Charlotte, N.C. — NC State was looking for key contributors to enhance its roster. UNC was looking for a missing piece to a national championship contender. Duke was looking for experience to surround another highly touted freshman class.
And so the men’s basketball coaches at the Triangle’s three ACC schools went to the same spot: the transfer portal, a website database filled with the names of more than 1,700 college basketball players seeking a new team in the offseason.
With the season set to tip off next week, all three programs believe they found what they needed in the portal.
“The portal will taketh away and then give back to you,” said NC State coach Kevin Keatts, who added four transfers in the offseason. “Listen, it is college basketball and if you don’t adapt to what college basketball is about today, you’re going to get left behind.”
Transfers have long been an important part of team building in college basketball, but recent changes have made transfers and the portal essential.
In 2018, the NCAA created the portal, got rid of the requirement that schools grant permission to transfers and allowed graduates to be immediately eligible. In 2021, the NCAA officially eliminated the requirement that transfers in football, basketball and men’s hockey sit out a year after transferring. And the NCAA’s decision to grant all players an additional year of eligibility after the 2020 pandemic season opened the door to move movement throughout college sports, including men’s and women’s basketball.
Changes that allow players to profit off their name, image and likeness, too, have played a part in the rise. There are 358 men’s college basketball teams in Division I and each can offer 13 scholarships.
About 400 men’s basketball players transferred a decade ago, according to ESPN. That number has gone up more than four times, creating a type of free agency in college basketball and making roster-construction and -management a key part of program building.
“It would be irresponsible for us not to look at all three things — international, domestic high school and the transfer portal — if you’re building your best team,” said UNC women’s basketball coach Courtney Banghart, who didn’t add a single transfer to her program this year, a rarity across the ACC.
How it works
The first notification that a player is looking to transfer often comes on social media, Keatts said. Then coaches head to the portal, a password-protected website, to make sure the player’s name is actually in there.
It is a violation to contact a player at another school before they are in the portal. The database includes as much information as the player wants to include: how many years of eligibility left, the school they are leaving, when they went into the portal, academic information and, if they want, contact information.
“We check the portal at least every other day if we hear about a kid,” Keatts said.
NC State went 11-21 overall and a dismal 4-16 in the ACC in 2021-22. The Wolfpack finished last in the conference. Keatts, in his sixth season in Raleigh, identified his transfer needs quickly.
An experienced big man.
A player who can fill in at both forward spots.
And, perhaps most importantly, an older, experienced point guard to help win in the rugged ACC and be a leader on and off the court.
The Wolfpack landed 6-foot-9 forward DJ Burns, the Big South Conference player of the year at Winthrop. Keatts got commitments from 6-foot-8 guard Jack Clark from LaSalle and 6-foot-11 forward Dusan Mahorcic from Utah. And he got his point guard in Ole Miss transfer Jarkel Joiner.
“When I got in the transfer portal, a couple minutes after, he called me,” Joiner said of Keatts. “And that was a big sign right there that he wanted me to come.”
UNC coach Hubert Davis went looking for a very specific type of player in the portal this offseason. Davis’ Tar Heels return four starters and most key reserves from last year’s squad, which lost in the NCAA Tournament final. The Tar Heels are preseason No. one.
Davis had great success last year with Oklahoma transfer Brady Manek, a 3-point shooting big man. With Manek gone, he went looking for someone with a similar — though not identical — skill set.
“We needed Pete Nance,” Davis said of the Northwestern transfer. “We needed a 6-10 guy that can defensively switch every position, athletic, can shoot the ball from outside, can handle the basketball, can make plays, that experience, that hunger and that fire. What we got in Pete Nance was exactly what we needed and what we were looking for.”
First-year Duke coach Jon Scheyer faced a different problem. The Blue Devils, as is customary, brought in a loaded freshmen class filled with some of the nation’s top recruits. But Duke brought back just one player — point guard Jeremy Roach — with significant experience from last year’s Final Four team.
So he went looking for players with experience who can help, some with their play on the court and others with Duke culture. The Blue Devils added four transfers. Guard Jacob Grandison from Illinois (and previously Holy Cross) and center Ryan Young from Northwestern are expected to play key roles.
“They help our team blend,” Scheyer said. “That may mean they could be our leading scorer one game. They just know how to play.”
On a team with seven freshmen, guard Max Johns (from Princeton) and forward Kale Catchings (from Harvard) are graduate students who can help the older players set a standard.
“They’ve really helped our culture,” Scheyer said. “They helped really build what it means to be a Duke basketball player, a college basketball player. That’s something we’ll continue to have to identify as we go on.”
Enjoy the moment
Coach Wes Moore has won three consecutive ACC tournament titles with the NC State women’s basketball team. The Wolfpack won the regular-season title, too, last year and advanced to the Elite Eight. The portal has given him a second chance at high-level prospects NC State did not land out of high school.
“We’re trying to play at the top level so you’re trying to recruit at the top level and it’s tough,” Moore said. “So when we don’t get our top players, I’m not going to sign the backup list. We’re gonna just gamble, hold our breath and hope we can get them in the portal.”
The gamble paid off this year. Guard Sinaya Rivers, who was the No. 3 overall player in the Class of 2021 out of Wilmington, transferred to NC State from defending national champion South Carolina. Rivers played in 27 games for the Gamecocks last year.
“If it’s a great player, you take them no matter what position,” Moore said. “I don’t know that we were looking at necessarily adding a guard, but when Niya Rivers is out there, OK, maybe we need a guard.”
The Wolfpack also added Mimi Collins, a forward from Maryland, and River Baldwin, a center from Florida State.
“Now you’ve got to become a team,” Moore said.
The influx of new players and lack of continuity does change things for coaches. Keatts, who coached at Hargrave Military Academy, where top players are often there for a single season, said he began installing his system earlier this year to give the new roster more time to learn.
Coaches across the ACC are adapting. Transfers may slow down a bit once the players with an extra COVID-19 year work their way through the system, but no one is expecting the trend to stop or reverse itself.
“It’s the new reality,” said Florida State women’s basketball coach Brooke Wyckoff, whose team lost three transfers to other ACC schools, including Baldwin to NC State. “So the thing that I’m learning and have learned is just accept it. It’s tough when you’re losing players. It’s also a great opportunity when you need to add players. It’s the new normal.”
That means players are going to leave, too. Every player in the portal committed to a coach and a school previously. They made friendships, forged bonds and, in many cases, played an important role on the court. Coaches know that some of their players are going to test the portal, whether they’re looking for more playing time or a different situation.
“You try and care about your players. You try and help them reach their potential, understanding that some may leave at some point,” said Duke women’s basketball coach Kara Lawson, who added four transfers for this season. “I don’t know that I think about re-recruiting them. I think about coaching them and making them better.”
Moore, like most coaches, said his preference is to bring in freshmen from high school and develop them over a period of years. Banghart, in her fourth season at UNC, has produced a better finish each year in the ACC. Her team is built around a strong junior class.
“These kids have, which they deserve, a choice of where they play annually. There’s no givens,” Banghart said. “You have to enjoy the year you have because you don’t know what it’s going to look like next year. Hopefully the experience that you’ve given them, the relationship you’ve built, forces the good ones to want to stay. “
College basketball schedule
Nov. 7: NC A&T at Duke women, 11 am
Nov. 7: Elon at No. 10 NC State women, 5 pm
Nov. 7: Jacksonville at No. 7 Duke men, 7 pm
Nov. 7: Austin Peay at NC State men, 8 pm
Nov. 7: UNC-Wilmington at No. 1 UNC men, 9 pm
Nov. 9: Jackson State at No. 12 UNC women, 7 pm