Is transferring a problem? It depends on who you ask. But the data certainly shows that it is an increasing reality, and Arizona has been in the middle of that in the Adia Barnes era.
From 2006 until 2018 (the last year for which NCAA data is available), there has been a steady increase in transfers between four-year institutions—and it’s not a small increase. In 2006, 6.7 percent of Division I women’s’ basketball players had transferred from one four year institution to another one. By 2018, that number had risen to 11.7 percent. That’s a 75 percent increase over 12 years.
Two things are often linked to churning transfers into and out of a program: a coaching change and a change in the fortune of the program. For the Arizona Wildcats, both have been the case over the past four years. It should be no surprise that there has been a bit of a revolving door as players are brought in to improve the team and others move on, looking for greener pastures and playing time.
Arizona is not alone in that. It’s the state of college sports that adapting to transfers is something almost every coach has to face. As of April 2, reports indicated that there were 429 Division I women’s basketball players in the transfer portal and a total of 719 over all three NCAA divisions. For men, there were 655 just in DI.
Since Barnes took over at her alma mater in April 2016, the Wildcats have had ten players transfer out, including two who left before she ever coached a game. The reasons given by various former players range from not wanting to play the position Barnes wanted them to play to not being cleared by Arizona’s medical staff.
For the Barnes recruits who have opted to leave the program, the issue has almost always come down to playing time, although moving closer to home is an issue that has been cited by some. She has lamented in the past that she thinks 15 scholarship players is too many. In her ideal world, she has said that she would prefer about 12 players with a walk-on who doesn’t expect to play much, making the women’s game more like the men’s. The current set-up is a breeding ground for dissatisfaction.
“I think that as soon as they’re not playing, they just go somewhere else,” Barnes said. “Which is fine. I think it’s not bad, but I think years ago, you’d kind of stay and wait for your opportunity, and maybe not play. Like at Washington, we had a player who didn’t play a lot until her senior year, but she waited that out. I think now the mindset is, it’s rare that a kid will do that. It’s rare that someone will stay in your program for two, three years, not play and then wait. If they’re not playing their first year, they’ll usually transfer, which is good and bad.”
The portal plays its own role in that now as programs—including Arizona—bring in older players that may force a younger player to sit longer than she expected. For the Wildcats, the decision to bring in transfers has allowed the program to make a dramatic climb out of the cellar.
Three years ago the team won just six games. ESPN is already predicting the Wildcats to be the second-best team in the Pac-12 and the No. 7 team in the country next season. Transfers like Aari McDonald, Dominique McBryde and Shaina Pellington are major reasons for that impressive improvement.
“There’s a lot of good players in the portal,” Barnes said. “So what happens is a couple players can make you really good, really fast, right? And so I think sometimes some of those transfer players are more experienced, they’re better than the young player. So I think that puts a lot of pressure and it changes the dynamics.”
Barnes has noted that when she first came back to Arizona, the thing that most surprised her was that many of the players didn’t think they had to work hard. Her insistence on a cultural change wasn’t just the usual coachspeak, and a dramatic change in culture might not have been to everyone’s liking.
Those cultural changes are still happening, and they require bringing in the players with the drive to get to the top. In Barnes’ eyes, one of the most important aspects of a winning culture is a championship mindset like that found in players at the University of Connecticut. Bringing transfers into the program can be a way to get that quickly.
“It takes some gym rats,” she said. “It takes a couple. It’s going to take Aari leading us on this team as she’s preparing to go pro. It’s going to take Shaina. It’s going to take more players to do that, then it becomes contagious, right? But it’s not where it needs to be.”
That process also means that some players who were recruited before Arizona started that rise may not be able to play at the level where the Wildcats are now. Being projected as the 10th-best team in the league like Arizona was in 2018 is a lot different than being projected as the second-best Pac-12 team and one of the best in the country like they are in 2020.
Most recently, junior-to-be Bryce Nixon and sophomore-to-be Birna Benonysdottir have entered the portal. Playing time has been an issue for both in their short Arizona careers.
Nixon, a Phoenix native, came in as a high-three-star recruit according to ESPN HoopGurlz, but she hasn’t been able to carve a place for herself in the lineup and new players made the pieces of the pie ever slimmer.
Things aren't getting easier, either. McDonald, Pellington and Helena Pueyo are formidable guards already on the roster, and Arizona just added another transfer at guard in Bendu Yeaney of Indiana.
Nixon saw her minutes drop considerably this season compared to her freshman year. After appearing in 33 games and averaging 8.5 minutes per contest as a newcomer, that fell to 5.5 minutes in 17 appearances as a sophomore.
Benonysdottir saw even less playing time while also trying to adapt to a cultural change. The native of Iceland appeared in just 10 games for a total of 44 minutes her freshman year.
She, too, would have faced a lot of competition to get onto the court. Not only are Cate Reese, Semaj Smith and Sevval Gül returning to the front court, but highly-touted incoming freshman Lauren Ware is on her way and the Wildcats also have a verbal commitment from Spanish post Marta Garcia.
