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How an extra year of eligibility, NIL and the transfer portal combined to create movement across women’s basketball

Arizona coaches talk about the landscape of roster management in today’s game

Arizona v New Mexico Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images

The transfer portal is a reality whether fans like it or not. The introduction of the portal combined with the pandemic and the approval of name, image and likeness deals has dramatically remade college basketball in just a few short years. At this point, well over 1,000 players across Division I, Division II, and Division III women’s basketball have entered their names into the portal. The vast majority come from DI, and many are transferring the second time in just five years of college. Will they all find new places to go? How will they make their decisions?

The next few years will likely continue to see a lot of movement across the college basketball landscape. The class that just completed its junior season is the last class that will have an extra season of eligibility due to the pandemic. But will the end of COVID year eligibility mean that transfers become less common?

The extra year of eligibility was supposed to protect players from possibly losing a season if COVID-19 protocols forced their programs to shut down during the 2020-21 season. It was also meant to encourage players to take part in that season since they knew there was no eligibility drawback if they opted to play. Many teams did lose some of the season to quarantines. The season was also limited to just a few out-of-conference games, then a full conference season—or a close approximation, since many schools had conference games canceled.

Those were the positives, but there were some negative effects that will continue having an impact on programs and incoming freshmen for a few more years. The extra eligibility creates extra movement because it is easier for members of the classes that received it to transfer twice without sitting a year.

In many cases, players who have already transferred once are transferring a second time as grad transfers. Since the NCAA allowed every player to transfer once and play immediately as undergraduates without getting rid of the grad transfer rule that allows graduate students to play immediately upon transfer, players are transferring multiple times—sometimes in back-to-back years.

The glut of grad transfers on top of the free undergraduate transfer allows some schools to replenish their rosters quickly. Yolett McCuin of Ole Miss regularly posts on Twitter about how many transfers she has had. When the portal got going in earnest this season, both she and the program’s official Twitter accounts started a campaign celebrating how many transfers have come to the program.

In November 2020, McCuin opted not to sign any freshmen during the early signing period. She said that she had a young team, so she was going to focus on the transfer portal. She eventually signed one incoming high school player for the 2021-22, but the team ended up with six players who began their careers elsewhere. Last season, Ole Miss once again had just one freshman. It is working for the Rebels, who went to Palo Alto and defeated Stanford in the second round of the NCAA Tournament this year.

In the Pac-12, programs are bleeding players. Arizona had the most enter the portal with seven, but both Esmery Martinez and Kailyn Gilbert ultimately changed their minds and were welcomed back to the Wildcats. In the end, Adia Barnes’ program was tied with California with the most to leave. The Golden Bears and the Wildcats both had five players enter and stay in the portal.

It’s not just UA and Cal, though. According to Heat Check CBB, five of the Pac-12’s dozen teams have at least four players transferring out. Two more—including previously untouched Stanford—have three in the portal or already on other rosters.

Some of those teams are in a similar boat as Arizona in that they have had multiple years of losing players. For some of them, that means multiple years of losing top-flight recruits.

Oregon is one of the teams with four players in the portal. When Te-Hina Paopao entered her name, she became the last of the Ducks’ 2020 recruiting class to leave Eugene. That class consisted entirely of five-star players. The group of five were rated the top class in the country that season. Now they are parts of several successful teams around the country, with Paopao announcing that she was joining South Carolina on Monday.

Oregon also lost one of this year’s recruits from its second-ranked class when guard Jennah Isai went into the portal after just 10 games despite seeing 19.1 minutes per game for a team that lacked depth and had plenty of time to offer. She committed to Brigham Young before the season was over.

A bigger sign that there are broad issues across the board in women’s basketball is the state of Stanford after the 2022-23 season. The Cardinal have been one of the few teams untouched by the drastic roster changes others have been forced to adapt to in recent years. Head coach Tara VanDerveer noted that they had few grad transfers out of the program, but said it was because they simply didn’t have a scholarship to offer them. She said she was glad that they had the option to go elsewhere, get a scholarship to pursue graduate degrees, and play their final years.

“We only had one player that was a grad student who transferred to Stanford,” VanDerveer said in August 2022. “We’re not active in the portal. I don’t even know how to get into it. It’s not really a part of our recruiting. We’re more into the development of our players, and I think that that’s something that our coaches do really, really well. People that come to Stanford want to be at Stanford...We have phenomenally individually talented players on our team, players that play come off the bench for us and could be starters other places. But they’re willing to pay their dues, so to speak, and be great teammates. And then when it’s their turn, they’re depending on other people to be great teammates for them. So, our younger players, for the most part, are playing a key role in our success.”

Those young players weren’t as willing to do that this year. Last year’s No. 1 recruit, post player Lauren Betts, became one of the biggest names in the portal. She landed at UCLA, giving them the No. 1 and No. 2 players from last year’s recruiting class as Betts joins Kiki Rice. The Bruins also have one of Oregon’s big names from the 2020 No. 1 recruiting class. Angela Dugalic, who was the No. 22 player and No. 6 forward that season, should return from injury next season.

While UCLA is loading up with talent from fellow Pac-12 teams for its final season in the conference, Stanford also lost junior Agnes Emma-Nnopu and freshman Indya Nivar. The ship certainly isn’t sinking at Stanford, but it’s a bit puzzling to see the Cadinal lose anyone at all. The loss of Nivar and Betts leaves them without both of their top 20 recruits from the No. 5 class. The only player from last year’s class that remains is guard Talana Lepolo, who was ranked No. 71 when she signed with Stanford.

Barnes attempted to manage a 15-player roster in the 2021-22 season. She credited her relative youth and coaching inexperience with overconfidence that made her believe she could keep all 15 players happy.

The truth is that few of the players who left after that season made an impact on their next teams. When the transfer news trickled out last year, it appeared that the biggest loss was Aaronette Vonleh. That turned out to be the case with Vonleh having a big impact at Colorado and helping the Buffs to a third-place finish in the Pac-12.

Are there any players like Vonleh among those who left this season? The most likely candidate is Paris Clark, who showed a lot of hustle and development late in the season, but Barnes isn’t worried about the production that was lost on the court.

“There isn’t one person who left here that I was like, ‘Oh, no! You have to stay!’” Barnes said. “We didn’t lose one player in the portal whose average is more than five points.”

She does have other concerns about players leaving simply because of the numbers who have left. When discussing the 125 Division I teams that have at least four players in the portal, her comments were of relief.

“I don’t feel so bad,” Barnes said.

Neither Barnes nor assistant coach Bett Shelby thinks the high numbers of transfers will diminish much after the extra year of eligibility is no longer a factor.

“I think it could calm down after the COVID year subsides,” Shelby said. “I think roster management is a big part of college athletics right now and being able to control that, however, I think that this was kind of the new norm. I think you’re going to be in a roster rebuild a lot now in the spring, and that’s just where it is.”

There’s a reason besides the extra year that will continue driving it, in Barnes’ opinion.

“Now seeing all the NIL stuff, I think we’re going to see a lot of movement,” Barnes said. “This is the only system where there’s no cap. So, one person can offer a million and someone else offers 500,000, and that’s a real big disadvantage for smaller schools. Because even like us, I mean, some people we lost got more than $100,000 from someone else. We don’t have that kind of NIL money.”