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On the transfer portal, one-time transfer exception and finding good players on bad teams

Georgia and Utah, which combined to go 26-25 in 2021, saw their former players play for five top-25 teams in 2022.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament Second Round-Houston vs Illinois Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

In the modern age of college athletics with the transfer portal, which empowers players by informing other programs of their interest in transferring, and the one-time transfer exception, which allows first-time transfers to play immediately at their new school without sitting out for an academic year, a flurry of transfers from a single program can signal the foreboding death knell of a coaching tenure or it can be the metaphorically posthumous reaction to a coach being fired, in a Newton’s third law of motion sort of way.

The University of Georgia’s men’s basketball program is an example of the former. Last spring, nine players entered the transfer portal after the 2021 season, when Georgia went just 14-12 (7-11 SEC). A year later, on March 10, 2022, to be exact, after the ‘Dawgs managed just a 1-17 record in SEC play, Georgia coach Tom Crean was fired.

The University of Utah is an example of the latter, as seven players transferred after the 2021 season, six of whom entered the transfer portal after coach Larry Krystkowiak was fired after a 12-13 campaign (8-11 Pac-12) in his 10th season at the school. Among the 76 programs in the sport’s top six conference — the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC — Utah ranked roughly in the bottom 28th percentile in terms of its pre-NCAA tournament ranking on kenpom.com in the 2021 season, while Georgia ranked in the 22nd percentile.

However, despite two coaching tenures that were in some stage of decay at the end of the 2021 season, if you watched high-major men’s basketball with any regularity in the 2022 season, you likely saw those same former Georgia and Utah players who put their names in the transfer portal play complementary, if not starring, roles for some of the best teams in the country.

When then-No. 2 Auburn hosted No. 12 Kentucky on CBS in one of the biggest regular-season games of the year, former Georgia teammates Sahvir Wheeler and K.D. Johnson started opposite one another, each scoring 17 points in the game. Both schools earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.

As one of the best 3-point shooters in the country, Alfonso Plummer helped Illinois sustain the NBA draft declaration of Ayo Dosunmu, as well as the injury to, and inconsistent play of Andre Curbelo, as Plummer helped the Illini win a share of the Big Ten’s regular-season title.

And Pelle Larsson and Justin Kier, the first a former Ute and the second a one-time Bulldog, were the sixth and seventh men, respectively, for No. 1 seed Arizona this season, in terms of minutes per game.

Below is the data set of the players and schools examined, along with the pre-2022 NCAA Tournament kenpom.com ranking for each player’s most recent school.

So, what gives?

Typically, although not universally, the former Georgia and Utah players who were among the leading scorers for the Bulldogs or Utes and who transferred to another high-major program saw their usage rates and scoring averages decline, while their offensive ratings often increased, based on data from kenpom.com. Usage rate measures the percent of a team’s offensive possessions that end in a given player making a shot, missing a shot that’s rebounded by the defense or turning the ball over, when he’s on the floor.

“Down” transfers, those who enrolled at a school with a mid or low-major program, often saw their usage rates and scoring averages increase, albeit often at the expense of their efficiency.

Based on an admittedly limited sample set, there’s a general correlation — with an R-squared value of 0.48, meaning almost half of the variance can be explained by the model — in the change in a player’s usage rate affecting his change in efficiency, such that an increase in usage rate generally led to a decrease in offensive rating, and vice versa.

The X-axis represents the year-over-year change in a player’s usage rate and the Y-axis represents his year-over-year change in offensive rating, per kenpom.com.

Some of the players examined took on the same scoring role at their new school in terms of where their per-game scoring averages ranked on their new team:

  • Timmy Allen went from being Utah’s leading scorer in 2021 to Texas’ leading scorer in 2022.
  • Plummer went from the Utes’ second-leading scorer to the same for Illinois this season.
  • Johnson went from Georgia’s second-leading scorer to Auburn’s second-leading scorer.

But each player saw his usage rate decrease by four to five percentage points and his offensive rating increase, even if only slightly.

These findings are notable not just because men’s basketball programs can find a good player from otherwise forgettable teams with recently fired or soon-to-be-fired head coaches, but there are potentially three or four productive players from your run-of-the-mill, sub-.500 high-major program in an almost strip-it-for-parts sense.

Now, the players’ specific roles might need to decrease — too much K.D. Johnson may not be a good thing, after all — and it certainly helps to have a rock-solid foundation in place — such as pairing Plummer with Illinois’ All-American big Kofi Cockburn or Johnson with an Auburn frontcourt featuring two former 5-star recruits in Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler, or adding Larsson and Kier to an Arizona roster filled with five former top-100 recruits — but the college career paths of former Georgia and Utah players show that voids in a roster can sometimes be solved with the same players who were there when the tenure of another school’s head coach dissolved.