Having spent eight of the past 12 days on the recruiting trail and speaking with a couple dozen coaches, one thing is clear: college basketball recruiting has recently and appreciably been altered due to players already enrolled in Division I.
As anyone who's followed the sport the past few years knows, there has much debate regarding transfers and whether the number of kids changing schools is good or bad. The most recent tally, by ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman, puts the 2014 transfer total at more than 625. As has been the case each year for the past half-decade, the latest transfer census is a record high.
Bleating from coaches be damned, the number of departures keeps going up.
Still, according to NCAA research, the percentage of D-I college basketball transfers (between 13 percent and 14 percent) is lower than the national average of college students opting to switch universities (closer to 20 percent) as undergrads. Some coaches still have issues with this; others have come to terms with it. Plenty believe it never has been nor will be a significant issue.
Regardless of opinion, here's the undeniable side effect: Most coaching staffs now recruit in a different way than even two years ago -- essentially stockpiling an open scholarship, sometimes two, because a good transfer (a better player in many cases) can hold more value than a freshman.
I spoke with coaches who admitted that unless they landed the two, three or four players for 2015 they really wanted, an open spot would be saved for a transfer next spring. Why worry about filling up the roster months ahead of time when it's reasonable and acceptable to use that final spot come March, April or May with a transfer?
"It's about adapting," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "It's a reality. We're a very adaptable program. The reality is, these players here that we're watching, there are a lot of good players. But there's also a lot of good ones on the transfer market. I think you have to be adaptable and say, 'That's a viable place for us to go get a really good player.' "
Where there once was stress, there now is reliability. Why fret over filling scholarships by the fall when it's a guarantee that boatloads of players -- players who have D-I experience -- will be available? One coach said off the record he used to lose sleep over scholarships and landing guys, but that's no longer the case.
"The thing that's great about it is, you get the best evaluation tool ever: Division I basketball," Few said. "With statistics, film, references from guys you trust. You're not missing on much when you take a transfer; you pretty much know what you're getting for the most part."
With so many transfer players available -- it could very well be two per team by this time next year. It's undeniably changed the way recruiting works. And most coaches I talked to believe this is a safer way to recruit.
"I've always felt it's a great way of 'staying old,' " Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "And when I first got to Notre Dame, it was easier. Chasing transfers from the other schools -- there wasn't a lot of competition."
Brey boasts being way ahead of the trend. It was 19 years ago, as an assistant at Duke, when Brey first convinced Mike Krzyzewski to take a transfer [Roshown McLeod, from St. John's]. It was a rare thing then -- nearly taboo -- to add a guy who had the audacity to leave another school. But Brey believed in the practice of bringing in someone who'd already experienced college life and probably had better perspective than an average incoming freshman.
So Brey took the philosophy with him when he became a head coach, first at Delaware and now at Notre Dame, where he has been since 2000. Brey estimates he's been involved in landing 20 transfers over the past 20 years.
"We sold [players] on: 'We reinvent guys,' " Brey said. "That was something, our track list, that we could really sell. Until the last couple of years."
It's been bittersweet to be so prescient, though. Even as recently as five years ago, Brey said schools from major conferences seldom competed with him for a transfer. Now it's entirely different. If a player good enough for Notre Dame, Ohio State, Missouri or Oregon is available, 10 to 20 schools will be sniffing him out.
"UNC, Kentucky ... they're about the only ones who are not really in the transfer market," Brey said. "Even Duke's taken guys more recently."
Seth Curry, for one. Rodney Hood, drafted in the first round by the Utah Jazz, is a prime example. Duke also filled a scholarship this offseason by bringing in Sean Obi, who averaged 11.4 points and 9.3 rebounds at Rice last season.
There are five pools of players coaches can use to build their teams:
- High school recruits
- Late signees or defectors after a coaching change
- International players
- Junior college players
Only transfers have changed how recruiting truly plays out across all D-I levels. Some schools have the desire and resources to bring in international players. Others are extra-diligent in tracking and taking a chance on JUCOs. But everyone is in tune with battle-tested transfers looking for a better spot after having experienced college.
"They're better adjusted and wiser to the challenge," Virginia's Tony Bennett said. "They have college experience -- redshirting is a good thing sometimes. Players can take the year to learn the system and can come in with a realistic view of how intense it is."
Bennett mused on the question most coaches ask themselves when addressing an incoming player: Why is he transferring? It's still a big factor in any coach's assembly.
But the process certainly has changed from how the coaching machine worked only a few years ago. Here's what Few said the philosophy was like, even as recently as 2008 or 2009: "There was the connotation, 'Oh he's soft. He's really going to affect your chemistry.' It was almost like transferring, the kid was a failure. But now it's pretty much a reality and it's OK. Look at the transfers we've got this year."
Gonzaga will have Kyle Wiltjer, formerly of Kentucky, and Byron Wesley, a grad-student transfer who led USC in scoring last season. The 2014-15 Zags could turn out to be one of Few's best teams.
Of course, not all transfers work out. Plenty bolt for the wrong reasons. Some guys get run off teams and/or are victims of coaches oversigning players. But generally, the transfer culture and its impact on recruiting has begun to benefit programs because players who've already attended school have a better gauge on what they want, and what they can get, by playing for a certain coach or attending a certain campus.
And that's why one-year graduate transfers are seen as the best kind of "recruit." Veterans at the college level, they come in with so much experience and have little chance or disrupting a staff's roster because it's already known how short there stay will be.
As commonplace as this ideology has become the past couple of years, it still has exceptions. Memphis' Josh Pastner, who's had three incoming transfers in five years, tries to fill up his roster with high school players if feasible.
"I think transfers are good because of the D-I basketball experience," Pastner saids. "They understand. But I like to go year by year and use all 13 [scholarships]. I don't try to save any if I don't have to."
The grad-transfer exception is still debated. In time, it could be eliminated, which could once again tweak the way coaches prepare every summer. But until then, the spring and summer evaluation periods should continue to be only part of how coaches look to keep their jobs. It's lessened the pressure, and that's meant a better life and better health for the coaches.
"It's about adjustment," Brey said. "It's the world we're in now. There's no going back. Adjust accordingly."