Eight years before the NCAA introduced the transfer portal amid a growing wave of players flocking to other schools, Fred Hoiberg had a problem.
Hoiberg had just been hired by his alma mater, Iowa State, as the head coach, and he didn't want to wait for a crop of young freshmen to develop into winners. Iowa State had struggled to attract five-star talent in recent years. When Hoiberg arrived in 2010, the Cyclones had produced just two NBA first-round picks in 10 years. Without a strong recruiting pipeline, his options for rapid improvement were limited.
He called his assistants into a meeting and asked them how Iowa State -- a program that had finished 15-17 the previous season and had made only one NCAA tournament appearance in the last decade -- could compete with Kansas, the Big 12's perennial powerhouse.
"Fred was like, 'How do we get the talent in here the fastest?'" said T.J. Otzelberger, who was then an assistant on Hoiberg's staff and is now the head coach in Ames. "And it certainly seemed that we were not getting five-star guys. When Fred came in, I was like, 'Well shoot, if that's what we're on, we're probably going to have to take some transfers.'"
Hoiberg would tap into a pipeline that top programs had largely avoided in favor of top freshmen who might only stay for a year but could give their programs a chance to make an immediate run at the national title. But the 2011-12 Iowa State Cyclones, anchored almost entirely by transfers, did something unexpected: They beat UConn, the defending national champion, in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and battled eventual champion Kentucky before losing to the Wildcats in the second round. Hoiberg and his 2011-12 Cyclones earned national acclaim, and created a blueprint other teams would follow a decade later by blending transfers together with returning veterans for an instant, just-add-water rise.
Ten years on, Hoiberg is now the head coach at Nebraska, where he is 24-67, in a college basketball climate that's producing more transfers every year and more competition for that talent, too. His struggles to turn Lincoln, Nebraska, into a popular destination for elite transfers that Ames, Iowa, became during his five-year tenure at Iowa State, have showcased the intense battle for talent within the transfer portal. Once viewed as a pioneer of the transfer market, Hoiberg is, like every Division I coach today, trying to attract high-level players from other schools in an era where players can compete immediately and attract lucrative name, image and likeness (NIL) deals that are influencing their decisions.
"There weren't [1,600] kids in the portal when I took over at Iowa State," he said. "It was a very select few. And some of them left and it was the right move. And some leave and it doesn't end up being what they think."
Hoiberg's transfers however flourished at their new school during the 2011-12 season.
Royce White (Minnesota), Chris Babb (Penn State) and Chris Allen (Michigan State) all arrived in Ames after the 2009-10 season and sat out the following season per the NCAA's transfer rules. White (13.4 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 5.0 APG, 1.2 SPG in 2011-12 and all-Big 12 first team), a 6-foot-8 point guard in a power forward's body, could pass and run his team's offense while also having the strength to post up any opposing player, making him a challenging matchup for any team in the country. Babb averaged 7.8 PPG. Allen made 37% of his 3-point attempts that year. Scott Christopherson, who had transferred from Marquette two years before Hoiberg arrived, averaged 12.6 PPG and shot 46% from beyond the arc. Melvin Ejim was the only starter in Hoiberg's rotation that season who wasn't a Division I transfer.
It was a different time in college basketball. Just over 400 players -- compared to the 1,600 today -- transferred to other schools after the 2011-12 season. White and Christopherson were the only two Division I transfers on the Big 12's first, second or third teams that year.
Hoiberg's decision to recruit and start transfers -- considered a risky move by everyone at the time -- was influenced by his 10-year career in the NBA, during which he played for teams that improved through free agency and trades. He believed the same approach could work at the collegiate level. His free-flowing, pro-style system attracted players who hoped to play their way into the NBA just like their coach had done in the 1990s.
