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Coaches adjusting to transfer realities

by Eli Lederman | June 5, 2021 at 2:38 a.m.

In the heart of the college basketball offseason, University of Central Arkansas women's basketball Coach Sandra Rushing inspected it at least twice a week.

In Jonesboro, Mike Balado, Matt Daniel and their respective coaching staffs monitored the database constantly.

At the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, women's basketball Coach Dawn Brown began following slowly, then more and more as it grew hotter.

The NCAA transfer portal exploded in 2021, and coaches in the state and across the country -- like it or not -- had to pay attention.

This year, more than 2,700 athletes have entered the database between Division I men's and women's basketball alone, marking unprecedented movement fueled by relaxed transfer rules. Once a valuable resource, the portal is now an imperative tool that's changing the way programs operate.

"My assistants come in every morning and the first thing they do is go to the portal and you watch it all day long," Joe Foley, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock women's basketball coach, said. "It's just part of building your team now. It's probably the most important part."

In December, the NCAA Division I Council granted athletes a blanket transfer waiver due to covid-19, allowing movement without penalty and granting senior athletes an extra year of eligibility. The result is 1,649 men's basketball players and 1,071 women's players in the portal as of Friday evening, nearly a full month away from the July 1 transfer deadline.

The flooded portal won't be limited to the pandemic year, either. On April 15, the council adopted one-time transfer legislation beginning with the 2021-22 academic year that will allow athletes to move without sitting out for a season.

The change guarantees similar offseason movement in a future that Daniel, the Arkansas State University women's basketball coach, calls "a whole new world."

"It's here to stay," Balado, Daniel's counterpart with the men's program at ASU, said. "This isn't going anywhere."

UCA men's basketball Coach Anthony Boone was among those who said it's now harder to plan a roster year to year, not knowing which players or how many might come and go. Boone, Daniel and others also referenced the balancing act of distributing minutes and managing a team of personalities with the awareness that a disgruntled athlete can leave without penalty.

The coaches said the portal boom also shifted the recruiting cycle, keeping teams from committing to high school prospects in the fall knowing that proven college talent will be available in the spring.

"It's like NBA or WNBA free agency now," Daniel said.

"You kind of quit worrying about the future," Foley said. "You've gone from building a program with a long outlook to building a team each year."

Another side effect is that coaches now have to continue to recruit their own players long after they've arrived on campus.

Rushing has held weekly individual meetings with each of her players during her 30 years in coaching. She feels those sessions are more crucial now.

"I want to know how they're doing and where they're at," Rushing said. "I'm very transparent. I'm honest. I think that's important."

Balado pointed to Red Wolves guard Marquis Eaton as the blueprint for the relationships -- in which a player improves on the court and off of it -- that he believes are necessary to retain players.

In four seasons at ASU, Eaton has become one of the Sun Belt Conference's top shooters while developing a trust with Balado. After last season, Eaton considered jumping to professional basketball overseas. Instead, he will return for a fifth year with the Red Wolves.

"They really have to feel that you have a personal relationship with them," Balado said. "It's not an employee-employer kind of deal. I think it's more of a mentorship. You really have to dive into their daily lives. I think they have to know you care. Truly care. Not act like you do."

UALR men's basketball Coach Darrell Walker sees the shifting landscape in front of him, too, but he isn't especially interested in recruiting heavily from the portal.

Walker said he's aware of the new generation of players he's working with, and that he will have to alter aspects of his program to hold onto players. But the 60-year old coach has little intention of operating with the fear of transfers in mind.

"At the end of the day, guys are going to transfer and I'm going to coach the way that I coach -- that's who I am," Walker said. "I'm not changing. I'm old school, but I'm also not stupid. I know I have to bend some. I just don't have to break. I'll say this: No player will ever hold me hostage."

After this offseason, the scale of player movement is expected to drop off without the seniors who were given extra eligibility this year. So the reality of the one-time transfer rule and its impact will become more clear in the years to come.

"It's going to be the new normal until the NCAA says, 'This is crazy. Enough is enough,' " Walker said. "That's not my call. It's above my pay grade."

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