As Missouri clings to the NCAA Tournament bubble, one explanation offered for the Tigers’ inconsistent play is that the team is too transfer-heavy.
But where would Missouri be this season without juniors Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson and senior Earnest Ross? Fans surely shudder at that thought.
“People are looking for something to blame, but I don’t think transfers have anything to do with how well a team’s playing or not playing,” said former Tigers forward Alex Oriakhi, who transferred from Connecticut.
Brown came from Oregon, Clarkson from Tulsa and Ross from Auburn. They form the highest-scoring Missouri trio since 1990-91 and the second-highest scoring trio in NCAA Division I this season.
Even as talented as those transfers are, the Tigers are 19-9 after a 10-0 start and only 7-8 in the Southeastern Conference. Still, Missouri coach Frank Haith doesn’t apologize for the way the Tigers’ roster has been constructed.
“The feel, when you say transfer, is that there’s a negative connotation to it. But it was out of necessity for us to stay competitive at the level I felt like we needed to stay,” said Haith, who has landed eight Division I transfers in three seasons at Missouri.
The Tigers’ roster is indicative of a broader national trend.
The time when transfers were implied to carry character concerns has passed amidst a rapidly changing landscape.
“One of the reasons those transfer numbers are so high is that guys don’t want to wait,” Haith said. “They want it fast and they want to play right away.”
The result is different caliber of transfer.
According to the most recent NCAA research, 40 percent of Division I men’s basketball players recruited directly from high school during the 2003-04 through 2011-12 seasons had transferred by the end of their sophomore season.
That same study said 12 percent of all Division I men’s basketball players transferred in 2011-12 with 44 percent of those players landing at other Division I programs.
Ninety percent of players in that nine-season span transferred for athletic reasons, essentially creating a secondary market for players seeking greener pastures and more minutes.
“If that number is what it is, you’d better have that as part of your recruiting plans,” Haith said.
Oriakhi was allowed to transfer without sitting out a year when Connecticut received a postseason ban as part of NCAA sanctions.
“I don’t see why people make such a big deal out of it,” Oriakhi said. “I think it’s just time to accept it, because it happens all the time. Coaches change schools too. Everybody’s going to do what they feel will better themselves.”
MU’s eight Division I transfers under Haith also include former guard Keion Bell, who left Pepperdine to join the Tigers, and three players — Deuce Bello from Baylor, Cameron Biedscheid from Notre Dame and Zach Price from Louisville — who become eligible next season.
Haith also has signed two junior-college players — senior forward Tony Criswell, a transfer from Alabama-Birmingham by way of Independence Community College in Kansas, and junior Keanau Post from Southwestern Illinois Community College.
Haith has aggressively pursued the transfer market but also said he had little choice after inheriting a senior-laden roster when Mike Anderson left to become the coach at Arkansas before the 2011-12 season. Anderson had yet to sign any players in the 2011 recruiting class.
“When we got the job, there were seven seniors,” said Haith, who won national coach of the year honors after leading the Tigers to a 30-5 season 2011-12. “It was April, and the timing of when we get that job, there’s not eight players out there that I felt could come in and have us maintain success the following year. We felt like we had a team that could make the tournament, but we didn’t want to have a huge drop-off the following year.”
That meant loading up with transfers — a lot of them — in an effort to balance the Tigers’ classes, but there is a method to Haith’s madness.
“The transfers he’s got have really been ideal for them,” ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla said. “They seem to fit in and seem to have been good kids. From what I can tell from afar, they should get credit for taking some quality transfers in the same way that Fred Hoiberg has gotten credit for it up at Iowa State.”
Haith signed Bell and Ross in June 2011 then added Brown that December, when he abruptly left Oregon. The plan worked, because Missouri — buoyed by four transfers — made the NCAA Tournament again in 2012-13.
“Now, our classes are balanced, but you lose a Phil Pressey early,” Haith said. “I anticipate that probably could happen, so you take a Jordan Clarkson to help you if that happens.”
Of course, Clarkson, who left Tulsa after the coach who recruited him was fired, and Brown, who didn’t feel at home with the Ducks, seem destined to leave for the NBA early as well, so the cycle continues.
Many of the country’s top teams have been fueled by transfers.
Kansas reached the Final Four in 2012 with Jeff Withey from Arizona and Kevin Young from Loyola Marymount. The No. 5 Jayhawks currently have three more transfers — Tarik Black (Memphis), Justin Wesley (Lamar) and Hunter Mickelson (Arkansas) — on the roster.
No. 6 Duke’s second-leading scorer, Rodney Hood, is a Mississippi State transfer. No. 3 Arizona’s starting point guard, T.J. McConnell, is a Duquense transfer.
One of the top reserves for No. 1 Florida, Dorian Finney-Smith, started his career at Virginia Tech. The Gators’ roster also includes Rutgers transfer Eli Carter and Duke transfer Alex Murphy.
No. 7 Louisville’s Luke Hancock, a George Mason transfer, was the Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four last season for the national champion Cardinals.
Second-ranked Wichita State has four players in its every-game rotation who started their careers elsewhere and top-15 teams Iowa State and San Diego State also rely heavily on transfers.
Ideally, Haith wants to mix in transfers as needed rather than from necessity, but that remains part of the building process.
“I definitely think you have to have a blend,” Fraschilla said. “You can sprinkle in a heavy dose of transfers, but recruiting four-year guys needs to be the lifeblood. Ultimately, you have to have a couple top-50 guys on your roster.”
The trouble early in Haith’s tenure at Missouri was that transfers work the other way, too.
Fewer than two months after Haith was hired, Ricky Kreklow transferred to California, where he is averaging 6.2 points for the Golden Bears.
Barely six months later, forward Kadeem Green, who sat out 2010-11 recovering from a torn Achilles’ tendon, also left Missouri.
Three of the four freshmen Haith signed for 2012 transferred — Dominique Bull to George Washington, Negus Webster-Chan and Stefan Jankovic to Hawaii — leaving sophomore Ryan Rosburg as the only current MU player recruited from high school during Haith’s first two seasons.
There are encouraging signs in Haith’s two newest recruiting classes.
Freshman Johnathan Williams III has started all 28 games for the Tigers and leads the team with 6.7 rebounds per game, while freshman point guard Wes Clark has shown flashes of potential along with freshman forward Torren Jones, whose playing time continues to grow.
Missouri is also excited about its 2014 class — which features Springfield, Ga., forward Jakeenan Gant, who ranked No. 47 overall in the nation by Rivals.com, and Los Angeles shooting guard Namon Wright, ranked No. 87 overall.
Still, that doesn’t mean the transfer pipeline will stop.
“Now, I think we’re at a point where you start to see we’re getting top-level high school kids and then you layer it with transfers — elite-level transfer kids,” Tigers associate head coach Tim Fuller said. “That’s what we’re trying to do and what we have to do moving forward.”To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/todpalmer.