Basketball

TUESDAY MUSINGS: Like it or not, the transfer portal is here to stay

Apr 5, 2021; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Baylor Bears guard Davion Mitchell (45) brings the ball up court during the first half against the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the national championship game during the Final Four of the 2021 NCAA Tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

“We gotta make a change. It’s time for us as a people to start makin’ some changes. Let’s change the way we eat. Let’s change the way we live. And let’s change the way we treat each other. You see, the old way wasn’t working so it’s on us to do. What we gotta do, to survive.” – Changes, Tupac Shakur (1998)

Old heads hate change.

Well, really, all people hate change for the most part, but old heads are the most vocal about their hatred.

That point has been made clear again this spring by the old heads of college basketball who are voicing their contempt for the transfer portal. Those people claim it ruins the game or opines on the lack of commitment and resolve shown by “kids these days.”

Don’t listen to the old heads.

The transfer portal and the NCAA rule change allowing a one-time transfer exemption, which came one step closer to reality last week, are good for student-athletes.

If something is good for student-athletes, then it is good for college athletics. Period.

This is one thing I really respect about how T.J. Otzelberger has approached his first offseason as Iowa State’s new head coach. Not only has he leaned heavily on the portal in rebuilding the program’s roster, but he embraces it and what it means for student-athletes.

“I believe that young people should have that choice,” Otzelberger told Cyclone Fanatic publisher Chris Williams during a podcast last week. “When you’re being recruited by a school, a lot of times, you look at the puzzle of recruits and players, and you may commit and the roster may be totally different, maybe they add another guy, they recruit over you, or maybe the coaching staff said to you, ‘hey, we see you as this position,’ and that doesn’t come to fruition. I don’t think you should feel like you have to be boxed in and you have to stay somewhere if you don’t feel it’s in your best interest. I think it puts more responsibility on coaches to be forthcoming and truthful in the recruiting process.”

The last line there is the most important one to me.

College basketball recruiting is a cesspool.

Between shady head coaches, shady assistants, shady AAU coaches, shady uncles, shady cousins and shady neighbors from two houses down who get referred to as an uncle despite only having a passing interest in anything besides a kid’s basketball career, there are a lot of people in that world who are looking for how the recruiting process can benefit them regardless of what’s best for a certain kid.

Do not get me wrong; the same things happen in transfer recruiting. Still, something I’ve noticed covering college basketball recruiting over the last seven years is how much more perspective and understanding of the “game” most of these kids have once they go through the process a second (or third or fourth) time.

They generally get a better understanding of what is most important to them when choosing a school, whether it be culture, coaches who will develop them the best or whatever else. Their ability to wade through the B.S. of the recruiting process improves to where they’re hopefully able to find a situation that is ultimately better for them in the long run.

Therein lies the problem for the coaches who are so vocal about their disdain for the transfer portal. The student-athletes having the right to be more flexible in making their decisions about where to play hold coaches accountable for whatever B.S. they might deliver on the recruiting trail.

If your recruiting pitch is centered around how great your culture is, but a kid arrives on campus to see a lack of accountability and a generally toxic situation that doesn’t allow them to thrive, whose fault is it when they decide to find a spot they feel is better for them?

If you’re a coach who is selling immediate playing time or one role on a team to two different players, and one of them later walks away feeling like they were lied to in the recruiting process, is that the player’s fault?

Or what about if a kid has his eyes set on winning at a high level, but a coach and his staff’s ability to deliver on the recruiting trail in the following cycles doesn’t produce the talent needed to achieve that goal? The kid isn’t the one tasked with building a good roster year after year, and I can’t blame someone if they feel the pieces around them aren’t there to meet their goals.

Everybody loves to talk about accountability until they’re the ones being held accountable. The transfer market holds coaches accountable for doing right by their players, and the ones who aren’t able to match that standard will not be successful.

“I look at this thing like we’re in this for young people to have choices and to pick what they think is in their best interest,” Otzelberger said. “I’ve been allowed to do that professionally. We’ve all had those mentors and leaders that have supported us. So who would I be not to support that?”

Of course, there are scenarios where things can work out well for both sides, and a kid can still leave the situation for reasons that have little or nothing to do with basketball. Jack Nunge leaving Iowa to transfer to Xavier is a situation that comes to mind in that mold.

Nunge was praised for his decision to get back closer to his family that has been through a lot over the last several years, and he absolutely should be praised for that.

But, when CJ Frederick makes the decision he feels is best for him and his family a short time later, the same people turn around and chastise him for giving up on the program. This is a kid who played hurt at times this past season and was one of my favorite players to watch in college basketball because he absolutely brought it on both ends every time he stepped on the court.

Not everybody has to agree with his decision to transfer, but people should understand that he has the right to make what he feels is the best decision.

I don’t want to make this an Iowa State versus Iowa thing because it isn’t. I’m only using that example because it is timely and relevant. I would say the same thing if Iowa State were on the short end of that stick.

Learning how to make your own decisions then live with the result, whether positive or negative, is part of growing up.

Those lessons are fundamental to the college experience, so who are we to be upset with someone else’s life choice because it hurts our favorite basketball team?

“I understand the value in fighting through adversity and in earning playing time over time,” Otzelberger said. “I also don’t think it’s my right to be able to tell somebody else, what should be important to their family.”

All of this boils down to the old saying of adapt or die at the end of the day.

If you’re a coach who doesn’t like the transfer portal and chooses not to utilize it in your program, you better hope you’re selling the right message on the recruiting trail then backing it up every day inside your program because otherwise, you’ll probably be looking for a new job sooner rather than later.

The ones who utilize it as a tool in program building and do it well are the ones we’ll see playing on the last Saturday and Monday of the season. An NCAA record eight former transfers were in starting lineups on Final Four Saturday this year.

Two of the starters for Baylor’s national championship team and four of the squad’s rotational players were former transfers. Several rotational players could have gone elsewhere and found themselves in bigger individual roles than they had for the Bears.

But, when you practice what you preach, and your commitment to culture, accountability and doing right by people is real, special things can happen. People will buy into coming together to do something great as a group at the expense of personal glory when there’s real substance behind the curtain.

That is why I don’t understand when someone tries to say the transfer portal ruins the sport of college basketball. We just saw the fruits the transfer portal can bear when coupled with an extreme belief in the process and building a strong culture.

Despite what every new coach says in their opening press conference, there is no “right way” to win in college basketball. Still, the closest thing to it is fostering a culture and environment where kids feel they’re supported and have an opportunity to become the best versions of themselves regardless of whether they came from high school, the transfer portal or were picked up off a playground.

It turns out doing right by the kids every step of the way might be the best chance at survival in the current age of college basketball. Pretty wild concept, huh?

Don’t let the old heads tell you otherwise.

Jared Stansbury

administrator

Jared a native of Clarinda, Iowa, started as the Cyclone Fanatic intern in August 2013, primarily working as a videographer until starting on the women’s basketball beat prior to the 2014-15 season. Upon earning his Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from Iowa State in May 2016, Jared was hired as the site’s full-time staff writer, taking over as the primary day-to-day reporter on football and men’s basketball. He was elevated to the position of managing editor in January 2020. He is a regular contributor on 1460 KXNO in Des Moines and makes regular guest appearances on radio stations across the Midwest. Jared resides in Ankeny with his four-year-old puggle, Lolo.

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