Whatever the reasons for the transfers, the big question is were they the right choices—for the players and for the Wildcats. Looking at the way the players’ careers played out elsewhere, it’s hard to argue that the playing time decisions made by the Arizona coaching staff were the wrong ones, even if the players didn’t agree.
Nixon and Benonysdottir hope to be exceptions to that, but the careers of their predecessors don’t offer many encouraging examples.
The most successful transfers since Barnes took over were those who never actually played for her. The two freshmen who left after the coaching change both landed in nice situations in mid-major conferences and had relatively successful careers.
A’Shanti Coleman had a very strong career at Boise State, ending this season as the Mountain West Tournament Most Valuable Player. In her three years with the Broncos, she started 77 times in 99 appearances. The forward averaged 9.6 PPG over her career, but had a career high 12.3 this year.
Michal Miller went on to a solid career at Wright State, albeit with some accommodations for the numerous health issues that may have concerned Arizona’s training staff four years ago.
Could she have had that success in the Pac-12? Perhaps, but Miller has said that she was already thinking about leaving before the coaching change. She stated that she didn’t think previous head coach Niya Butts cared about correcting and improving the team, but she also didn’t “mesh” with Barnes.
However, Barnes said that there was very little opportunity to even get to know Miller.
“She probably practiced with our team like two or three times,” Barnes said. “She was never really available. So I think those are medical decisions.”
As to why Miller was able to get cleared to play elsewhere despite multiple concussions, Barnes said that it’s possible that Arizona was stricter for historical reasons.
“I remember when I was a college athlete, an athlete passed away,” she said. “And then you think of (Shawntinice Polk), right? I think our school will probably be more stringent on some of those things because of what’s happened, and I think that’s normal. I think any department that’s gone through that will be more stringent because you have to be. I mean, Polkey was going to be a star WNBA player. She died in the training room.”
After a year at Trinity Valley Community College, Miller found her way to Wright State. It was a good fit for her.
Miler made 60 starts over 61 appearances and helped her team qualify for just its second NCAA Tournament berth in school history during her junior season. She averaged 12.1 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game over her two-year career there and ended with a slash of 35/29/65.
Others who have transferred have not been as successful. Some have been limited by injuries while others struggled to find playing time. Several ended up not staying on the rosters at the next stop, either.
When Charise Holloway left Arizona as a graduate transfer at the end of the 2016-17 season, she had already spent a year out with injury. She had two years left to play when she joined the Santa Clara Broncos. Again, injuries would be an issue.
Holloway had some success when she found the floor, averaging 19 minutes with a stat line of 6.6 points, 2.1 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.2 steals per game as a reserve. The problem was that she played just 34 games over two years including a mere 14 during her senior campaign.
Bria Rice was headed to Colorado to play for previous Buffaloes coach Linda Lappe, but ended up at Arizona after Lappe left the Buffs in March 2016. Rice spent one year at Arizona before moving on to Long Beach State. She played 16 games and made two starts in 2018-19, averaging 9.7 minutes and 0.4 points per game, but was not on the Beach’s 2019-20 roster.
Kiana Barkhoff, who transferred shortly after the beginning of the 2018-19 season, just finished her redshirt sophomore season at Mercer. The native of Germany played her high school ball in Florida, and cited the desire to be closer to her family in the Southeast when she left.
Barkhoff ended the year averaging 6.9 minutes with 0.1 points and 1.6 rebounds over 16 games. As was true during her time as a Wildcat, her best stat came in blocked shots, where she averaged 1.25 per game.
A week after Barkhoff left, freshman and former four-star recruit Shalyse Smith was also on her way out of Arizona. Smith ended up much closer to her Tacoma, Wash. home at the University of Idaho.
But apparently not for long.
Smith was due to debut for the Vandals in January 2020. She played 14 minutes in one game according to the team’s stats, but her name no longer appears on the 2019-20 roster.
Marlee Kyles arrived at Arizona as a freshman in 2017. The team was very young and had a short bench that season, winning just six games overall and two in the Pac-12. Kyles scored 8.1 PPG, though, making her third on the team in scoring.
In July of 2018, she quit the team for what were deemed “personal reasons,” although Kyles still appeared in the University’s online directory as a student that fall. At the end of the semester, she signed a financial aid agreement with Colorado State.
Her redshirt sophomore season with the Rams was due to start in fall of 2019, but Kyles disappeared from the roster. The team stats indicate that she never played for CSU.
A fellow member of that 2017 class was Sammy Fatkin. After averaging 2.0 points in 11.8 minutes over 28 games as a freshman at Arizona, she moved on to Montana.
Fatkin was able to get a waiver and started playing in December 2018. Over the final 21 games of the season, she averaged 7.2 PPG. Then, almost exactly one year later, she left the Grizzlies’ program six games into the 2019-20 season.
The path Nixon and Benonysdottir plan to walk is well-traveled. It can end happily if a player finds the right school at the right level of competition. As recent Arizona transfers have shown, though, it’s not always easy and doesn’t always lead to greener pastures.