Transfer trend abounds in Pac-12

Arizona State coach Herb Sendek speaks Thursday during the Pac-12 Conference men's basketball media day event at the Pac-12 Networks headquarters in San Francisco.

SAN FRANCISCO — Dana Altman arrived at Oregon at a time of great change. The Ducks were months from opening their new Phil Knight-financed facility in 2010 and with that came similarly up-sized expectations.

Altman needed to make a splash, to field a team befitting the occasion. So Oregon dipped into the transfer pool.

It was not the first time and will not be the last. Relocation has become a trend and the Pac-12 supplies more evidence again this year.

The league is heavy with both junior college and four-year transfers this season, in large part because coaches see it as a way to keep up with the like of Arizona and UCLA in the top tier of the conference. Arizona won the regular-season title last year and UCLA was the conference tournament winner.

At the same time, even those schools see the short-term addition as a way to the next level. 

"We all are trying to do the best with the situation we are given, trying our best to compete," Altman said Thursday at the Pac-12 media day event in San Francisco.

For the builders and rebuilders, new blood can seem a mandate. Arizona State, for example, must replace its top three scorers, its assist leader and the school and league record holder for blocked shots. Four transfers and a new assistant coach with top junior college recruiting ties later, the Sun Devils move forward.

ASU did this way before, adding eventual all-league forward Carrick Felix three years ago and forward Shaquielle McKissic last year as a replacement piece for Felix. With more holes this season, Sun Devils coach Herb Sendek added more new players, three from junior colleges.

"It just seems to make great sense, the way college basketball has evolved and where we are positioned to attract the best junior college players in the country," Sendek said.

"This would just be another way of having a guy for two years. James Harden, Jahii Carson, we had them for two years. And if a guy by his sophomore year isn’t playing what he thinks is enough, he transfers."

Harden and Carson each left school with two years of eligibility remaining, and early departures have become more commonplace these days — the top-tier players seem more willing to try the pro game while the players of lesser stature simply go looking for a new place to play.

Some losses are anticipated, especially in the heightened age of player scouting and NBA draft analysis. Top recruit Aaron Gordon spent one season at Arizona before he left this spring, and Pac-12 player of the year Nick Johnson had a year of eligibility remaining when he left. UCLA’s Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams — part of a top recruiting class two seasons ago — all are gone. Top talent Tony Wroten left Washington after a year.

It just seems to make great sense, the way college basketball has evolved and where we are positioned to attract the best junior college players in the country.

Herb Sendek, Arizona State coach

But some departures are a surprise, the reason Arizona coach Sean Miller said he has to recruit for all five positions every year. UCLA guard Zach LaVine was considered a talented recruit who might need time to develop. When he was projected as an NBA lottery pick this spring, however, he had no choice but to leave. 

When Arizona and UCLA recruit, however, it is not quite as arduous, long-time college and pro coach Kevin O’Neill said, because those programs usually welcome the top recruiters.

"That’s good. That means you are getting great players. What’s harder, recruiting great players every year and filling them in, or not being able to get good enough players? Come on," O’Neill said.

Oregon has had a stream of positive reinforcements, starting with Jay-R Strowbridge in Matt Court’s first season. The influx came to include impact players such as Devoe Joseph, Tony Woods, Arsalan Kazemi. Joe Young, Mike Moser and Jason Calliste were key contributors last year, and Young, who started his career at Houston, is the leading scorer among returning players in the Pac-12.

Utah guard Delon Wright, who arrived via junior college, finished in the top 12 in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots in his first season with the Utes last year, a résumé that left him as a top candidate for the player of the year award that went to Arizona’s Johnson. Wildcats teammate guard T.J. McConnell helped settle the point guard position last season after transferring from Duquense.

There were 625 transfers in Division I following last season, and the Pac-12 was part of the shuffle. This season, USC is counting on transfer guard Kalin Reinhardt, who started 34 games at UNLV as a freshman, and a legendary name returns to Oregon State in junior college transfer Gary Payton II.

"It’s an epidemic," former Stanford and Cal coach Mike Montgomery said, specifically of the fifth-year transfer, made famous first on the football field by Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson.

"You have two ways to look at this thing. Part of it was always to give everybody the same opportunity to retain the players. Let’s be honest. If I’m at Montana and I get lucky on a kid and he turns out to be a great player, all he has to do is (say) ‘Coach, gee, I didn’t think I could play at that (next) level.’ Boom, he’s gone. That’s why they put teeth in the transfer rule, so you couldn’t willy-nilly decide what you were going to do.

"But like everything else we do, we’ve abused it. We are notorious as coaches to find ways to take advantage of rules. Loopholes, if you will. Now the question is, do you get trapped in that? Can you get off of that and develop freshmen? You are really trying to build a freshman-based program, and you end up finding maybe one piece to that puzzle that you didn’t have that puts you over the top.

"You are willing to gamble on that kid, because you know your team is going to keep him in line. You know he can’t come in and be a problem, because the rest of your guys are going to say, ‘No, that is not how we do it here.’ Yet he can really help you win. That’s the perfect scenario."

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