Eric Musselman returned Arkansas to elite status quickly, taking the Razorbacks to the Sweet 16 and beyond three straight years.
The former NBA coach's success in Fayetteville followed a similar pattern to what Musselman was able to accomplish in four seasons at Nevada. At the core of his accomplishments: transfers.
“The transfer portal — keeping players and also players leaving programs and coming in — is the equivalent of free agency,” Musselman said. “Incoming freshman are the equivalent of a draft pick. You have to be flexible, got to be nimble, got to be willing to change and have an open mind.”
The advent of the transfer portal five years ago has reshaped college athletics, none more than college basketball. Since 2021, underclassmen have been able to transfer once without having to sit out a year before playing, sending a tsunami of players into the portal every offseason.
The freedom of movement opened doors previously unavailable to college coaches and they have pounced on the chance for the immediate roster upgrades. A freshman, even a five-star recruit, needs time to adjust to the college game. Transfers already understand the demands and level they need to play at on the college level, so they can hit the hardwoord running.
Tristan Newton and Joey Calcaterra were key contributors on last year's national championship team after transferring to UConn, which faced a rebuild again earlier this year. Three of national runner-up San Diego State's top six scorers were transfers.
Transfers Kevin McCullar Jr. and Joseph Yesufu helped Kansas win the 2022 national title. Baylor's 2021 title team was dotted with transfers.
Kansas is this year's preseason No. 1 after adding former Michigan big man Hunter Dickinson. No. 7 Houston added former Baylor guard LJ Cryer. Former Creighton guard Ryan Nembhard is now playing for No. 11 Gonzaga and No. 12 Arizona added former North Carolina guard Caleb Love.
“Obviously, any transfer has more experience than an incoming freshman,” Musselman said. “That can change the maturity level, the ability to pick up schemes both offensively, defensively.”
Navigating the portal has gotten trickier.
In recent years, the NCAA had been lenient in granting waivers for players who transferred more than once, with some players switching schools three, even four times. That changes this season after the Division I Council voted to enforce stricter guidelines for second-time transfers, which has prompted some criticism and led to more homework.
“When you talk about two-time transfers, I think, for me, you would have to have all the information,” Syracuse coach Adrian Autry said. “And I think you have to have your roster in place to see if it’s worth going down that journey, because it is a possibility that it might not happen.”
Under the new guidelines, an athlete unable to “adequately document a personal need for medical or safety reasons to depart the previous school are not eligible to compete immediately.” That means players who want to switch schools due to a coaching change or lack of playing time will likely have their waiver denied and have to sit out a season if they do transfer.
The NCAA looks at the waivers on a case-by-case basis and the increasing number of athletes being denied has left some coaches exasperated.
"The inconsistency is the hardest part by far," Duke coach Jon Scheyer said. “I think now, nobody will want to recruit a kid that’s transferred one year, unless they both agree that you’re going to redshirt and then the following year you’re going to play.”
The new rules are ushering in a new portal era. Transfers will still be a big part of roster building, but the Wild West days of players switching schools multiple times have waned.
“There has to be at least some parameters to transferring,” ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips said. “It can’t be unlimited. There should be an opportunity to go once, but if there’s a second, there should be some kind of extenuating circumstances for someone to be able to leave a second time and to be eligible immediately.”
The rules may be different, but the coaches who adeptly navigated the old system — like Musselman — will still find ways to make it work and make their teams better.
AP Basketball Writer Aaron Beard contributed to this story.
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