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Coaches are inherently creative. They constantly devise schemes and workouts that give their players — and only their players — an edge in competition. So when it comes to exploiting a rule such as the one governing graduate transfers, they'll do whatever it takes to advance their self-interest.
That has led to many actions in response to this particular rule, at all levels of Division I college men's basketball, that seem at odds with ideals of the NCAA and college athletics as a whole.
Some power conference coaches spend time combing through lists of all-conference players from mid-major leagues, looking for players to poach.
Some assistant coaches assume the responsibility of tracking which players are or will be eligible to be grad transfers; one coach described keeping a whiteboard in a staff meeting room and updating it throughout the year as injuries, redshirts or discontent elsewhere brew.
To combat the poaching and tampering — yes, players usually are approached by third parties before they declare their intentions to transfer — mid-major coaches try to protect themselves and their programs.
Some resort to odd but effective tactics such as limiting how many courses players can take in the summer so they're on a slower track toward graduation (and the opportunity to use the grad transfer exemption).
Others decline to redshirt players who aren't developmentally ready to play, because that will set them up well to jump ship sooner after graduating with eligibility remaining.
Still others are avoiding taking regular transfers, because they'll sit out a year, advance toward a degree and then be in position to leave early.
Mid-major coaches consider any and all options to avoid losing their best players — with the first and best one being, well, hoping and praying that their relationship with their players is strong enough to outlast any outside temptations.
"You have to be strategic, and yet you also have to keep the student-athlete in mind — and there's a balance with that," said Illinois State coach Dan Muller, who has lost multiple grad transfers the last few seasons including last year's No. 3 scorer MiKyle McIntosh (to Oregon). "But you have to be careful, because it can decimate your program. There have been multiple coaches who have been fired because they haven't won enough — because of grad transfers."
Rule meant well
Throughout the July recruiting period and any other times mid-major coaches have chatted with their colleagues — a regular occurrence — the topic of grad transfers has come up. Over and over again, it sticks out even in a sport that sees upwards of 700 regular transfers per year.
"It's certainly a hot spot, and here's the most difficult part: When the NCAA came out with this rule, the initial rule was if a student-athlete earns their degree and if that institution does not have a graduate program that the graduating student-athlete wants to go in, they can transfer," said South Dakota coach Craig Smith, who lost No. 3 scorer Trey Dickerson to Georgetown. "And how can you argue with that?"
But that's not even how the rule is written anymore. Graduating athletes no longer are required to find a graduate program that their original school doesn't offer. Once that component went away, this all began looking and feeling more like actual free agency.
Graduate transfers affect men's basketball more than any other Division I sport, according to NCAA research; 1.9% of current players are grad transfers. The raw number of grad transfers in 2016 (87) is nearly six times the raw number of grad transfers from 2011 (15).
And most of those grad transfers never earn their advanced degrees, enrolling in graduate programs that last two years (for the most part) and abandoning after their eligibility expires.
Adding a grad transfer remains relatively risk-free. For a power conference program, it's more of a sure bet than taking a two- or three-star recruit during the spring signing period. You're getting a veteran player who's been developed elsewhere — and it only counts against your scholarship count for one year. If that player isn't as much of a contributor as you expected, it's OK because, well, it's just one year.
The flip side is this: For mid-major coaches, losing one talented player you expected to have on your roster can be the difference between, say, making the NCAA tournament or not. Or finishing above .500 or not. And, coaches believe, losing grad transfers has cost colleagues their jobs.
"The difference is we're replacing our best players, which is no fun, you know, which is very unfortunate," said Howard's Kevin Nickelberry, who lost two graduate transfers this offseason, including James Daniel III, who led the nation in scoring in 2015-16, to Tennessee.
"On one end, you're happy, because he's graduating and that's what the rule is designed for. But on the other end, you're put in a situation where the rule isn't really designed for mid-major head coaches and job security," Nickelberry said. "Now, you have larger schools basically just recruiting your experience and taking advantage of what you have developed. I really don't fault the young men. It's the college coaches and the presidents and everyone else, the NCAA -- we decided on this rule."
But it is not just mid-major coaches who are frustrated by the rule, because everyone can see the unintended side effects of a rule intended to reward academics.
"It's the worst rule in the history of college basketball," Fran McCaffery told reporters in March. "On one hand, you say, you've done everything I've asked you to do. You graduate, so who are we or anyone else to say what you can do next? That's the purpose of the rule. But what we're underestimating is the collateral damage. Thousands of student-athletes are getting their academic progress deliberately retarded so they're not rated. There are multiple schools at all different levels tampering with players presently on other teams. There are middlemen looking for money as they shop prospective graduate transfers.
"If you weigh the effectiveness of a rule with great intent vs. the reality of what's happened, it's a no-brainer. The rule has to go away."
In an era of increased awareness of student-athlete rights and well-being, it's hard to imagine a drastic rule change that would further limit mobility for unpaid student-athletes. The NCAA has put together a working group to look at the graduate transfer issue in Division I, and so far it has "generally agreed that immediate eligibility for students competing after graduation is appropriate now." But the group also expressed interest in holding schools more accountable for academic progress.
"One potential approach could be to require that the financial aid provided to graduate students count against a team's scholarship limit for two years, regardless of whether the graduate student stays for two years or leaves when their eligibility is complete," the NCAA said, adding that another way to increase accountability could come from the Academic Progress Rate calculation. The working group also believes that the institution "should commit to providing financial aid until the student-athlete completes their graduate studies after exhausting their eligibility."
At this point mid-major coaches are desperate for anything that moves the graduate transfer phenomenon in the direction of accountability and away from tampering and poaching. For now, these coaches see an exploitable rule with few, if any, consequences for power conference programs looking to plug a roster spot.
"It's just another example of the rich getting richer," William & Mary coach Tony Shaver said. "The rules are set up to protect the Power Five people, and this is another example, in my opinion. And I think it's a really bad rule. I know one of the things that people will immediately argue with you about is that, well, a coach can have a five-year contract and leave after two years and there's no problem with that. I understand that."
That still doesn't make it any easier to swallow when it hits you.
"I've always felt when I picked the job at William & Mary, I believed firmly that to be successful you had to do two or three things really well," Shaver said. "No. 1, you better develop your talent, because you're not always going to get the top players in the country, but you better be good at developing them. With this rule, we developed a guy over four years and in what should be his best year he's gone someplace else. No. 2, you better be experienced. You better figure out a way to stay old, to keep a team full of juniors and seniors. If you lose a guy that should be a fifth-year senior, it has just a backbreaking impact on you."
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