The Transfer Era? Richard Pitino is Adjusting as the College Basketball Landscape Changes

Photo Credit: Thomas J. Russo (USA Today Sports)

Across the nation, college basketball players are staying home, hunkering down during the Coronavirus pandemic as they look ahead to an uncertain summer. But in a broader sense, there is more player movement than ever before.

While debates rage over whether to compensate college athletes, players are finding new ways to hold some power, aided by the NCAA’s loosening grip on the transfers-must-sit-a-year ultimatum. New York Times reporter Adam Zagoria tweeted Wednesday that, according to a source, there were a staggering 788 Division-I players in the transfer portal, a total that will only grow if the NCAA passes its one-time transfer proposal that will only players to switch teams without sitting out.

“I think it’s changing,” said Golden Gophers head coach Richard Pitino Thursday, speaking to reporters on a Zoom call. “I don’t think it’s necessarily if it happens, but I think it’s when it happens that they allow the one-time transfer.”

Until that day comes, players can still apply for waivers to escape the one-year sit out. The criteria is vague, however. Minnesota assumed Marcus Carr would be eligible in 2018-19 after transferring from Pittsburgh, but his waiver was denied shortly before the season. They are trying again with coveted Drake transfer Liam Robbins, who agreed to join the Gophers as the de facto replacement for NBA-bound big man Daniel Oturu.

“Obviously for our program when you have a guy like Liam who’s an impact guy, that’ll drastically impact your program,” Pitino said. “It’s also been very, very challenging because there are certain transfers out there that we feel like we can get, but we don’t know if they’re going to be eligible right away or not. I don’t know, we’ve got to be patient somewhat because I just think we’re in such a different time right now that what we’ve been before.”

The Gophers are realizing that player movement can be a double-edge sword. In addition to signing Robbins, Pitino brought in talented grad transfer Brandon Johnson from Western Michigan to vie for the team’s power forward spot, much like he did last year with grad transfer Alihan Demir. But Minnesota lost guard Payton Willis to the grad transfer market that same week. Willis, initially a transfer from Vanderbilt, started 25 games for Minnesota last season and scored 8.6 points per game. He’ll be playing at College of Charleston next year.

“I think the natural reaction is, ‘Why did he transfer? What is wrong with the program?'” Pitino said. “I don’t think that was the case with Payton at all, and I don’t think that is necessarily the case with a lot of these transfers. It’s just you want guys to graduate early, just so they can work on their masters and do those things, but you run the risk of guys being able to grad transfer. That is part of the evolving times of college basketball. I think that Payton wanted an increased role. I think he understands what we have on the team.”

And now more than ever, college basketball coaches have to compete with the allure of a professional path that is getting increasingly more appealing even to players on the fringes of getting drafted. While Oturu is a likely first-round pick whenever the NBA decides to hold its draft amidst the national chaos, Amir Coffey was not a draft lock when he declared after his junior year. Coffey went undrafted but found an opening in the Los Angeles Clippers system that gave him a paycheck and a pathway to an NBA roster. Even less ballyhooed is Gophers sophomore point guard Marcus Carr, who recently chose to declare for the draft in an effort to learn about the process and gauge teams’ interest. Carr withheld from hiring an agent, enabling him to return to school.

Because of the stay-at-home orders across the nation that are inhibiting standard offseason practices, Carr is unlikely to bolster his stock during the process and may return to the Gophers for his junior year. But what about players better-suited than Carr to take their talents to the next level? No. 1 high school recruit Jalen Green opted on Thursday to skip college and join the NBA’s professional pathway program that will develop him for the 2021 draft instead of embarking on a one-and-done college career.

“There are so many elements that are pulling at college basketball right now, and we’ve got to do a better job, I should say, of making it more intriguing for guys to stay in college,” Pitino said. “That would be the first thing. Because the G League is expanding. The G League is paying six figures to kid. Amir Coffey made good money. I don’t know what exactly that was, and he was intrigued by that. I’m not saying that was the wrong decision. He’s making money, and he’s playing in the NBA. So you’ve got that dynamic of whether it’s overseas, whether it’s the G League. Then you have the transfer portal, and now you’ve got this one-time transfer lingering right now. … I think it’s very, very important for college basketball to evolve and make playing college basketball just as good as maybe going to the G League or going overseas. And I think the way that you do that is giving the players more freedom to be able to do things.”

And that freedom is, in itself, a complicated change for college programs. Players, if given the autonomy to switch programs, will continue to identify teams in need of their skillset and look to better their careers when possible. Oturu leaves, go woo a center. Willis leaves, go look for an off-ball guard. Updated facilities will become more and more important as coaches try to wow potential transfers. College free agency, anyone?

“It’s no longer about this four-year process,” Pitino said. “There’s certain guys that it is about, but they want to see where they fit in on your roster now. You just try to be open and honest with them. Show that this is what we can do for you from a basketball standpoint, this is what we can do for your life after basketball.”

The days of coaches’ four-year plans are ending, and Pitino sees the writing on the wall. College basketball rosters are inevitably going to become year-to-year constructions. It may get more chaotic. It may get more entertaining.

It’s almost certainly the new reality.

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