Call me an idealist. When I look at athletics as a whole I still harbor the faint hope that in some way we’re preparing the participating individuals for a life beyond the game. The “real world”, as bleak as it may seem at times, awaits when the playing days are over. Hopefully we can find a way to educate and send out a new generation seeking not merely to survive but also following a mandate to improve the road they travel for themselves and ultimately those to follow. Unfortunately, the recent mentality emanating from the current landscape represents considerably less than a JFK “Ask not” approach and comes across as a much more prevalent “Me first” priority.
The ideology of changing one’s setting rather than one’s circumstances resonates today throughout club, scholastic and college basketball like never before. Yes, I’m beating that same dead horse once again. It’s time for another reminder that the epidemic of transfers and their impact on future classes continues to spread unabated. Contrary to the somewhat unrealized Zika Virus impact on Olympic athletes last summer, the “exit flu” continues to infect a greater number of players and programs with the arrival of each collection of signees on campus. While you may be tempted to dismiss this topic as…”been there, heard that”…process the following numbers before you move onto the latest self-promotional effort from the multitude of options littering the basketball landscape. Among the teams ranked in the AP Top 25 from last week (January 22 – 28) there are 44 athletes who didn’t begin their careers where they are currently playing or sitting out their year of residency. Just three programs among that line-up showcase entire rosters in their original packaging while 16 of them feature two or more athletes who have already filled out a change of address form.
When I stepped down from coaching and started writing, one of my early ideas for a column was disappointingly nixed on the basis of “that story has already been done”. In a journalistic sense I understand that philosophy but in our small section of the universe there are many troubling issues that need to be addressed over and over again. If just one person hears a critical message and benefits somewhere along the line, then the effort was time well spent. Modern media has different and tremendously flexible guidelines. The active audience for legitimate recruiting advice is an ever changing constituency and, with the dubious trend of actively pursuing younger and younger prospects, many relevant topics warrant at least one sequel and possibly even more.
Beyond that, as an old coach, I still firmly believe in the fundamental teaching structure of repetition, repetition, repetition. Below is a link from a previous well received column (June 27, 2015) on the topic of transfers that, while dated to a small degree, still makes many very valid points for the coaches and parents of prospects as well as the athletes themselves navigating the recruiting process.
I urge you to read it for the first time or even study it once more if it made your reading list the last time around. More so, if you agree with some of the points made, please share it with those actively involved or just entering in the maze leading to a college choice. The transfer ship may well have sailed but just maybe we can keep it within sight of the shoreline of recruiting sanity.
And yes, I still firmly believe it to genuinely be a recruiting issue. After the fact it’s always easy to portray college programs or coaches as the ones responsible for the multitude of exit visas being issued and, at times, that may well be an accurate representation. But not nearly to the extent that we now have players packing their bags before they’ve even completed a single season in the uniform they only recently envisioned being framed and given to them on senior day four years down the road.
Whether we like it or not, transfers have evolved into a way of life and now exist as an additional recruiting class in the structure of most Division-I programs. Any honest coach will tell you that their preference lies in four year players but job security and common sense seems to overrule that inclination given the “right” player(s) becoming available. That being said, there have been no transfers among the AP or WBCA All-American first teams the past two seasons. It’s a safe bet that trend won’t continue this season. Of course, swapping jerseys and GPS coordinates doesn’t lessen an athlete’s potential or ability to contribute to the success of their adoptive program.
As we all know Sheryl Swoopes and Elena Delle Donne didn’t finish their careers where they signed out of high school and things worked out well for them on their way to collecting pay for play. Currently, Baylor is certainly glad Alexis Jones is a Bear and Diamond DeShields is back to form in Knoxville. Stephanie Mavunga is averaging a double-double for the Buckeyes, Florida State goes as Leticia Romero does while Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray have settled in with the Gamecocks. That’s just some of the higher profile players and programs representing the tip of a massive iceberg of transfers throughout college basketball.
Logic tells you that transferring isn’t an inherently bad thing nor does it necessarily limit players from getting where they hope to go as an athlete. At the same time it can be the equivalent of following bad directions to an ultimate destination. Sure, you’ll get there, but nobody benefits from the frustration, travel time, traffic jams and possible breakdowns all the while realizing a little homework on the front end possibly could have avoided some of those potholes along the way. This brings us full circle to those initial decisions that might be setting up all of these athletic and academic detours.
