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Cyclones turn conventional wisdom on its head with team of transfers

by | College Basketball Blogger
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Among ISU's transfers is Anthony Booker, a redshirt senior who left Southern Illinois in '10. (Getty Images)  
Among ISU's transfers is Anthony Booker, a redshirt senior who left Southern Illinois in '10. (Getty Images)  

To say people were questioning Iowa State heading into last season would be an understatement. Coach Fred Hoiberg had completely overhauled the Cyclones, bringing in four potential impact transfers. Everything looked good on paper, but most thought it would be different on the court.

Looking back at some of the previews from last year, there were certainly some eyebrows being raised at the way Hoiberg built his team.

"Unusual."

"The only issue is these guys are coming from all over the place."

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"There is a reason transfer players transfer, and those reasons often don't go away."

"Most of this team has never played together in a game that counts."

The rest, of course, is history. Hoiberg guided Iowa State to its first NCAA tournament since 2005; while there, the Cyclones beat Connecticut before giving eventual national champion Kentucky everything it could handle. Royce White became one of the best players in school history, and this team of transfers brought the magic back to Hilton Coliseum.

"We said, 'Let's give these guys a chance,'" Hoiberg told reporters before last season's NCAA tournament. "And they've been awesome."

So awesome, in fact, that Iowa State is going back to the well this season, despite losing White and former Michigan State transfer Chris Allen. Transfers Chris Babb and Anthony Booker are back, and Hoiberg will also welcome in Korie Lucious (Michigan State) and Will Clyburn (Utah).

This season, though, Iowa State isn't the outcast. The Cyclones are becoming the norm. Just look around the country.

Missouri is projected by many as a top-20 team, and the Tigers could roll out a starting lineup that features four transfers: Keion Bell (Pepperdine), Jabari Brown (Oregon), Earnest Ross (Auburn) and Alex Oriakhi (Connecticut). That doesn't count Tony Criswell, who started his career at UAB, or Jordan Clarkson, a Tulsa transfer who will sit out the upcoming season.

Also, at USC, there is plenty of optimism heading into the fall -- and much of it comes as a result of an influx of transfers. Eric Wise (UC-Irvine), Renaldo Woolridge (Tennessee), J.T. Terrell and Ari Stewart (both out of Wake Forest) are all eligible this season, while fellow transfers Jio Fontan, Aaron Fuller and Dewayne Dedmon have previously suited up for the Trojans. Rice transfer Omar Oraby also just pledged to Kevin O'Neill's program.

The Mountain West race could be decided by transfers. San Diego State brings in James Johnson (Virginia), Dwayne Polee (St. John's) and J.J. O'Brien (Utah) to join James Rahon (Santa Clara) and Xavier Thames (Washington State). Meanwhile, UNLV counters with two returning transfers in Mike Moser (UCLA) and Quintrell Thomas (Kansas) and two fresh transfers in Khem Birch (Pittsburgh) and Bryce Jones (USC). Roscoe Smith (UConn) is also sitting out this season.

This transfer phenomenon has even trickled down to teams in the smaller conferences. Iona, Campbell and Towson are relying heavily on transfers this season, while Rhode Island and Fresno State are attempting to rebuild their respective programs partially through transfers.

Here's the catch this year: very few people are talking about these teams as ones that might implode because of chemistry issues and the integration of different personalities. Iowa State had to deal with those doubts throughout the entire preseason; it's not the same for Missouri, UNLV and other "transfer teams" this season.

What happened? Did Iowa State make it cool to build a successful team through transfers? "Transfers, to some degree, have become the new junior college players," UNLV head coach Dave Rice said. "We all utilize transfers to fill out a roster, to fill a particular need. The opportunity to come in and practice for a year and learn our system, they're so much more ready to play."

Iowa State could have been an anomaly, but coaches around the country aren't looking at it that way. In most cases, talent is talent -- and that's exactly how "transfer teams" are being viewed nowadays.

"When we got the opportunity to recruit Smith, Jones and Birch, it was a no-brainer," Rice said. "There are very few programs that don't entertain the idea of taking of transfers. It makes sense."

That wasn't always the case. It was rare to see some of the annual college basketball powers scooping up transfers in the offseason. That has completely changed. Even Duke has been dabbling in the transfer market the past few years.

With so many players looking to transfer every offseason -- this year saw more than 450 players decide to leave school -- there's a plethora options to choose from, enabling coaches to select who they want to target. Coaches don't need to even think about bringing in a player with a bad reputation; there are dozens of other guys who can make an impact without the headache.

"Anytime you look at the potential of bringing in a transfer, it's no different than bringing in a kid out of high school," Rice said. "You look at everything."

Moreover, with the proliferation of waivers being handed out to transfers, schools are getting an immediate impact in some cases. Our "Critical Coaches" series in August showed many coaches would prefer to see waivers eliminated, forcing every transfer to sit out a year regardless of circumstances. With that said, as long as waivers are being handed out, coaches are going to try and take advantage of the NCAA's apparent leniency.

The increase in waivers has provided even more of an impetus for schools to pursue transfers, as they don’t have to wait an entire year to work those players into the mix. It’s becoming akin to the graduate school transfer, as those players can transfer if they complete their degree within four years and their current school doesn’t offer their preferred graduate program. They’re allowed to move to a new school without sitting out a year.

Sure, there’s a benefit to sitting out a year to learn a new system, but coaches’ eyes are lighting up at the thought of getting a transfer who can play immediately. Until the NCAA eliminates waivers -- and there are plenty of people who think that should happen -- we will continue to see a feeding frenzy for these players.

As more teams have success relying heavily on transfers -- and Missouri, UNLV and San Diego State each have the potential to make deep runs in March -- we will likely see this trend of transfer teams grow. There are too many positive to ignore: players get a year in the system before suiting up; the competition in practice is taken to a higher level; and chemistry issues can be worked out during the redshirt year. Overall, bringing in transfers just lessens the learning curve for most players.

As a result, we're seeing talented and experienced teams hitting on all cylinders early in the season. There's no need to wait for freshmen to get their feet under them; transfers have already had their growing pains. When so much talent clicks so quickly, it's a scary thought for opponents.

There's no frowning on these types of teams anymore.

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