‘This is the reality now:’ UMaine basketball teams at epicenter of transfer trend

Posted May 14, 2017, at 7:39 a.m.

ORONO, Maine — Troy Reid-Knight graduated from the University of Maine on Saturday with a degree in biology. But he believes his college basketball career is far from over.

The 6-foot-1 guard from Vaughan, Ontario, missed his senior season with a broken ankle after enduring a broken toe and several concussions during four years with the Black Bears.

Reid-Knight hopes to capitalize on an NCAA rule that allows student-athletes from Division I programs who graduate and have remaining athletic eligibility to transfer and play immediately without having to sit out a year as is the case with Division I undergraduate transfers.

“It was time to move on,” said Reid-Knight, who also could move to a top-level Canadian university and play two more seasons. “After these four years here I just felt like it was time to do something else.”

Reid-Knight is one of six UMaine men’s basketball players transferring out of coach Bob Walsh’s program, along with oft-injured forward Marko Pirovic (another graduate transfer) and undergraduate guards Wes Myers, Jaquan McKennon, Austin Howard and Ryan Bernstein.

That follows an exodus of five transfers during the previous off-season, including Isaac Vann to Virginia Commonwealth, Kevin Little to Colorado State and Devine Eke to Rider.

While some of the movement could be traced to UMaine’s 18-74 record the last three years, a broader look shows that men’s and women’s college basketball student-athletes are transferring at a rapidly increasing rate. The men’s team at the University of South Florida has lost six players to transfer since the end of last season.

“It would certainly reflect the era of free agency, you could say, for all these transfers,” said Adam Finkelstein, a former college and prep school basketball coach who is a national recruiting analyst for ESPN as well as owner of newenglandrecruitingreport.com.

More than 700 men’s basketball players transferred after the 2016 season, an average of two for each of the NCAA’s 351 Division I programs. That compares to 455 players on ESPN’s 2013 transfer list.

While statistics aren’t readily available for the rate of Division I women’s basketball transfers, anecdotal evidence suggests that while not as prevalent as in the men’s game, player movement is increasing.

Five Black Bears — freshmen Laila Sole, Anita Kelava, Naira Caceres and Tihana Stojsavljevic and sophomore Isabel Hernandez Pepe — have left the team after UMaine lost in the America East Conference championship game.

They’re not alone. Destiny Slocum, the 2017 national freshman of the year at the University of Maryland, is one of eight women’s basketball players among ESPN’s top 25 from the class of 2016 to seek to transfer since the end of last season. Rutgers (4), Maryland (3), Louisville (3) and Oklahoma (2) are among the major-college programs losing multiple players to transfer.

“I think the total number is not quite where the men’s transfers are right now,” said America East conference commissioner Amy Huchthausen, “but I think the pace and rate of transfer every year continues to increase.”

Seeking the ‘right situation’

There’s no easy explanation for the increase in transfers among college basketball players. In UMaine’s case some, such as Vann and Little, sought to pursue the sport at a higher level.

“I think some people see Maine or even America East as a place where they can build their resume and then try to figure out if they can go to a bigger school later,” said Reid-Knight. “Those guys all loved the school. They loved Maine, they loved the atmosphere, they loved the faculty, they loved the students. It was all about having the opportunity.”

Others transfers are looking for more playing time or, as in Bernstein’s case, to land a scholarship after playing for two seasons as a walk-on at UMaine.

“[UMaine] just wasn’t the right situation for me,” said McKennon, a backup point guard who averaged 4.1 points in 12.1 minutes per game in his only season after transferring from Broward College in Florida.

“I’m just looking for the right situation where I can finish my career playing basketball and graduate as well,” he added.

According to NCAA research, 46 percent of the 2016 Division I men’s basketball transfers moved to other Division I programs, while 27 percent shifted to Division II schools, 1 percent to Division III teams and 25 percent to the NAIA or junior college level.

Huchthausen said many players struggle to cope with going from playing all the time in high school and AAU ball to a reserve role in college.

“They get to college and if they’re in a situation where they’re not getting a lot of playing time — or sometimes it doesn’t work out academically or it’s not the right fit with the coach or with coaching changes — I think all those factors combine to let them be in a position where they can change schools.

“I think some of it is generational as we study and learn more about millennials, but kids want to play and I don’t begrudge them from wanting to play at all. You only get four years of eligibility in college and if you’re not getting that opportunity I can certainly understand why they would want to go to a program where they could play.”

Coaching changes also can be a factor, as can family considerations.

