- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 8, 2021

In the moments immediately after the final horn sounded on Monday night’s NCAA championship game, Baylor players ran to the edge of the court and leaped onto tables, soaking in the moment.

Among those players stood MaCio Teague, Davion Mitchell and Adam Flagler, all three of whom ranked among the Bears’ top four scorers this season. They all have something else in common, too: Teague, Mitchell and Flagler started their college basketball careers elsewhere before moving to Waco, Texas, and winning a title.

The rise of impact transfers came into focus during the Final Four, with several top performers falling into that category. And with over 1,000 players already in the transfer portal just days after the championship game, next season could be shaped even more by the kind of player movement college basketball hasn’t seen before.

“It’s free agency — college version,” ESPN analyst and former NBA player LaPhonso Ellis told The Washington Times.

The NCAA is expected to pass another one-time transfer waiver, allowing athletes to switch schools without the requirement of sitting out a season. According to Verbal Commits, a site that tracks transfer portal information, there have never been more players in the transfer portal.

The transfer portal debuted in 2018 and was designed by the NCAA to help facilitate player movement from one school to the next. Once a player enters the transfer portal, schools around the country can see their intent to move and can contact the athlete.

That’s how Teague, Mitchell and Flagler wound up at Baylor, becoming major parts of the team’s championship run. Teague led UNC-Asheville in scoring (16.7 points per game) as a sophomore. Mitchell played 34 games as a freshman at Auburn. Flagler was named Big South Freshman of the Year at Presbyterian, scoring 15.9 points per game.

“It allows teams to go, ‘OK, this is the type of player that we need, but we want that player to actually have some experience,’” Ellis said. “This high school kid fits the mold but doesn’t have the experience. Whereas this kid here — Davion Mitchell, MaCio Teague, Adam Flagler — that guy fits our mold and has experience, so we’re going to go with that guy.”

Particularly for Teague and Flagler, those strong performances at lower-tier schools put them on the map, convincing the Bears they could compete — and excel — at the higher level.

Other players from smaller conferences are following the trend, including Jamir Harris. He averaged 20.5 points per game at American in 2021. Now, he’s headed to Seton Hall as a graduate transfer.

To Ellis, it’s a development that could have a downside. For unheralded recruits, scholarship opportunities might be more difficult to come by as top-level programs retool their rosters each offseason with experienced transfers. That could push some players to smaller colleges, proving their ability before a transfer elsewhere becomes possible.

“It almost sounds like the G League vs. the NBA, right?” Ellis said. “You may have to go and serve your time and play well and develop to get yourself on the radar of high majors.”

Other Final Four teams benefited from an influx of transfer activity too. The Houston Cougars rolled to a 28-3 record with four transfers in their starting lineup throughout the NCAA Tournament.

Quentin Grimes led Houston in scoring two years after transferring from Kansas. DeJon Jarreau began his career at UMass before heading to Houston, Justin Gorham made the transition from Towson to the Cougars and Reggie Chaney received a waiver last offseason to be immediately eligible following his move from Arkansas.

“That’s just the way it is today,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said in March, via the Associated Press. “Thirty years ago, people that didn’t know what they didn’t know turned their nose up at transfers. They thought something was wrong with them. It shows you how little they knew, though. Now, if you’re not taking transfers, you’re behind.”

The model works, allowing teams to reload more quickly than traditional recruiting routes tend to allow. Take Maryland, for example. The Terrapins had obvious holes at point guard and center, but coach Mark Turgeon’s incoming recruits next season weren’t filling those.

Instead, Turgeon landed former Rhode Island point guard Fatts Russell and former Georgetown big Qudus Wahab. Those additions have propelled a team that exited in the second round of the NCAA Tournament this season to one with building hype for next year. In way-too-early preseason rankings, Stadium, ESPN and the NCAA all have Maryland listed in the top 10.

For other schools, though, the transfer portal can create issues when a flood of players enters at once. Penn State, for instance, saw six players enter the portal at once on March 16, one day after the program hired former Purdue assistant Micah Shrewsberry as its new coach.

To better regulate the system, Ellis recommends the NCAA incorporate a more defined window for players to enter the transfer portal. Currently, the portal is open all year long.

But Ellis feels an April 15 deadline to enter the portal would give coaches a chance to survey the scene around college basketball to fill whatever unexpected holes might have appeared on their roster while still offering players the flexibility to move.

For now, though, the college basketball landscape is shifting to one resembling something more akin to NBA free agency — just without the money involved. And for the teams who can navigate the portal, filling positions of need with experienced players, there’s a clear path toward success.

“That whole concept of, ‘Get old, stay old?’” Ellis said. “It’ll be a whole lot easier for programs to do that.”

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