Transfers plaguing SEC basketball programs

Late May is a dead period on college basketball’s recruiting calendar, but a two-day span proved a time for LSU coach Johnny Jones to deal with potentially keeping a player in the fold.

Word trickled out that rising sophomore guard Malik Morgan was mulling a transfer to hometown Tulane, a report Jones quashed several days later before a booster event in New Orleans.

Two days later, though, another freshman defected from Baton Rouge. Corban Collins was granted a release on May 23, landing at Morehead State two weeks ago — a program where the Tigers first offseason departure in forward Jalen Courtney also dropped his bags.

Welcome to spring in college basketball, where late additions to recruiting classes and the increasing trend of transferring has evolved into a de facto free-agent period. And it’s a trend Jones and his Southeastern Conference colleagues openly lamented Monday during the summer teleconference.

Since 2010, seven players have transferred out of Baton Rouge, part of the roughly 40 percent of players the NCAA reports will transfer to another campus at least once in their college careers.

“Unfortunately, the difference from being a senior in high school and a freshman in college is in terms of minutes played,” Jones said. “It’s unfortunate that they don’t have an opportunity to grow but it’s a part of the business. And as a coach, you just have to adapt and move on.”

So far, more than 420 players have sought to change schools this offseason, while the SEC rosters have lost 24 players to transfers since the season ended in a bit of evidence of what Alabama coach Anthony Grant deemed an “alarming trend.”

Late Monday afternoon, Kentucky’s Kyle Wiltjer, a junior and former McDonald’s All-American, seemingly joined the wave when an open letter on the school’s website hinted he planned to leave Lexington after a stellar stint on Canada’s developmental national team in a recent tournament in China.

“It is difficult to put into words how hard it is to possibly leave,” Wiltjer wrote.

If Wiltjer, whose minutes could be curtailed with the arrival of six McDonald’s All-Americans this year, does leave, he would be the second Wildcats’ player after point guard Ryan Harrow, who left for Georgia State, to depart. Only two SEC programs — Georgia and Mississippi State — have escaped what coaches consider an epidemic.

“It’s becoming a problem, and we’ve got to look at it,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said.

Certainly, Anderson and Grant have reason to bemoan the current state of affairs.

Alabama lost guard Trevor Lacey, the Crimson Tide’s second-leading scorer, to North Carolina State.

Arkansas might have relied on forward Hunter Mickelson, a consensus top-100 recruit and in-state product, to fill a frontcourt void when junior Marshawn Powell left for the NBA draft. Instead, Mickelson, who at 6-11 was a true low-post presence mismatched with Anderson’s open-floor game, departed for Kansas.

Nobody gnashed their teeth more in exasperation than second-year South Carolina coach Frank Martin, who saw four players transfer this season after supposed mainstays Anthony Gill and DaMontre Moore left after he arrived from Kansas State.

Yet Martin doesn’t lay the blame solely on the college game, reserving his ire for a high school and grassroots basketball culture that breeds a sense of entitlement and little resiliency among its products.

“When we recruit these kids, they’ve transferred three or four times in high school,” Martin said. “It’s not like they’re going to get to college and have an epiphany, and say, ‘I’ve got to get through this difficult moment. Let me have patience and allow things to take things the right way.’ It’s not what these kids have been asked to do in the past.”

At the same time, coaches bemoaning a lack of commitment aren’t shy about pursuing the next opening that pops up.

Martin left Kansas State for South Carolina, but was also reportedly interested in the Miami job left vacant when Frank Haith filled the Missouri job — one created when Arkansas hired Mike Anderson. So how much can a player be faulted for weighing his options when his coach engages in the same behavior?

“It does contribute,” Anderson said. “You’ve got (coaches) coming in with different philosophies, and kids feel like they don’t fit in there. Their going to find a place where they fit in.”

But there’s also the trend of veteran players, some who graduate in three years, exercising a previously unused tool known as the graduate-transfer exemption in the NCAA bylaws. The gist: If you’ve earned an undergraduate degree, feel free to switch schools for your final season eligibility without sitting out a year.

The trend applies somewhat to midmajor programs, where mainstays on rosters can take a crack at playing on a bigger stage at power conference programs. While Memphis is far from a doormat, guard Charles Carmouche exercised this option when he joined LSU last season.

Anderson said the rule effectively allows other programs to potential swipe players their peers have spent several years developing and rely upon heavily.

“When you talk about the overall picture, it’s something that has to be dealt with,” Anderson said. “The senior rule is really one we’ve got to look at.”

Of course, several SEC programs benefited from snaring transfers over the past several seasons. No one more than Missouri. The Tigers added former Connecticut forward Alex Oriahki under the grad-transfer rule, and filled out their roster with Jabari Brown (Oregon), Ernest Ross (Auburn) and Keion Bell (Pepperdine) last season. This year, former Tulsa guard Jordan Clarkson will suit up after sitting out.

Unmentioned, though, is that the league’s coaches are more than willing to accept transfers.

LSU picked up guard Keith Hornsby from UNC-Asheville, while Alabama added former Tulane guard Ricky Tarrant and former Longwood forward Michael Kessens — a practice Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson told The Kansas City Star amounts to “poaching.”

“Any time we add pieces to our team, we try and look at what fits us from a needs stand point,” Grant said. “The last thing we look at is in terms of the label put on them at the program where they’re at.”

Assessment: Ultimately, doing it properly is the only way to avoid a player pursuing his release, Jones said.

“It’s coaches wanting to make sure you do a great job on the front end in terms of identifying players that will fit into your program,” Jones said. “Hopefully they will be here over a long period of time because they have been in your system, it will make them better players and they will buy in.