Sole, one of four freshmen to leave the UMaine women’s program this year, was the only one of that group to address her move publicly to join her sister at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

“I just did not find what I was looking for,” she tweeted of her UMaine experience, “but I am thankful that I had the opportunity to come to America to play D1.”

With the relative freedom Division I coaches have to move from job to job, the transfer option is one way for players to exert some control over their college existence once they have signed their scholarship papers.

“They’ve figured out that being available is power, and some guys want to be available three times,” said Walsh, whose program has lost 11 players to transfer since December 2015. “They’re available when they’re in high school, then they go somewhere and they’re somewhat good so they transfer and sit out a year so that they graduate in four years. Then, whether they’re really good there or just OK, they can transfer again as a graduate and play immediately.

Finkelstein believes student-athletes are now more frequently taking stock of their situations, and not necessarily only as it relates to basketball.

“It has become the norm now for every kid at every school to ask what are his other options going to be on an annual basis, both in the program he’s in, in the city, in the state; in his major, even,” he said.

Basketball fans must face the fact that no school is immune from player turnover. The Duke University men’s team, while accustomed to having players leave early for the NBA, recently had two players transfer to pursue other college opportunities. But those impacted most are the coaches who must brace for transfer losses and even recruit in anticipation of them.

“Coaches have to get used to it, fans have to get used to it,” Walsh said. “Athletic directors have to get used to it as far as the vision of what your program is going to look like and the whole idea of bringing in four or five freshmen your first year and by the time they’re juniors and seniors we’re going to have a chance to win the league. That’s not necessarily a realistic vision anymore.

“I think the ultimate vision is to develop a consistent championship culture so kids want to be part of it.”

The UMaine challenge

Where does that leave a program like UMaine, the northeasternmost outpost in mid-major America East, one with few instate prospects around which to build?

According to a recent study done by the NCAA in conjunction with statistics provided by the National Federation of State High School Associations, only 0.6 percent of Maine girls high school players and 0.4 percent of the state’s boys high school basketball participants from 2013 to 2016 continued their careers at Division I programs.

That’s one or fewer Division I prospects per year for each UMaine team, on average, leaving Black Bear coaches to recruit the world to fill their rosters.

“Candidly you have to acknowledge that [UMaine is] a harder job than most and it’s probably the hardest job in the league,” said Finkelstein, a former men’s assistant coach at the University of Hartford, an America East member. “You have to acknowledge that in order to really assess how things are going there.

“I think within the industry there’s no doubt that they have the right guy [Walsh] there. There’s also no doubt that it’s a hard job,” he added. “It’s not the same job it was 15 years ago, it’s only gotten more challenging and that’s not even getting into budget concerns or anything else.”

Finkelstein said UMaine’s geography and climate are among the issues for recruits. Those realities and the changing transfer landscape have magnified the recruiting challenge for coaches such as Walsh.

“You try to find guys from certain backgrounds, maybe certain areas, junior colleges, transfers themselves, certain guys you know you can count on to be there,” he said.

“We want a kid to know exactly what he’s getting into and exactly who we are and by the end of it say, ‘Coach, this is where I want to be,’” Walsh explained, “versus maybe we get in there early and present something and he jumps at it and then you’re in that situation where if he’s not good he’s going to want to transfer and if he is good he’s going to want to transfer.”

Huchthausen sees some positives, such as Walsh being able to attract the likes of Vann and 2017 America East All-Rookie Team member Andrew Fleming of South Paris.

“While disappointing to see some of these players leave since they showed so much promise when they were there, in my mind it shows that Bob is recruiting some really quality basketball players of a level that maybe the program hadn’t seen before,” she said. “Now it’s just a matter of zeroing in on some of those kids that still have that talent but want to stick around Orono for more than a year and I think that’s possible.”

Whether the recent exodus from the UMaine women’s program is the start of a trend, or the result of unique factors such as head coach Richard Barron’s uncertain status after taking a medical leave last winter that will continue through next season, remains to be seen.

“He’s proven, and his assistants have proven, that they can recruit quality players both domestically and internationally and I think whatever that recipe is,” said Huchthausen, “it’s just a matter of continuing to find that regardless of who’s actually sitting in the head coach’s spot in any given year.”

She said the NCAA recently established a new transfer issues working group that is just starting its work with the goal of eventually putting forth some recommendations related to the issue.

But she stressed that the frequency of student-athlete transfers in basketball and other sports is unlikely to change anytime soon.

“The bottom line is this is the reality now,” Huchthausen said.

 

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