Transfers remain tricky but ever-growing part of women's college basketball

BRISTOL, Conn. -- Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw was relieved this week to have some good news for a team that's facing more roster questions than usual. Junior transfer Jessica Shepard was granted a waiver from the NCAA to be eligible to play right away, rather than have to sit out a season.

The Irish, who are without forwards Brianna Turner for the season (knee) and Kathryn Westbeld for the time being (ankle), needed an experienced post player.

Shepard, a 6-foot-4 forward, was the Big Ten's freshman of the year in 2016 and averaged 18.6 points and 9.8 rebounds last season as a sophomore. She announced this past summer she was transferring to Notre Dame.

So why did Shepard get a waiver? The NCAA doesn't comment on that, and McGraw simply said that Shepard's waiver was based on personal reasons. The Huskers struggled during Shepard's two seasons in Nebraska; they were 18-13 under coach Connie Yori in 2015-16, and then 7-22 last season under Amy Williams.

Shepard played 15 minutes in Notre Dame's exhibition victory Wednesday, getting 7 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists.

Transfers were a part of many storylines Thursday as some of the top players and coaches in women's college basketball gathered at ESPN for national media day. In fact, the most high-profile transfer in women's hoops this season (Azurá Stevens) will be playing for the most high-profile program (UConn).

Why transfers have increased throughout college sports in general, and women's basketball in particular, is a a multifaceted issue that involves generational differences, social media, technology and the influence of club coaches, among other factors.

But the waiver issue, which can eliminate the penalty for transferring, seems to be an example of the sometimes inscrutable and even capricious nature of NCAA policy/rules enforcement and decision-making.

"The waiver thing ... I really have no clue how they determine who gets it," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. "I don't know if this is part of that concept of 'student-athlete experience' the NCAA is trying to fulfill. But if so, what about the guy at NC State? What is his experience going to be like?"

Staley was referring to men's basketball freshman Braxton Beverly, who was committed to Ohio State and took classes there in May. When Buckeyes coach Thad Matta was let go in June, Beverly transferred to NC State. But since he'd already started school at Ohio State, he was categorized as an undergraduate student and had to get a waiver in order to be eligible for this season. The NCAA didn't grant him one, so he has to sit out this season.

"It's really hard on the teams that lose people. It takes two years to recover from it, and it puts you in a tough situation trying to fill out a roster." Irish coach Muffet McGraw on how transfers impact teams

When Shepard announced this past summer that she'd be going to Notre Dame, it was expected she'd have to sit out this season. Instead, the Irish will get crucial help immediately.

"We have six new players, and I've been spoiled at point guard for eight years with Skylar (Diggins) and then Lindsay (Allen)," said McGraw, who will have Stanford transfer Lili Thompson -- who did not play in 2016-17 -- running the point this season. "Right now, depth is a question. Can we guard without fouling? Can we keep everybody healthy? But in some ways, you jell quicker when you have smaller numbers."

Thompson is a graduate student who spent three seasons with the Cardinal and now will finish her college career at Notre Dame. Staley said that transfers -- including those one-year eligibility grad students -- now are a part of the sport that all programs must try to prepare for.

"You have to plan for your current roster being different because people will transfer," Staley said. "At the end of every season, you find out who's transferring, and who might be fifth-year grad students who could play. That's part of what we do every year now, because you have to."

Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis -- two players who spent two years at South Carolina but just one season playing for the Gamecocks -- are among the most prominent success stories for transfers. They were pivotal in South Carolina's NCAA championship last season, then both were first-round picks in the WNBA draft.

Staley said that South Carolina will put in a request for transfer guard Te'a Cooper to be eligible at semester break this year. Cooper sat out last season with a knee injury while at Tennessee, then transferred this summer to South Carolina.

The Gamecocks lost guard Haley Troup, who originally committed to South Carolina but then opted out to transfer to Missouri.

"If Haley hadn't transferred, I wouldn't have put the waiver in for Te'a," Staley said. "Hopefully they'll have some leniency toward a player who missed last year because she was hurt.

South Carolina's Alexis Jennings, a post player who spent two seasons at Kentucky, is eligible this season after sitting out last year. Meanwhile, former Gamecock Jatarie White will play this season for Texas after sitting out 2016-17.

Although the waiver is helping the Irish this season, McGraw said she doesn't want to see women's basketball have a one-time transfer exception -- where anyone can transfer once without sitting out -- as exists in NCAA Division I sports except for football (bowl subdivision), men's and women's hoops, baseball and men's ice hockey.

"I hope not," McGraw said. "Because with 400 transfers this year, and then to say it's an open gate and you can play right away? I think there would be at least double that. It's really hard on the teams that lose people. It takes two years to recover from it, and it puts you in a tough situation trying to fill out a roster."

But the reality is, even when well-intentioned, coaches discussing transfers often end up essentially contradicting themselves: "We're against them ... until we need them."

Oregon coach Kelly Graves doesn't want to speak for his school, but his feeling personally is that a universal one-time transfer exception for all sports would not be wrong.

"It used to be almost a blanket 'no,'" Graves said in regard to the vast majority of appeals for transferring players to avoid sitting out a season. "They are at least now reviewing each case.

"There are good reasons for transfers. Look, kids make mistakes in their decisions. Sometimes coaches make mistakes in recruiting. It just might not be the right fit. Or a coach may leave. There are just so many factors."