College basketball teams have become increasingly reliant on the transfer portal, but a slew will still be relying heavily on freshmen for success.
The transfer portal continues to be the driving force of the college basketball offseason, and there are no signs of that changing anytime soon. With NIL money, coaching changes and promises of more opportunity and playing time, we’re fully in the era of free player movement.
The portal officially debuted in October 2018, yet its full impact wasn’t felt until new regulations were adopted in 2021. Those rule changes allowed players to transfer once during their undergraduate years without having to sit out a season. The transfer market has exploded since then, and in turn, has changed the way coaches assemble their teams.
Multiple coaching staffs have told Heat Check CBB that their offseason work to this point has largely revolved around refreshing the transfer portal webpage every so often to see which new names have entered, and then figuring out if they want to pursue any of them. Nearly 1,600 players have entered the portal — with still a week to go before the May 11 entry deadline — and more than half of them are still available.
Plucking talent out of the portal has become the modern form of roster-building. Many programs have chosen to place more of an emphasis on landing transfers that already have college experience, many of whom have already proven themselves already, rather than gambling on a high school prospect. From conversations with coaches that are adopting this message, the thought is that those transfers are more likely to contribute immediately and perhaps more likely to buy in and accept their role.
While the source of new talent may be changing, the scholarship limit has stayed the same. Essentially, teams are now forced to choose between going transfer-heavy or freshmen-heavy with their roster construction. There’s an overwhelming feeling in the industry that building through transfers is simply how you have to play the proverbial game now.
High-majors turning back the clock
On the other hand, the 2023-24 college basketball season might push back against that new conventional wisdom.
Following the more traditional mode of roster building, a number of high-profile programs and likely Top 25 teams will be relying heavily on freshmen next season. Duke — which has the inside track to a No. 1 preseason ranking — is bringing in an(other) elite freshman class to fill holes around homegrown stars such as Kyle Filipowski, Tyrese Proctor and Jeremy Roach.
Despite gaining a reputation as being a one-and-done factory over the past decade-plus, Kentucky and head coach John Calipari have been frequent users of the transfer portal over the last few seasons. And, while the Wildcats were in on Hunter Dickinson’s re-recruitment before he committed to Kansas, the Wildcats’ offseason should be defined by its top-ranked recruiting class featuring four of the top 12 overall prospects in the 247Sports Composite rankings. Those players will shape Kentucky’s season.
USC and Michigan State are in the same boat. The Trojans are hoping the nation’s top-ranked player, Isaiah Collier — and perhaps Bronny James? — can lead them back to the NCAA Tournament. Meanwhile, the Spartans are addressing their need for a big man via five-star freshman Xavier Booker rather than someone in the transfer portal. As for the reigning champs, UConn appears content to let five-star freshman Stephon Castle step right into the backcourt role left by Jordan Hawkins.
Even a program like Iowa State, one that was built on transfers way before it was cool, is going the other direction to some degree. Yes, the Cyclones do have a trio of nice transfer additions (Keshon Gilbert from UNLV, Curtis Jones from Buffalo and Jackson Paveletzke from Wofford), but the biggest fish among the new blood is five-star forward Omaha Biliew.
Using the portal as a roster rehaul
The flipside has seen some teams leaning into the portal harder than ever before. North Carolina was last season’s biggest disappointment after earning the No. 1 preseason ranking and then missing the NCAA Tournament. In the wake of the down season, Hubert Davis is welcoming four new faces via the transfer portal, the most in program history, headlined by former Stanford standout Harrison Ingram.
Over in the SEC, Todd Golden and Matt McMahon are also trying to use the portal to jumpstart crucial second seasons at Florida and LSU, respectively. The Gators and Tigers are both welcoming four of the top 110 transfers to hit the portal this year, per EvanMiya.com’s transfer rankings, as both coaches aim to get their schools back to the NCAA Tournament.
West Virginia is in a different boat with its coach, seeing as Bob Huggins is a Hall of Famer and will coach the Mountaineers however long he wants. Nevertheless, the program is also going with a heavy portal influence, bringing in guys with tons of high-major reps in Jesse Edwards (Syracuse) and Kerr Kriisa (Arizona) alongside a trio of mid-major studs in Jose Perez (Manhattan), RaeQuan Battle (Montana State) and Omar Silverio (Hofstra).
The transfer portal has been a good thing for the sport, at least in my opinion. It’s good that players have some freedom of movement — the same freedom every other college student has always enjoyed — and that they’re now able to get some NIL money. The portal has been great for mid-majors like UC Santa Barbara, which has already landed some elite talent that it would not get otherwise, such as Yohan Traore from Auburn and Zach Clemence from Kansas. Heck, San Diego State’s run to the national championship game was fueled by transfers.
This season will not remove that incentive for mid-majors to hit the portal, nor will it sap the desire for established programs to plug holes in their rotations with established veterans.
What this upcoming year may do, though, is challenge the growing notion that transfers are the only way to build a successful roster these days.
I mentioned Hunter Dickinson previously, and his recruitment was one of the sport’s most intriguing offseason storylines. Dickinson is a big name and a proven player, to be sure, having earned All-Big Ten honors during each season he spent with the Wolverines and being named a second-team All-American as a freshman. The other part of this story, though, is that the transfer class simply doesn’t have that many proven difference-makers out there.
Only 18 of ESPN’s top 50 available transfers played for NCAA Tournament teams last season, and roughly half of those guys actually played an impactful role on those teams. There are some who are near-locks to be impact players, such as Max Abmas, who is making the leap from the mid-major ranks (Oral Roberts) to the power conference level (Texas). Nevertheless, his past accomplishments at ORU, however lofty, are no guarantee those players are as effective, either.
Long-term transfer portal impact
From another perspective, the more scholarships are dedicated to transfers, the more a trickle-down effect takes place on high school recruiting. Teams that focus on bringing freshmen may now have the ability to land a level of recruit that wasn’t previously attainable, and they may have few competitors in the mix during the recruitment. As high-major spots are filled by five-stars and splashy transfers, many talented three- and four-star recruits are heading for smaller programs, at least in comparison to where a player of their caliber may have landed just a few years back.
Biliew is the highest-rated recruit that Iowa State has ever landed. Castle is the second-best recruit UConn has signed, per 247Sports, behind only Rudy Gay. Booker is Michigan State’s highest-rated recruit since 2017 (Jaren Jackson Jr.). In theory, that could give these teams a major advantage they otherwise wouldn’t have. The talent is unproven, but there may be a higher upside than a transfer who has already hit his ceiling.
Of course, it’s worth noting that the one-and-done era is littered with teams that relied on highly touted freshmen and fell short of expectations. Only 2012 Kentucky and 2015 Duke have won national championships with freshmen-led rosters. As such, it shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise that teams are trending toward transfers that, in most cases, have already done most of the “growing up” part of adjusting to college life.
In the end, there is no right way to build a roster except to build it with clear intentions. The notion that a program must master the transfer portal is undoubtedly becoming more prevalent in college basketball. Regardless, many teams are bucking back against that trend — including some very high-profile programs, such as the defending champions and the prospective preseason No. 1.
All told, the 2023-24 season is shaping up to be a fascinating battleground where these roster-building philosophies will clash brilliantly on the big stage. We’ll just have to wait and see whether it’s a babyfaced band of five-star freshmen or a motley crew of elder statesmen cutting down the nets in March.