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Arizona has benefited from the transfer portal, but what are the bigger implications?

Arizona v Texas A&M Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Within days of the NCAA national title game it was reported that there were just over 900 Division I women’s basketball players in the transfer portal. With a maximum of 15 players on 356 teams, that meant about 17 percent of the players in the sport were searching for new homes.

It has become such a regular feature of the sport that one SEC coach decided to sign no incoming freshmen last November. Instead, she said she would wait for the portal because she already had a very young team and was looking for some experience at the DI level.

While that is an extreme position, there’s no doubt that transfers can help a program rise quickly and the portal has just made it more obvious. Arizona is no stranger to that having built its climb from the Pac-12 cellar to national title contender on a combination of top 100 U.S. freshmen, international recruits and impact transfers.

The question is whether the influx of transfers are good for women’s basketball and the players as individuals.

About 40 percent of U.S. college students end up transferring from one institution to another. The majority of those who leave one four-year institution don’t end up at another four-year school. About 59 percent of those who transfer from a four-year school go to a two-year school, but there’s considerable movement between four-year schools, as well. Even if the student is not an athlete, there can be repercussions on the student’s education.

In the past, one of the reasons the NCAA required a sit-out year in some sports is to provide time to adapt educationally and socially after the change. While most athletes are transferring between institutions with similar accreditation, that doesn’t mean all of their credits transfer between those institutions.

It has been argued that having that extra year with no travel and fewer sports-related responsibilities can help the player maintain her track towards graduation, especially in sports that might put more outside demands on the student-athlete. While it’s being reported that the NCAA voted on Wednesday to end the practice of requiring a sit-out year, it’s still a legitimate concern if education really is the focus of college sports.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office found that students who transferred between 2004 and 2009 lost an average of 43 percent of their credits. A transfer can set any student back on her degree path or even force a change in major. And all students—athletes or not—risk losing scholarships by transferring.

That’s not the only impact on education, either. The movement between college programs is having repercussions on high school prospects, as well.

Elbert Kinnebrew is co-founder and coach of Cal Sparks, the Nike EYBL program that produced both Sam Thomas and Semaj Smith. One of his reasons for being involved in grassroots basketball is investing in his community by helping girls get a debt-free education. That's a more difficult undertaking this year.

Kinnebrew said that he supports player movement and he realizes that the pandemic is having an unusual effect on recruiting for everyone right now, but he wonders if some college players shouldn’t try to stick it out for a bit and adapt. He also worries about the effects that transfers plus the pandemic are having on kids trying to get to college.

“The compounded negative this year is COVID, which has resulted in the additional year of eligibility for anyone a school wants to renew a scholarship for,” he said. “Since high school graduations are not delayed, the entire cycle has been wrecked for the 2021 and 2022 classes and that’s a major problem. I have some very good 2021 and 2022 players currently without offers or much fewer offers than their talent would warrant in past years.”

Kinnebrew believes many players who would normally go straight to a four-year school will have to go to junior college this year simply because there’s no room on NCAA rosters.

While seniors who stay at their schools do not count against their programs' scholarship limits for the upcoming season, anyone who transfers will count regardless of what year they are. After the 2021-22 season, players who stay to take advantage of the extra year will count against those limits. That puts a squeeze on scholarships for a few years that is only exacerbated by transfers.

It’s an unfortunate fact that this is not all or even primarily about education, though—not for the programs and not for the student-athletes. When it comes to athletes transferring, it’s almost always about one of a handful of things: a coaching change, lack of playing time, homesickness, a desire to win now or unhappiness with a coach’s style.

The argument that athletics are an integral part of education flies out the window in most cases; athletic opportunities are usually the deciding factor when a student-athlete picks a school and again when she transfers. That’s especially true in revenue sports and high-profile non-revenue sports like women’s basketball.

That's not to say that it's all negative, especially if the educational questions are ignored. On the athletic front, transfers may go a long way towards providing the kind of parity that women’s basketball needs if it is going to grow—and not just at the college level.

Arizona has been in the middle of a transfer boom since head coach Adia Barnes took over the program. The movement has gone both directions. Players left if they weren’t able to adapt to the change in program direction or earn playing time once the talent around them improved. Talent flowed into Tucson from other programs. In general, a higher level of talent came in than left.

With a program that had only one winning season in the previous decade, transfers were important weapons in Barnes’ arsenal when she arrived. Without them, it’s unlikely that the program would have experienced the renaissance that it’s going through. Adding players like Aari McDonald, Dominique McBryde, Tee Tee Starks, Amari Carter, Bendu Yeaney, Shaina Pellington and Trinity Baptiste was vital both in the climb to and the arrival at the elite heights of women’s college basketball.

As Barnes has said many times, she hasn’t consistently been able to get those top high school players, many of whom are still picking the known quantities of UConn, Stanford, UCLA, South Carolina, Baylor, and Oregon when all is said and done. At this year’s Final Four, every team except Arizona had at least six former McDonald’s All-Americans on its roster. The Wildcats had one, Cate Reese.

Even if McDonald’s All-Americans sit ahead of them on the depth chart, the majority of the top high school players are still following the same paths as those before them. One need only look at the number of those players who include Arizona among their finalists only to commit to one of the more well-known basketball powers to see how this plays out.

Barnes had few options, so she went with what she had: get the best high schoolers she could, then supplement with transfers and international players. It has worked for Arizona and, despite its negative consequences, it might be what women’s basketball needs to grow at all levels as long as college sports are the path to professional careers in the U.S.

On Tuesday, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Englebert said that the professional league needs to draw more of the fans from women’s college basketball. As of now, there’s little reason for the fans of most college programs to care about the WNBA if they want to follow the careers of their stars.

“I identified this when we came in,” Englebert said. “We need to do a better job of kind of getting those fans because the women’s game is so popular at the NCAA level.”

When Iowa’s Megan Gustafson was drafted by the Dallas Wings two years ago, the fans of that school were energized to follow the WNBA. There’s no league franchise in Iowa, so she provided local interest for Iowans. They were passionate and devoted.

A similar phenomenon has developed around McDonald and Arizona fans. While the Phoenix Mercury are within 90 minutes of Tucson, they have never really been adopted by Tucson basketball fans. Fans will pack McKale Center to watch the Arizona women’s team, but most are not terribly interested in what’s going on up I-10.

There is new talk of getting WNBA League Pass in Arizona fan groups. People who were previously not devoted to any WNBA team are now looking forward to watching McDonald play for whoever drafts her. Locality doesn’t matter. She’s one of them—a Wildcat—and they want to see what her future holds.

If all levels of women’s basketball are to grow, the fan base must grow. That cannot happen in the current environment where all of the top talent is concentrated at a handful of schools, who then provide all of the top talent for the WNBA.

For any of that to change, it has to start at the high school and grassroots levels. Those are the players who will decide the future of college basketball and, ultimately, of pro basketball. Are they ready to make their own paths the way McDonald, Thomas, Smith and Reese have? How many will be among the next group of transfers if they don’t?