Shameless podcast pitch! Matthew and Ky discussed the top transfers in college hoops this year during a recent holiday podcast (find it here), and not wanting to miss out, I decided to dive into the topic and see if I could learn anything useful.
With the rise of transfers in college basketball, coaches’ options for building a roster have never been more plentiful. The traditional strategy of recruiting and developing freshmen still prevails as the dominant route (never change, Bo Ryan!), but more and more, teams are relying on experienced newcomers to fill key roles in their lineups - even top contenders. The advent of the graduate transfer, in which a player may play immediately at another university if he has completed undergraduate studies at his current school (as long as his new school offers a graduate program that his current one does not – lol at that “hurdle”), has really allowed the transfer market to flourish, but the garden-variety sit-one-to-play and midseason transfers are also impacting programs throughout the country.
This certainly doesn’t please some people – in particular, our boy Jon Rothstein of CBS/FanRag thinks it’s an epidemic, especially graduate transfers – but like it or not, college basketball “free agency” is a very real factor in national roster-building. I’m not here to argue whether the rule is “good” or “fair,” though (I like it, personally). Instead, I’m here to look at how these transfers have impacted winning at the highest level: namely, how many teams have made it to the Final Four featuring one (or more) transfers, be it JUCO or D-I?
Before we dive into the historical trends, let’s take a quick glance at how many top teams are employing (probably shouldn’t use that word...) transfers in their current rotations. At this point in the year, basically every team in the country uses at least a 7-man rotation, so that seems like a good number to set the bar at, and to save my mind from melting and because I don’t have time to do more research, we’ll just look at the current top 30 on KenPom.com. What do the numbers say? As far as I can tell, a whopping 20 teams have a transfer in their primary rotation, and because I got curious, 18 of them have a transfer in the starting lineup*.
* - for simplicity, I defined “starter” throughout this article as someone in the team’s top five of percentage of minutes played. Sorry, senior whose coach begrudgingly starts you over someone more talented than you.
While looking at this, though, I did notice an interesting split: of the top 15, only five squads start a transfer, while 13 of the 16-through-30 group let a “foreigner” participate in pregame introductions. Does this mean that having a transfer makes you less likely to be a so-called elite team? I don’t necessarily think so (for a few reasons), but there probably is something to be said for the benefits of continuity, learning to play together, and repeated years of playing in the same system. Oh, and NBA-level talent. Teams like 2015 Wisconsin and 2016 Villanova speak to the build-from-within notion, but the far more rare roster-building tool (the one-and-done lottery pick) can derail even the most experienced of contenders.
You - "Jim, we get it, lots of teams use transfers now - what about the scintillating historical research you alluded to?" Fine, fine! I looked at all 40 Final Four teams from the last ten years, again pulling in the starters as well as first two bench guys, and checked how many relied on transfers.
The results were STAGGERING! OK, maybe not that dramatic, but it was pretty interesting. Out of 200 starters over the last 10 years, only 10 were transfers from either JUCO or another D-I university (5%):
As you’ll notice, 2013 Wichita State’s screwball run to the Final Four was responsible for 3 of the 10 players on this list, including the only team to start a JUCO transfer (they started two). Gregg Marshall continues to capitalize on this market, as Kansas transfer Conner Frankamp and junior college studs Darral Willis and Daishon Smith have the Shockers sitting at 24th in the current Pomeroy rankings. It also (unsurprisingly) appears that if you’re a lower-seeded team, it helps to have some top-shelf talent on your squad if you want to make a run – see Michael Gbinije of Syracuse and Jamie Skeen of VCU.
The ratio of bench players was slightly higher (6 out of 80, 7.5%), although these guys contributed to widely-varying degrees:
Note: If you think I missed someone on either list, yell at me in the comments or on Twitter at @_3MW_ or @2ndChancePoints – I’d be happy to hear about it.
The biggest contributors on this list were the two actual D-I newcomers, Shawn Taggart at Memphis and Patrick Ewing Jr. at Georgetown. My takeaway from this teeny-tiny sample size: if you’re good enough to bring a player of that caliber off the bench, you have a chance at making the Final Four. How’s that for hard-hitting analysis?
So who is this good for this season? Top teams like Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, and UNC can grin happily, as their continually-excellent recruiting has their rosters loaded with homegrown talent and not reliant on transfers. But the first three also have the luxury of relying on lottery-pick freshmen to lead their squads, so maybe they don’t need transfers anyways.
The biggest question marks, by this analysis:
The Bears start a JUCO transfer at center (Jo Lual-Acuil) and a Division I transfer at point guard (Manu Lecomte from Miami), and since only one other Final Four team has started more than one transfer over the last ten years, the odds are definitely not “ever in their favor” (at least they aren’t battling to the death on Capitol-sponsored television for entertainment). But if you think two transfers in the starting lineup is bad…
…then you really have to worry about three. The 'Dogs start three D-I guys on their second stop: Nigel Williams-Goss from Washington, Jonathan Williams III from Mizzou, and Jordan Matthews from Cal. Mark Few has never made a Final Four himself, and while this may be his most talented team ever, he’s relying heavily on outsiders to get to the NCAA hoops promised land for the first time. And guess what? I think he gets there! He’s done a marvelous job of meshing this Ocean’s 11-esque crew together, and there’s no shortage of excellent players who started their careers in Spokane, either. You can do this, Zags!