Last October, spread among the makeshift curtains and tables of Big 12 Media Day, a television reporter asked Kansas coach Bill Self about transfers. What did it say that so many players -- more and more each year, it seemed -- left their schools after they arrived? What did it say that recruits decommitted so frequently?
Self responded -- and I'm paraphrasing from memory here -- the way so many current college coaches do. He described the issue as an accountability problem, one that took root in grade school and high school. It was fueled by the whims of parents and coaches and fed by what he saw as the me-first, everything-now streak infecting our modern culture.
This is a common line from coaches. But is it true?
To find out, SI.com's Luke Winn did what my banker friends would call a deep dive, digging in to the past four years's worth of data on prospect decommitments and transfers for a piece titled "The Commitment Project." The report includes plenty of anecdotal data -- including a conversation with now-Iona guard Lamont "MoMo" Jones, who has to have some sort of modern-day transfer/decommitment record, about the various reasons for his decisions -- but it is mostly interested in the hard numbers. Those hard numbers make a convincing case that players who attend multiple high schools carry that behavior with them during both their recruitment process and after they've signed at a school. From Luke:
-- 39.2 percent of top-100 recruits attended multiple high schools
-- The multiple-high school trend rose to 47 percent in the Class of 2011, suggesting it could break 50 percent later this decade
-- Top-100 players who attended multiple high schools went on to decommit from colleges at nearly twice the rate of their peers [...]
-- 24.8 percent of top-100 recruits transfer, a rate that's nearly 2.5 times the D-I average
-- Top-100 players who decommit are nearly 50 percent more likely than their peers to transfer once they're in college
There are extenuating factors that cause a good portion of these transfers; according to Winn's research, 37.4 percent of decommitments can be attributed to "school factors," e.g. NCAA sanctions, coaching moves and the like. It's also worth noting that coaches can spur a decommitment or a transfer by recruiting a player at the same position as the player in question; Winn cites the example of Ryan Boatright, who decommitted from West Virginia after learning (via Twitter, no less) that the Mountaineers had signed another point guard prospect. In other words, coaches bear some of the burden for this trend.
Overall, though, Winn's numbers attest to what coaches like Self have said in recent seasons: Transfers and decommitments are on the rise because players get used to getting whatever they want when they're the untouchable high school star. The trends are undeniably connected: If players switch high schools frequently, they're more likely to do the same before and after they sign with a college. And if they commit to a program early in their high school career, they're far more likely to change that commitment at least once before that national letter of intent gets signed.
My question is not whether this is happening more than ever before. Clearly it is. (The idea that nearly half of all top 100 recruits in the 2011 switched high schools is baffling, but not altogether unexpected.) The question is whether this is obviously a bad thing.
Where transfers are concerned, coaches can switch schools basically at will. Coaches go where they're wanted, where they'll be treated the best and where they'll be paid and supported the most. The calculus for top 100 recruits isn't all that different. They want to play where they're wanted, where they'll be treated the best and where they'll be given the greatest opportunity to succeed and show off their skills to NBA scouts. The difference is flexibility. Barring contract buyouts, coaches can leave when they want. Players have to request a transfer, hope their program grants it (usually the case, but not always) and then sit out an entire a year before they can get back on the court.
Likewise, it's hard to feel too much sympathy for coaches spurned by recruits who commit as high school sophomores before eventually deciding to look at other schools. When you're dealing the emotional whims of 15-year-olds -- not to mention the often competing influences of parents, coaches and advisors -- it's probably best to assume that things can change quickly. A prospect's commitment might change more frequently than coaches prefer, but if he eventually lands at the right school, should the vagaries of the process really matter?
Problem is, more often than not, the increased switching of high schools and the "commit-then-de-commit" model leads not to fewer transfers but more. This is a problem for coaches and their programs, obviously, but it's also a problem for the kids. Transfer years rob players of valuable on-court development and exposure; they push the ever-ticking NBA clock back another year. More importantly, they disrupt the -- and some of you will rightly scoff here -- academic progress student-athletes are supposed to make while they're enrolled in school. That seems like a joke, but it's not. Most of these guys, even the top-100 recruits, aren't good enough to play in the NBA. That's just math. But if they never fully commit to a school -- if they're treating college programs like AAU teams to be discarded whenever things don't go their way -- then the entire collegiate hoops experience becomes somewhat trivialized.
That may be a good thing. Players should be free to transfer if they want. As a whole, though, it's hard not to see it as a negative, even disturbing, state of affairs.