still, no matter which bluebloods rediscover success, this may well be another case of everyone chasing Gonzaga, which again enters the year as SI’s preseason No. 1. No team has reloaded as effectively as the Bulldogs in recent years, and last year’s title loss has to sting, as will the departure of three starters. But Mark Few has retooled his team around returning star Drew Timme and another Minnesota native: Jalen Suggs’s 7-foot high school teammate Chet Holmgren. Once again, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more talented roster. More change is on the way across men’s college hoops. Some things will stay the same.
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