Transferring isn't what it used to be

July, 19, 2012
7/19/12
2:59
PM ET
Each new college hoops offseason brings at least one widespread pet topic. The 2012 offseason has undoubtedly been the Summer of the Transfer. Never before has the transfer dynamic in college basketball been so dissected, for reasons both substantive (a lot of players are transferring these days) and slightly sensational (the whole Wisconsin-Jared Uthoff fiasco).

The NCAA has also weighed in. Last week, NCAA president Mark Emmert told ESPN's Outside the Lines that the organization was reviewing its transfer guidelines, while NCAA vice president of academic and membership affairs Kevin Lennon told our Dana O'Neil that the NCAA was looking to streamline and revise the transfer process from top to bottom:
"You have a lot of requests for waivers of the transfer rule; you have certain sports that require you sit out a year and others that don't; you have the APR issues," Lennon said. "So I'm not sure that disjointed is the right thing to say, but over time the transfer regulations have grown and now it's time to take a step back and look at it more holistically and say 'What are we doing? What works? What needs to change?'"
[+] EnlargeMichigan State vs Louisville
Christopher Hanewickel/US PresswireBrandon Wood, left, got to experience playing in the NCAA regional semifinals at Michigan State after transferring from Valparaiso.
There are a host of competing concerns here. The NCAA really does want to make the system fair; it wants to ensure that players have at least some freedom to find a better situation if they so choose. But transfers tend to fall behind academically, often quite seriously, and the organization is worried about rules that would encourage transfers, or at least make it less prohibitive for players to move from one school to another. More than anything, Dana's story revealed the potential of far more aggressive policing of coaches tampering in the transfer market, attempting to recruit players away from their current schools. This is already an NCAA violation, but as Dana learned, the NCAA is considering a much more aggressive enforcement stance against such behavior. From Dana again:
Lennon said now the rule might actually come with a serious bite -- like a lengthy suspension for a head coach who is caught trying to lure an athlete away from another school, directly or indirectly -- and will likely expand to include third-party interactions.

"There's a real sense that tampering will be a major violation," Lennon said. "As we go forward with the revision of the rulebook, you'll find we'll get rid of some rules that are not meaningful and others, like tampering, or even using third parties in recruitment of already enrolled student-athletes, if that coach finds himself suspended for a year, I think you'll see that stopping."

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to Luke Winn's interesting research from Wednesday. Per the usual, Luke crunched the numbers, and when he came up for air he found that the real statistical rise in the transfer market comes from what he calls "up-transfers." Luke defines up-transfers as situations when a player moves from a mid-major to a high-major school, or from a mediocre program to a recent national champ, or from an unknown to an elite mid-major (Butler, Gonzaga, etc.). Instead of the traditional transfer flow -- wherein players moved downward or laterally in a bid for more playing time -- the past few years have seen the number of up-transfers double even as the rest of the transfer pool grows at a rate of around 2 percent.

Why is this a problem? For one, it has the potential to deplete and diminish the mid-major ranks, and mid-major basketball is one of the distinguishing features that makes college hoops great. (For more on this, check out Mid-Major Madness.) But the up-transfer trend also has the potential to metastasize -- if it hasn't already -- into a "second-chance" recruiting market, with elite programs competing to lure college players to campus in ways both ethical and not. From Luke:

Does this situation need to be remedied? I don't believe up-transferring is an inherently evil practice; players should have the right to better their situations, especially since many of these transfers were spurred by coaches leaving to better their own situations. But it's also reasonable for the NCAA to fear the rise of a "poaching" culture in conjunction with its overall transfer problem, and it would be wise for Emmert to aggressively investigate any future allegations of tampering. The more the transfer market starts to resemble the high school recruiting world, the less ethical it's likely to become.

There are plenty of factors involved here: The graduate transfer exception has allowed mid-major players like Michigan State (via Valpo) guard Brandon Wood to play out their final seasons of eligibility at top-end programs. The NCAA's approval of half of all undergraduate hardship transfer waivers -- a significant number of which have been sought so a player can play closer to an ill relative, a very difficult standard to apply fairly -- has contributed as well.

But whatever the logistical underpinnings, most important to the NCAA will be a renewed emphasis on enforcing rules that prevent tampering. Without that, the number of "up-transfers" will continue to rise, and an already-thorny situation will only become more complicated and complex.

In other words, all the NCAA has to do is devise a system that a) preserves athletes' already-scant rights seek out better situations, while b) making sure players don't transfer to their severe academic detriment and c) prohibits tampering. I would say "easier said than done," but even that would be a misnomer.

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