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Cinderella Survives In College Sports

Zion Williamson, midair, about to make a basket as opposing players look on.
Zion Williamson in December 2018. Photo by Keenan Hairston.

Spring is upon us, and with tax season officially in the rearview, I can turn my attention to more important things – like sports.

As I did last year after April 15, I have been using my new-found free time to heavily immerse myself in the young baseball season. I must admit, I do so partly in an attempt to forget the fact that my beloved UConn Huskies men’s basketball team has just finished its season with a winning percentage under .500 for the third straight year. Yet, try as I might to ignore it, college basketball never stays off my mind for long.

This is truer today than ever before, with the off-season echoing that of a free agency period you would expect from a professional league. This summer, not only will the next wave of high school talent commit to their future colleges (if they haven’t already), but a group of players will say goodbye to their current school in favor of a different one, becoming a “free agent” of sorts by transferring. In fact, this year, just one week after Virginia cut down the nets in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, over 700 student-athletes had already opted to change schools. That number only continues to grow. These statistics seem shockingly high to many fans of the game, and over the past few years, journalists, analysts and even coaches have taken notice, calling it an epidemic.

It’s not.

The reality is that most of what has changed with respect to transferring in college basketball is the amount of attention it garners. Transfers have been a big part of the sport for a long time. And, contrary to popular sentiment, data furnished by the NCAA shows that transfers over the past 13 years in the sport are actually relatively flat. In 2004, 26% of players transferred from their respective schools. In 2017, that number was 27.6%. That being said, it is worth noting that college basketball does indeed have the highest percentage of transfers among all major Division I sports. (Baseball was second, at 21.7%, and football was 13.3% in 2017.) But if the number of transfers is basically flat, why do fans perceive that they are more common than they used to be?

There are a few reasons. The first is social media. Platforms like Instagram and Twitter have given fans direct access to both players and insiders. In today’s environment, journalists can communicate information to their followers in seconds. Cut out the middle man by following the student-athlete or the school directly, and this becomes practically instantaneous. The University of Kentucky’s men’s basketball team’s Instagram account boasts 339,000 followers. Nico Mannion, a highly ranked high school player in the class of 2019, will enroll at the University of Arizona to play basketball with more than 350,000 followers. Patrick Baldwin Jr, who won’t even set foot on a college campus for another two years and change, already has close to 15,000 followers. Then there’s Zion Williamson – admittedly a unique case – who had over 1 million followers when he enrolled at Duke University and now, as he prepares for the NBA draft, has over 3 million. Many players post about themselves – listing schools they are considering, for instance. Those who don’t often are watched closely by people who will relay that information to fans on players’ behalf.

Of course, this wasn’t always the case. Back in 2005, when Towson University guard Mike Green transferred to Butler University in Indiana, there was no website-drive speculation and certainly no Twitter discussion (largely because there was no Twitter). Green himself admits there wasn’t a buzz at all. Yet he was, by all accounts, a major addition to Butler’s basketball team. With his help, the school would go on to reach the Sweet 16 in 2007, and Green was the conference player of the year the following season.

In addition to social media, we can thank the NCAA transfer portal, which launched in October 2018, for the increased attention to transfers. Essentially, the portal is a database of every player who is open to transferring from his current school. Student-athletes simply goes to their school’s compliance department and ask to be entered; the school cannot refuse to enter them if they ask. Once players are in the portal, other schools are free to contact them. And while only a school’s compliance department and one coach from each team’s staff may access to the portal, numerous sites track entries for fans and the media to monitor religiously.

Many observers who perceive that transfers are growing also believe that they crush mid-major conference teams, allowing big-time programs to cherry-pick any talent they overlooked the first time around. A mid-major is a school that plays outside of a “power” conference, a group usually defined as comprising the Big Ten, Southeastern (SEC), Atlantic Coast (ACC), Big 12, American and the Pacific-12. These conferences include schools like Kansas, North Carolina and Michigan State – in other words, the traditional powerhouses of the sport.

Transfers from mid-major teams to power conference teams do happen, but they are actually quite rare in the context of student-athlete transfers as a whole. The idea that players tend to transfer to better teams (often called “up-transferring”) is highly overstated. Research shows that since 2012, only 8.6% of all transfers could be categorized as such. Many players – 59% to be exact – actually transferred out of Division I entirely. For some student-athletes, transferring is an opportunity to gain more playing time at less competitive universities, be closer to family or escape an environment unfit for them.

That said, while they are still rare, “up-transfers” are admittedly beginning to make up a bigger proportion of overall transfers. In 2017, Sports Illustrated noted that in 2012, 28 players left current programs for “distinctly higher” ones. That number rose to 91 in 2017. Compared to the overall number of players, this phenomenon is still very small, but growing nonetheless.

The title of the Sports Illustrated article was “A free-agent culture: How transfers are killing Cinderella.” While the article contained a lot of good analysis, the headline is a bit misleading. There is no doubt that transfers can decimate individual schools’ programs on a year to year basis. The article talks about Robert Morris University and the University of Maine in particular as two examples of schools that had successful years, only to be caught scrambling the following season when their best players bolted for bigger programs. Yet as a whole, college basketball’s Cinderella phenomenon is alive and well.

Let’s use the NCAA Tournament to illustrate. The 2019 tournament marked the 35th year of the current format: 68 teams. (It was actually 64 until 2011, when the NCAA added a “first four” round, but the tournament whittles back down to 64 after these preliminary games.) I examined the amount of upsets in the tournament from two different time periods: 1985 to 2005 and 2006 to 2019. The time periods represent two different eras of college basketball, with the latter period far more shaped by transfers. I then looked at all the matchups between the No. 16 and No. 1 seeds, through to the No. 11 versus No. 6 seeds – in essence, all the games where the lower seed (that is, the higher number) winning would be considered an upset. From 1985 to 2005, the underdog won 17.3% of the time. From 2006 to 2019, upsets actually increased to 22%. The later period included the first ever 16-seed to win a game, when UMBC (Maryland-Baltimore County) defeated Virginia in 2017. Clearly, talent remains dispersed throughout mid-major and high-major programs, at least relatively speaking.

Transferring is, and always will be, a part of college sports, especially college basketball. This is as it should be. The overwhelming majority of transfers create little impact on the college basketball landscape as a whole. But those that do are now tracked, scrutinized and analyzed more than ever before – especially with the advent of social media. This increased attention has created the illusion that college basketball transfers are on the rise. In reality, schools and coaches have dealt with player transfers for a long, long time. And while up-transfers are increasing, the numbers simply don’t support the idea that Cinderella is dying as a result.

Neither of these points are much comfort to the particular programs that inevitably lose valuable players each year. But to say widespread transferring, and especially up-transferring, is a new phenomenon or an epidemic simply isn’t true.

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