The NCAA men’s basketball season kicks off tonight with a doubleheader on ESPN. While fans will get a chance to watch three of the nation’s top 10 teams, they will also see the impact of the transfer portal on the college basketball landscape.
Kansas will start Big 12 preseason player of the year Remy Martin, who transferred from Arizona State. Meanwhile, Kentucky is expected to have three transfers on the court for tipoff against Duke: Sahvir Wheeler (Georgia), Kellan Grady (Davidson) and Oscar Tshiebwe (West Virginia).
It’s not altogether unusual that five of tonight’s 20 starters at Madison Square Garden began their college careers elsewhere. In fact, nine of the 20 starters in last year’s Final Four were transfers, including three from national champion Baylor. More than one-quarter of all players on Division I rosters last year will play for different teams this season.
According to data from VerbalCommits, 1,740 men’s basketball players entered the transfer portal this past off-season, with 1,464 successfully finding new schools. That number is way up from the 942 transfers the previous season. Similarly, women’s college basketball also saw more than 1,000 players enter the transfer portal.
This year’s spike follows the NCAA’s decision in April to expand the one-time transfer exception to all sports, allowing athletes who’ve started their college careers to switch schools and be eligible immediately. Previously, transferring in baseball, football, men's and women's basketball, and men's ice hockey came with the disincentive of having to sit out for a full season.
The pandemic also played a role. Due to canceled seasons and tournaments, the NCAA granted all current players an extra season of eligibility. Additionally, the disruption of a normal college experience during a time of general uncertainty undoubtedly caused more transfers.
The trend of college basketball musical chairs has been a decade in the making, however—there were just 534 transfers in 2012, a number that increased 76% by 2020. In response to the rise in transfers across all sports, the NCAA created the transfer portal in 2018 “as a compliance tool to systematically manage the transfer process from start to finish, add more transparency to the process among schools and empower student-athletes to make known their desire to consider other programs.”
Instability caused by a departing coach, as well as the opportunity to play for a new one are potential motivations for transferring. An analysis by Athletic Director U revealed that schools whose head coaches were fired or voluntarily left for another job had significantly more outgoing and incoming transfers than those with coaching continuity between seasons.
Players may also desire different basketball situations. Those getting less playing time at powerhouse programs may seek a larger role for inferior teams, while stars on lower-ranked teams may crave a chance to play in March Madness.
Many critics of the one-time transfer exemption worried that talented players would flock to power conference schools, causing mid-majors and smaller programs to suffer. We can analyze the frequency of those types of moves by categorizing all schools into four levels: Power Five schools, mid-majors (from conferences that had multiple March Madness bids in at least two of the last five tournaments), other D-I schools and non D-I schools.
Looking only at the 936 players who transferred between two D-I schools in the 2021 offseason, 45% of all moves were between schools at the same level, 35% were moves “downward” (from a higher-level school to a lower-level one) and only 19% of transfers were moves “upward” (from a lower-level school to a higher-level one).
Despite some predictions of a mass exodus of talent from lower-rung conferences to the top, more players trickled down from the Power Five to mid-majors than vice versa. Interestingly, 449 players transferred from D-I programs to non D-I schools, with the vast majority of those coming from lower-tier D-I conferences.
There is still concern that excessive player movement will hurt the sport. Roster disruption makes it more difficult for coaches to run programs and establish culture. Furthermore, it creates increased uncertainty for high school recruits, as some schools may decide to build via transfers rather than incoming freshmen.
While the rise in college basketball transfers has drawn sharp criticism from some quarters, it is important to note that college athlete transfer rates are still far below those of the general student population. According to a study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 37% of college undergraduates across the country transfer at least once during their four years.