"Early in my [playing] career, I played on an Indiana Pacers team for four seasons that pretty much had the nucleus intact," Hoiberg said. "And then I go to the Chicago Bulls and it's a new roster, not only every year, but every all-star break. It's almost like they flipped the roster twice over the course of a year. Then at Minnesota, I had two years [playing] and then when I was in the front office, I was part of some high-profile trades and a lot of different draft picks. I do think that probably did affect the way that I looked at [transfers]."
Hoiberg's squad of transfers also discovered an advantage that would help them, and subsequent transfer-heavy Iowa State teams: With NCAA rules at the time requiring transfers to sit out for a year before they were allowed to compete for their new schools, transfer students had an extra year to build and strengthen their chemistry, and by extension their game. (Beginning with the 2021-22 season, the NCAA ruled every collegiate athlete would be allowed to transfer and play immediately, assuming the athlete had not previously transferred.)
"I was excited seeing the team we had started putting together," said Babb, who is now playing professionally in Israel. "I had played against Chris Allen in the Big Ten. I remember [White] from the AAU circuit. Once I saw the team kind of piece together and once we got familiar with each other - we spent so much time together that [2010-11] season - it kind of just fell into place."
The transfer rules also prohibited transfers from traveling with the team. And so for all of the 2010-11 campaign, Babb, Allen, White and Anthony Booker (Southern Illinois) would practice at the team facility on game days, then watch their squad compete on the big screen. They would cheer for their teammates, then, days later, joust with them in grueling, competitive practices.
"There were definitely days [in practice] when they took it to those of us who were eligible to play," Christopherson said.
Once White, Babb, Allen and Booker were eligible to play a year later, the Cyclones achieved milestones the program had not experienced in nearly a decade. They reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005. They also beat Kansas for the first time in seven years.
Hoiberg's experiment had worked. Iowa State began to attract talent that helped lead it to four consecutive NCAA tournament appearances -- including a run to the Sweet 16 in 2014. Key transfers, such as Korie Lucious, Will Clyburn, Bryce Dejean-Jones and DeAndre Kane, arrived after the 2011-12 season and continued to change the perception of the program under Hoiberg. That in turn helped the Cyclones attract future NBA players Georges Niang and Monte Morris, who joined the program as freshman recruits in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Beginning with the 2011-12 squad, Iowa State has won at least 22 games in eight of the last 11 seasons.
But Hoiberg also knows it would be more challenging to create that team of 2011-12 today.
"You just have to sell your situation the best you can and there is no doubt about it," he said. "Back in the day, a [transfer] would have two schools they were looking at. Now, in the first round, they have 20 [schools], then they cut it to 15, then they cut it to 10, then they cut it to five.
"So it's different than in the past where, right away, it's, 'OK, it's going to be us or this other school.' And you knew who you were competing against. Now, it's just different because so many schools are involved."
Otzelberger agrees. He too has witnessed the potential and challenges of the transfer portal as a head coach. Izaiah Brockington, who arrived in Ames via St. Bonaventure and Penn State, averaged 16.9 PPG last season and helped the Cyclones make a run to the Sweet 16 in Otzelberger's first year as head coach -- a year after the team had won just two games. But this offseason, Tyrese Hunter (11.0 PPG, 4.9 APG), a pillar of the program after winning Big 12 freshman of the year honors, entered the transfer portal. He could secure six-figure NIL deals at his new school.
"I think it would really be challenging now to do so because of the magnitude of how good those guys were as players. It would be anticipated that NIL would be a factor in their decision-making process," he said. "It would probably be really hard to get all those guys unless you were one of the programs that had a lot of NIL money and was just shelling it out."
But the members of that 2011-12 Iowa State team now look back knowing they had a formula other teams would soon employ. They were the first team stacked with high-level transfers that proved programs could find success with that approach.
The Cyclones started a trend.
"It doesn't surprise me now that other teams are doing it because it has worked, especially for teams that are trying to change their program around quickly," said Ejim, who is now playing professional basketball in Israel. "And with the landscape of college basketball now where everyone can transfer right away and there is no penalty: Why wouldn't you?"