Keith Hornsby’s public unveiling didn’t unfold optimally.
The guard, a transfer from UNC-Asheville, pounded out three dribbles behind the 3-point arc and attacked the rim at last week LSU’s Bayou Madness. Elevating off the Pete Maravich Assembly Center floor, he passed the orange orb between his legs but couldn’t flush home a dunk.
After another attempt failed, the junior settled for simply cocking back and mashing down a windmill slam.
“If we had a chance to warm up,” he said Tuesday, “all of us could have put on some better dunks. But what the hell?”
That’s an apt summation of Hornsby’s arrival in Baton Rouge, too.
A topic du jour is the supposed plague of transfers sweeping the ranks of college basketball after more than 500 players sought new programs this offseason, with the micro-trend of mid-major stars decamping for power conference programs. Over the past five seasons, the number has grown from a minuscule five to 33 this season.
The transfer issue has led some mid-major coaches to whisper that their high-major colleagues are engaged, in effect, in poaching players they’ve developed and are vital cogs in modest programs.
Perhaps the phenomenon isn’t as insidious as coaches make it out to be. And Hornsby, a modest two-star recruit out of Oak Hill Academy, is a prime example of a viable counterargument.
By his sophomore season, he was posting 15 points and 4.2 rebounds per game, hitting a solid 37.9 percent of this 3-point attempts. But a 26-point outing against Ohio State and a 23-point performance in a loss to N.C. State spurred a notion.
No, Hornsby didn’t harbor ill will toward coach Eddie Biedenbach, who left after the season for an assistant coaching job at UNC-Wilmington. Nor did he clash with assistant coach Nick McDevitt after he was promoted in April.
“I figured you only live once,” Hornsby said. “I wanted to go test the waters.”
There’s little doubt transfers have grown more common in the Division I ranks. In 2008-09, the NCAA officially reported 10.7 percent of players sought releases to find a home at another program, a number that Sports Illustrated writer Luke Winn estimated rose to 12.4 percent this season.
But what if it’s more than just a prima donna bailing out?
McDevitt agreed to let his star guard, whose athleticism and ability to attack off the dribble gets undersold, shop around without granting a release. But after N.C. State publicized a visit, the Bulldogs new coach saw the writing on the wall. Hornsby and Asheville parted ways, but on good terms.
“I’d say as much as it could be,” Hornsby said of a clean break. “That was the toughest part, but he understood the situation and we’re still close.”
The argument is trite now, but no less valid: If a coach can freely break off ties to a program for a job at a higher-profile school and the attendant pay raise, then why shouldn’t players have a similar degree of mobility?
And if the NCAA is operating under the guise of having a student-athlete’s interest at heart, why are they effectively penalized for an act that their peers who don’t suit up are allowed to perform without waiting?
Hornsby’s experience exposes the asinine arguments espoused by coaches whose sentimental odes to loyalty, family and trust are only valid until a better offer comes along. If their own profession is, at its root, transitional, the players have the same opportunity to exercise options in their best interest.
Especially if there’s a clear market, a word abhorred by the NCAA and its antiquated notion of amateurism, for a player’s services.
A dozen programs put out feelers for his interest before Hornsby whittled the list to LSU, Ohio State, Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga. A visit sold him on Baton Rouge, as well as the fact that minutes should be available next season after seniors Shavon Coleman and Andre Stringer wrap up their careers.
Biding his time, though, will be penance for a decision that shouldn’t produce such a consequence — a one-year hiatus Hornsby can live with for the larger benefits he wants to reap.
“It’s the only thing I have to do,” he said. “A lot of people wish they could have that, and this is it.”