Schools are snatching up transfers in college hoops. That means fewer freshmen on D-I rosters, too
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Elliot Cadeau graduated early from high school to jump into college at No. 19 North Carolina. The five-star point guard is the latest addition to a blueblood program that has long snagged top-flight recruits.
He’s also on a team stocked with new transfers, part of a freshman class that has shrunk dramatically amid college basketball’s free-agency rush through the transfer portal.
Teams have changed recruiting approaches to favor talent and experience initially developed elsewhere to fill holes. Some have won big. But that has also meant freshmen facing more competition for roster spots against older and developed players, including those sticking around with an extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA during the pandemic.
“I definitely think so, especially now that there’s more people in the transfer portal than ever,” Cadeau said. “And coaches would rather get experienced guys than freshmen.”
According to data from the NCAA, the number of incoming freshmen in Division I men’s basketball fell by 18.2% from the 2019-20 pre-pandemic season (1,106) to 2021-22 (905). The latter was the first season after a rule change allowing all undergraduate athletes to transfer once without having to sit out a season.
The decline was more acute in the Power Five leagues – the Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Southeastern conferences – at 24.5%, from 237 in 2019-20 to 179 in 2021-22 as the most recent available data.
The question is whether it’s anomaly or trend, particularly with the extra year of eligibility cycling out after the 2024-25 season.
“The bottom line is that a 21-year-old has got a lot of advantages both in experience and just ability, size, toughness and so forth,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “The result now will be rather than me bringing in three or four high school players in each class and maybe a transfer, in reality we bring in one or two high school players and then fill the roster up with transfers.”
Reigning NCAA champion Connecticut struck that balance perfectly last season. The Huskies’ eight-man rotation during their postseason romp to title No. 5 surrounded “homegrown” talents like Final Four Most Outstanding Player Adama Sanogo, Jordan Hawkins and Andre Jackson Jr. with three new transfers and two freshmen.
Then there’s preseason No. 1 Kansas. The Jayhawks added Michigan center Hunter Dickinson, Towson graduate guard Nicolas Timberlake and Santa Clara graduate forward Parker Braun – accounting for 100 college starts – with a three-man freshman class featuring McDonald’s All-American guard Elmarko Jackson.
“I don’t think the transfer thing will decrease even after the COVID year is done just because I think what it gives you is more options,” said Pittsburgh coach Jeff Capel, whose Panthers reached last year’s NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016 with three transfers among his top four scorers. “It just depends on how you as a coach, as a program, how you feel like you can make your team better.”
Michigan State Hall of Fam coach Tom Izzo is among those worried about unintended consequences, such as high schoolers losing out with transfers gobbling up roster spots.
“It’s like a book — you read the book and then somebody makes a movie of it,” Izzo said. “We’re watching the movie. And for the most part, we had predicted the end of it.”
UCF coach Johnny Dawkins has similar concerns, even while bringing in three freshmen and six transfers for the program’s first season in the Big 12.
“I think you have to have freshmen in your program, I don’t want them to get lost in college basketball,” Dawkins said. “We’re going to make sure we have freshmen in our program. You might have a kid, he’ll be a first-generation college student.
“It’s great for your locker room as well. When you have that mixture of young and old, you have a better locker room, and guys understand the progression of what you need to be a great player.”
Maybe so. But plans can change quickly, as Duke coach Jon Scheyer noted.
He has brought in 11 freshmen as he enters Year 2 compared to just two main-rotation transfers. This year’s second-ranked Blue Devils have preseason Associated Press All-American Kyle Filipowski among several players who could make an early NBA jump.
Duke’s four-man recruiting class for 2024 is ranked No. 1 by 247sports after landing top overall prospect Cooper Flagg.
“It’s got to be the right freshmen, though,” Scheyer said. “I think initially in ’24, we were thinking about recruiting less freshmen. And as the class went on, we’ve felt and feel we found more of those right fits.”
Wake Forest coach Steve Forbes has found his share of portal success with the last two Associated Press picks for ACC player of the year in Alondes Williams (2022) and Tyree Appleby (2023). He has another batch of transfers ready for this year, too.
But he also pointed to an issue of timing that could impact freshman numbers.
“If you’re a good high school player, and there’s a lot of them, it probably would be wise to sign early,” Forbes said. “Because once you get into that pool in the spring, now you’re in a little bit deeper water.”
The 19-year-old Cadeau is one of two freshmen on the Tar Heels roster Hubert Davis has overhauled for his third season. The other five newcomers are transfers. Four are from Power Five conferences. Three have multiple years of eligibility. One was even a three-year captain in Notre Dame graduate guard Cormac Ryan.
Fifth-year big man Armando Bacot is excited by Cadeau’s potential but knows the value of experienced help. The preseason AP All-American remembers how floor-stretching forward (and Oklahoma transfer) Brady Manek helped the Tar Heels unexpectedly reach the NCAA title game in 2022.
That’s why he figures this is the new norm for the sport.
“For sure,” Bacot said. “Because I mean, why go get a freshman when you can get somebody that’s experienced and proven? And I mean, the freshman might just transfer out of the first year anyway.”
AP Basketball Writer Dave Skretta and AP Sports Writers Larry Lage and John Zenor contributed to this report.
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