College basketball’s transfer market is not repulsive or nauseating, neither selfish nor soft.
It is not an “epidemic,” as the noise around the topic every offseason suggests for some reason. The idea that players can better their situations by trying their hand at a higher level or dropping down to find a better fit is completely logical and too often met with scorn.
The former idea is, though, an immobilizing challenge for low- and mid-major programs. The transfers of freshmen Ben Harvey and Cam Burrell from Eastern Illinois underscore the conundrum EIU and other programs at its level are increasingly facing when recruiting high school players: Play well right away, and the idea of an “up-transfer” becomes enticing.
The little guys are the unflashy sedans that get handed down when a sports car becomes affordable. Harvey and Burrell are meaningful losses; two freshmen who stepped into rotation roles right away and offered long-term upside.
For EIU or programs akin to it, immediate impact freshmen are not easily attained every recruiting cycle. There is no replacing one with another the next class, and that leads to a complex question with no clear correct answer: How much should a low-major program like EIU recruit and rely on high school recruits given the rate at which they explore greener pastures?
Harvey, who averaged 10.2 points per game in 2018-19, is likely to end up at a Division I school any reasonable mind would consider a level up from EIU, even if it is not a high-major program. He reportedly visited Southern Illinois last month. It’s possible a comparable program could take a chance on Burrell’s athleticism that was evident in his 17.3 minutes per game as a freshman, even though the production wasn’t eye-popping. Burrell told the JG-TC he has heard from Division I schools as well as Division IIs and junior colleges.
At least one of those two seems likely to become the first player to transfer from EIU to another Division I school since 2015, when Chris Olivier went to Oklahoma State as a graduate student for his final year of eligibility. EIU, this year, is the Mazda that couldn’t compete with the Corvette. This is not like some prior years, where players who chose to transfer from EIU chose to go down to Division II.
The situation is not unique to EIU — mid-majors across the county deal with losing up-transfers every year. This offseason, 31 players have already transferred from a program outside of the major seven conferences to a high-major school.
Fellow Ohio Valley Conference program Southeast Missouri State has lost its leading scorer to transfer in each of the last two seasons. Denzel Mahoney transferred to Creighton after averaging 19.3 points as a sophomore in 2017-18. This year, Ledarrius Brewer is leaving after scoring more than 800 total points in his two years. Freshman forward Gabe McGlothan also left SEMO after averaging 7.5 points and shooting 35 percent on 3-pointers in 21 minutes per game. He will play next year at Grand Canyon, a WAC program that has posted four straight 20-win seasons.
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This is the current landscape for those teams and coaches who sit below, or well below, the cushy high-major leagues. Navigating it requires adoption and creative thinking. There is no perfect solution that will create 100 percent roster continuity, but some ways around recurring early exits of important players do exist.
The key is finding players who are less likely to (or in some cases cannot) transfer, since departures can affect that program’s Academic Progress Rate as well as create crippling unplanned roster turnover.
EIU has found a majority of its players from the junior college ranks since Jay Spoonhour took over in 2012. The Panthers’ three signees for 2019-20 are all from JUCOs. Harvey and Burrell were the only two high school players in the eight-man 2018 class. Mack Smith was the lone freshman out of EIU’s five 2017 signees.
Junior college players who go to Division I with two years of eligibility left and make an instant impact are less likely to transfer to another Division I — they would need to sit out a year before playing their final year of eligibility (no one can graduate in one year from a four-year school), a less attractive option that often accounts for the smallest percentage of transfers each year.
Junior college players with three years left are rarer, but the ideal prospect for a low-major. EIU had two of them on the 2018-19 roster, Josiah Wallace and Kashawn Charles. Guys who come from a JUCO having played two years and taken a redshirt would lose their last year of eligibility if they decided to transfer after a year in Division I.
Sit-out transfers from other Division I schools, though, are a trickier proposition for low- and mid-majors, because there’s no reason to redshirt a player if it’s avoidable. A player who graduates with remaining eligibility often leaves for that final year, and anyone who has already transferred within Division I once has taken a mandatory redshirt unless they obtained a waiver.
The perfect fit, of course, is finding a high school player who stays four years, scores 1,000 points and helps elevate a program. Terrell Lewis, a lightly recruited guard who EIU found late, did exactly that before injuries held him out for nearly two full years. He’s applying for a sixth year, but will use it elsewhere. Smith, another late under-the-radar find, is well on his way to that mark and is back for his senior year.
If recent trends are here to stay, just don’t count on discovering them too often.