College Basketball’s Transfer Movement By The Numbers

Kiichiro Sato/AP

by Eli Boettger – July 1, 2017

To begin, the purpose of my research is not to sway anyone’s opinion on college basketball’s current state in the so-called “transfer era.” The transfer movement has become a highly-debated topic over the past few seasons, as transfers have become a growing part of today’s college basketball. Because there is so much available data on the teams that are involved with transfers and the players that become transfers, I wanted to explore these numbers and share the information that I found. I would hope that if you find my research valuable and want to use it in your own work, that I am credited with the findings. 

All data used in this article is current as of the morning of Friday, June 30. The data that I used for transfers is from Verbal Commits, and the data for Win% and SRS (Simple Rating System) is from Sports-Reference. Feel free to click the link on SRS if you are unfamiliar with what it entails. 

At the time of this publication, 4,360 players have transferred to or from a D-I basketball program over the past six seasons. College basketball’s transfer rate is the second-highest in the NCAA among male sports, where approximately 33% of players transfer at some point in their collegiate career. In short, transfers have become a vitally important aspect of college basketball. Adding players from the transfer market to fill out rosters can sometimes mean the difference between winning a national championship and suffering an early tournament defeat. Losing players via transfer also carries a similar importance.

Because I had yet to see college basketball writers truly dive into the stats and facts behind what’s going on with transfers, I wanted to explore the data myself. I used Verbal Commits’ transfer database (which dates back to 2012) to understand the player’s transfer destinations, how conferences are impacted as a whole, the average recruiting rankings of the players that transfer, and whether players are transferring to teams that are better or worse than their previous teams.

First off, all of the teams that have lost 20 or more players to the transfer market since 2012 are listed below. Power conference teams on the list include Arizona State, Missouri, Utah and Texas Tech. Winning percentage and SRS are both six-year averages for each team.

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Also, the teams that have had the fewest players transfer from their teams are below, where North Carolina is the only D-I program to have not lost a player via transfer over the past six offseasons.

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Iona and Cal State Northridge lead the way with incomers, both having added 16 players from the transfer market in the past six years. Five of the 26 teams that have added 11 or more transfers have had an average winning percentage of 40% or worse since the 2011-12 season.

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Conversely, 29 of 351 D-I teams have not had a transfer join their team since 2012. Academics seem to have played a part in this list, where Stanford, Army, Navy, and six Ivy League schools are among the 29.

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Average recruiting stars is also useful information. I found the average recruiting stars for each incomer and departure by conference since 2012.

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The Pac-12 (2.94), Big 12 (2.88) and SEC (2.84) welcome the highest-rated recruits on average, while both the ACC (3.10) and SEC (3.00) are the only conferences that average three-star recruiting departures.

In terms of departures by conference, the Conference USA has had 216 players leave the league since 2012. The Ohio Valley is a distant second with 187 players, then comes the laundry list of power conferences. Just 39 players have transferred from the Ivy League, and 34 players have transferred from non-D-I programs to D-I programs.

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Also, the incomers…

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Nearly 60% of transfers, instead of joining other D-I teams, have left D-I basketball completely since the 2012 offseason. Then comes the Conference USA, which has added 92 players. The ACC leads all power conference teams with 83 players transferring into the conference in the last six years. Only three players have transferred to Ivy schools.

The idea that college basketball players tend to transfer to better teams is almost entirely a myth. When plotting team’s net players lost and gained via transfer along with each team’s SRS rating over the same period, the R-squared linear correlation was just 0.10765. This means just over 10% of the data can be explained by the linear regression. Or, in simple terms, there is almost no correlation between the amount of players lost or gained via transfer and team strength whatsoever. The same can be said for both players transferring from programs (R-squared of 0.05429) and players transferring to programs (R-squared of 0.02242). This also supports the previous pie chart, which showed that nearly three in five transfers leave D-I basketball entirely.

The table below indicates the transfer’s new team’s winning percentage compared to his previous team’s, and the frequency of the given change over the past six offseasons.

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Example: Just 0.34% of transfers go to a team that has had an average winning percentage 50% or greater than his previous team’s over the past six seasons.

As shown in the table, the majority of transfers are joining teams that typically have a very similar winning percentage. Just 7.15% of transfers go to teams that have an average winning percentage 30% or better than their previous team’s. Interestingly enough, that’s almost equal to the frequency of transfers going to teams that have a winning percentage 30% lower or worse than their original team’s (6.41%). Just over two-thirds of players transferring between D-I teams go to teams that have an average winning percentage between 20% lower and 20% higher than the team they left. Exactly 49% of transfers join teams that have had a higher average winning percentage over the past six seasons. This does not support the idea that players want to transfer to better teams.

There is more data to be explored in the future, but hopefully this gives a bit of insight into the current state of college basketball’s transfer market and how it is changing players, teams and conferences.