College Basketball Has Become An Open Market
Several mid-major All-America candidates, including Issac Vann, transfered to higher profile programs.
Entering the offseason, the UNC Asheville men’s basketball program was in terrific position for the future.
The Bulldogs were riding high after a Big South Conference championship made possible by the outstanding play of two freshmen, rangy guard Dylan Smith and powerful swingman Dwayne Sutton, who was named the tournament’s MVP. With two other starters returning and another solid recruiting class en route, UNCA looked to be not only the Big South’s clear favorite in 2016-17, but also a squad capable of creating magic in March.
Then, two individual decisions dramatically altered the arc in Asheville. For the fourth time in coach Nick McDevitt’s three years on the sidelines, he watched vital players transfer out of the program to a major conference university. In this case, each landed at a national power. Smith, an Alabama native, headed west to Arizona. Sutton returned home as a preferred walk-on at Louisville.
College basketball is an open market.
Every year, coaches move up the ladder to take better-paying jobs at higher-profile schools. Chris Beard parlayed Little Rock’s NCAA tournament victory into the head role at Texas Tech (after a brief stop at UNLV). The Oklahoma State job was Brad Underwood’s reward for building a juggernaut at Stephen F. Austin.
Players deserve the same opportunity. Still, it’s not as if a player has to pursue a higher level of competition to reach his professional goals. Stephen Curry, two-time NBA MVP at Golden State, spent three years at Davidson of the Southern Conference. Another All-Star Damian Lillard played his college ball at Weber State.
Cameron Payne earned a first round draft selection out of Murray State and Elfrid Payton did the same from UL-Lafayette, where he was given the freedom to make plays in crunch time. On a roster loaded with other NBA level talents, such as Duke or Kentucky, Payton likely would not have been given the same opportunity to shine.
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas posed a similar question when discussing Curry’s ascent to greatness earlier this year. Immeasurable confidence can be drawn from being a team’s go-to player for three or four years. Furthermore, players who are overlooked by high-major programs during the recruiting process often play with something to prove when granted the chance to face those schools in college. Last season, diminutive guard Kay Felder torched Washington and Michigan State in consecutive games, drawing attention from national media outlets and NBA scouts in the process.
In some ways, the low and mid-major programs have become a recruiting ground for programs from the power conferences. Assistants at those schools are known to track the progress of the better players in each league. In some cases, they may even schedule nonconference games against such schools so they can scout a potential prospect in person. It certainly can remove the guesswork from recruiting for such powers. Rather than gamble on the projected development of a high school prospect, they can scoop up a player who has proven he can handle his business on and off the court at a Division I college basketball program.
Cost of attendance stipends, chartered flights, posh practice facilities, dozens of nationally televised games and the pursuit of a national championship can attract players who feel they can shine on the game’s brightest stage.
A player’s former AAU coach often remains a powerful influence after he heads to college. According to one former Division I assistant, those coaches can be “rewarded” for telling a player he should transfer up to a high-major program. In essence, the lower level schools become a minor league for the larger schools, with their bounty of resources.
Each player’s situation is different. And players and their parents have the right to seek an opportunity to play where they see fit. However, Smith and Sutton aren’t the only players who would’ve been Lou Henson preseason Mid-Major All-Americans yet opted to transfer and sit out the 2016-17 season.
Joining them on the list are: Paris Bass (Detroit), Cane Broome (Sacred Heart), Derail Green (Incarnate Word), JaVontae Hawkins (Eastern Kentucky), Jordan Johnson, (Milwaukee), DeSean Murray (Presbyterian) and Issac Vann of Maine.
When the talented scorer Vann departed Maine for VCU after last season, coach Bob Walsh’s Black Bears went from one of the favorites in America East to somewhere in the middle-of-the-pack.
It can take years for a mid-major to recover when a star player departs. Just ask Liberty coach Ritchie McKay, who in his first stint at the school, watched Seth Curry (younger brother of Steph) star for one season in the Big South, then bolt for Duke. McKay left after that 2008-09 season as well, spending six years on Tony Bennett’s staff at Virginia. He returned last year, but the Flames have had only one winning season since their 23-12 mark in 08-09.
What’s the solution? It remains to be seen. As the divide grows between the haves and the have-nots, this is a trend that’s likely to continue. If you’re a fan or alum of a mid-major program, cherish your stars. A season or two watching them play might be all you have.