No matter whom you attribute it to (Einstein, Franklin or someone else), the adage claiming that “the definition of insanity is repeating the same mistakes over and over again and expecting different results.” should be embraced like never before in recruiting. The world we now live in provides a level of detailed awareness regarding the decision making process of other athletes as well as a spotlight on the ever growing litany of commitment missteps. The exposure and comprehension of those mistakes in turn makes them everyone’s errors to learn from. To not investigate and closely examine the who, where and why among the growing transfer parade of stars is tantamount to defining that “insanity” and taking unnecessary risks with such an important choice.
As mentioned earlier, the mantra of repetition, repetition, repetition serves coaches well in any effort to provide insight or to teach. In that light, here’s that link one more time in case you had any second thoughts about revisiting the previous transfer column. (Pardon the shameless self-promotion)
One topic not addressed in that particular article is the concept of self-perception in the recruiting process. It’s not difficult to look at the stat sheet of a high profile prospect that’s not seeing the floor as a collegian and guess why she’s shopping around for a new locker room. Few, if any, will ever admit the reality of that particular circumstance but in actuality it’s the most common reasoning for players to consider a transfer. It may not be as prevailing among some of the high profile athletes mentioned above as they, and many of the other 44 dotting the rosters of those ranked teams, made what might be termed “lateral” transfers. However, common sense tells you if a move is down the food chain, whether it be in terms of conference status or current success level of a program, the opportunity for additional minutes was likely much more than simply a mitigating factor.
One of the toughest realities in a recruiting decision is accurately assessing your own ability. That means putting aside recognitions and awards, rankings, honors and other high school achievements. It also means minimizing, to a degree, the perception of what an offer from a program on the top tier of college basketball means. Yes, it’s a statement that they want you and are willing to invest in the neighborhood of a quarter of a million academic and athletic dollars on your future. But no, it doesn’t always mean that they envision you as a four year starter that will take them to the Promised Land.
All programs, big dogs included, recruit back up and role players. Yet no athlete of any talent level likes to perceive themselves as such. It’s true the college folks want the cream to rise to the top, but they know in the back of their minds just who should or should not step to the front of the class. The biggest plus for them in that particular department is that if they happen to be wrong…they still win. No coach ever lost sleep over a talented freshman beating out a two or three year starter. The boat starts to rock when that same freshman underachieves for the first time in her life and looks at the door rather than in the mirror. A lot of accomplished and highly regarded scholastic players have been humbled by an inability to see themselves accurately in a specific collegiate setting.
It could be as simple as level of competition. It might be an inability to adapt to a style of play or a role they’re unaccustomed to. Or it could be a lack of familiarity with an uphill battle for playing time that she’s never experienced before. There are a multitude of basketball reasons that necessitate an unemotional and detached assessment long before a player ever signs a National Letter of Intent or sets foot on campus to assure an intelligent, long term fit.
Unfortunately, the very thing that separates elite players from the merely mortal could be the characteristic getting in the way of a great recruiting decision. Confidence is essential to success but it isn’t always working side by side with that all too rare quality of objectivity. More often than not the fit is a good one, but every once in a while everything a player knows, believes and has experienced conspires to work against her. Occasionally she has to step back and those who care most for her have to check their pride and ego just to be sure the fit is right. Whether a player is D-I, NAIA or JC, taking the time and going the extra mile the first time around decreases the odds of a second stop along the career path significantly.
As mentioned in the previous column, there are always circumstances and situations that are unforeseen out of high school that could lead to a well thought transfer. It’s a simple reality of college athletics as a whole and that’s not where the issue lies. While the women’s side of the game does not have near the transfers that we see with the men, the gap is rapidly closing. It’s easy to appreciate the advancement of the game, the bigger financial commitments from universities, the crowds and media coverage. However, not everything on the men’s side is something to be emulated.
The word “transfer” appears in this column 14 times (20 more if you follow the link!) but in reality the true topic is about making better choices in the recruiting process. Even the best decisions can go south and lead to the need for a fresh start or new setting. At the same time the expansive growth of relocation recruiting at all levels of college basketball each season should be a red flag to those prospects just getting their feet wet and set off an alarm to slow the process down, dig a little deeper and look further ahead before making a decision. Besides, it could save your friends and family from having to replace all the gear you know they’ll buy from the bookstore when you first commit.