You know what’s kind of a big deal? The transfer portal. Pretty important. Kind of a thing.
This has been the case for a couple of years now, of course, but the men’s college basketball landscape has reached a sort of self-fulfilling acceleration now, the combination of immediate eligibility and name, image and likeness money making the incentives to jump in the portal more clear-cut than ever. You’d practically be foolish not to! Meanwhile, coaches can totally revitalize their rosters in the matter of a month, fast-forwarding what used to a multiyear rebuilding cycle (and/or undercutting upstart conference rivals) in ways they would have never imagined possible five or six years ago.
It’s thrilling and discombobulating in equal measure. This is true not just for those of us covering the sport, but for coaches, too. Some teams go from 0-to-60 real quick; others go backward. (In the meantime, spare a thought for the true freshmen out there on the recruiting rankings margins, for whom landing a scholarship has never been more difficult. Why take a raw 18-year-old when you can use that spot on a grown fifth-year guy instead?)
In the months to come, we will spend a great deal of time picking through the ways college hoops rosters have changed, how they will come together, how many of these moves will move the needle. Between now and October, we’ll go into lots of detail. For now, in the wake of the portal’s formal closure at 11:59 p.m. Thursday, here is a look at three teams that gained the most from the 2023 portal period, as well as three teams who may lament its existence altogether.
These are the winners and losers of the 2023 transfer portal.
When the books closed on 2022-23, the Zags had the most efficient offense in the country. A remarkable feat, if only because it happened without truly great guard play. When the best assist rate on the team belongs to a mustachioed power forward who is most effective operating back-to-basket, it’s not super ideal, even if the results are.
So Mark Few and company fixed that by securing arguably the best floor general available in Ryan Nembhard, who assisted on a quarter of Creighton’s buckets while he was on the floor during his two seasons with the Bluejays. The context of the get — that most people figured Nembhard was headed to Arizona, probably including Arizona, and then Few went all Logan Roy and pulled the rug out from under his coaching progeny to get what he wanted — underscores the value.
Gonzaga benefits from possibly two or more seasons out of Nembhard, too, as it does with Graham Ike, who was nearly a 20-and-10 performer for Wyoming in 2022-23. The 6-foot-9 center is a fairly ideal replacement for Drew Timme, if only because the Zags won’t have to change much of anything offensively to maximize what Ike can do on the blocks. Nor should they fall off precipitously from the 3-point line, if Steele Venters’ shooting holds steady with a step up in competition level. The 6-7 wing hit 40.3 percent of his 3-point attempts over three years at Eastern Washington, and you’d imagine he’ll find it even easier to hunt clean looks with Nembhard and Nolan Hickman on the floor.
This isn’t this staff’s first time managing a transition after a singular performer moves on. Still, Timme had something like a different mass to him, as if he occupied two or three times as much space as anyone else. Gonzaga had to do big things in the portal to ensure the room didn’t feel empty starting this summer. It got that done, and then some.
Here we stipulate that much more important (and much worse) Bob Huggins-related news demands everyone’s attention right now. Still, if we can focus on the basketball operation alone, arguably no program did better in resetting itself than the Mountaineers.
On a macro level, a lot of guys were leaving and needed to be replaced. West Virginia managed that by adding two of the best available portal players (Jesse Edwards and Kerr Kriisa) while also signing an experienced hand coming off a breakthrough season at a lower level (RaeQuan Battle) and a couple of experienced journeymen (Jose Perez and Omar Silverio). Drilling a little deeper, Edwards will help mitigate any drop-off in rebounding while enhancing West Virginia’s rim protection. Kriisa isn’t a guaranteed plus as a shooter, but he’s a better distributor than anyone the Mountaineers had last year. Battle posted effective field goal percentages of 54.3 and 52.5 in the last two years at Montana State, while Perez averaged almost 19 points for Manhattan two seasons ago; if even some of that production translates while Kriisa is getting everyone efficient looks, West Virginia has a shot at another top-20 offense.
It’s assuming a lot from a somewhat combustible mix of old dudes on their last runs. This is a team that thrived on offensive balance last season, and replicating it won’t be automatic. But better to have talent you need to get in sync than scuffle along with little talent at all.
This one is pretty straightforward. Last week, Hunter Dickinson informed the world that he would play for the Kansas Jayhawks men’s basketball team in 2023-24. In doing so, he crowned Kansas as one of the major winners of the 2023 transfer portal. The end. Blurb over! OK, fine, since we’re here we might as well lay out the case in particular: Dickinson is an All-American-level player coming off season averages of 18.5 points, 9.0 rebounds and 1.8 blocks who just so happens to perfectly fit what Kansas wants to do with the ball in its hands.
It’s easy to forget, considering coach Bill Self’s happy evolution in the past decade — Self’s teams now stretch the floor and shoot more 3s than he ever would have fathomed 15 years ago — but the cornerstone of Self-era KU has always been bigs. Even two years ago, when Self won his second national title, a team perceptually dominated by wings Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun nonetheless devoted the lion’s share of its offensive possessions to the eternally underrated David McCormack on the low block, who was regularly asked to simply post up and go get his team a bucket. That’s exactly what Dickinson will do, time and time again, at efficient rates, with the added bonus of a newly developed perimeter jumper.
There is something to be said about What This All Means, too: Dickinson is almost certainly the most individually accomplished transfer in modern college basketball history. Traditionally speaking, players this good don’t transfer. They go pro, or they stay put. But new rules have produced a new landscape, one in which one of the country’s best — and most lucratively predisposed — programs can bring in one of the best college players of the past five years. The importance of this transfer can’t be understated, not only for the larger state of the game but for Kansas’s odds of winning a national title next spring, too.
There are other programs who lost more. There are other programs who lost more and didn’t sign players who could be like-for-like replacements. But it’s tough to match the Liu Kang-worthy combo the Wildcats took in this trip through the portal.
First, the point guard who started 70 of the 76 games he played over three seasons, a guy who averaged nearly 30 minutes a night across his college career, up and left. Highly unusual. But let’s be generous and say Arizona saw Kriisa’s departure coming, and maybe even eventually was OK with it, because Arizona had a pretty good idea of who it would hand the controls to in 2023-24. And then that guy, Nembhard, didn’t wind up in Tucson at all. He wound up, in fact, choosing to play at Gonzaga, for the guy coach Tommy Lloyd used to work for. All’s fair, of course … but that is some eat-your-young stuff.
So here’s the part where Arizona fans justifiably point to the arrival of Jaden Bradley, a former five-star recruit who scuffled in his freshman season at Alabama but nevertheless assisted on nearly 27 percent of scores while he was on the floor. It’s absolutely possible that Lloyd unlocks something in Bradley and the player evolves into something superior than the guy he more or less replaced. There’s plenty of time (and eligibility) left to make that happen. For now, though, Bradley remains a relatively unknown quantity. And Arizona probably didn’t expect to be unsure of what it had in its presumptive starting point guard, twice over.
Just as the premise undergirding the Kansas selection was straightforward, so, too, is Michigan’s inclusion in this section: When you lose a player as good as Dickinson, well, sorry, but you’ve had a very bad transfer portal indeed.
It’s really just that simple. When Dickinson arrived at UM three seasons ago, he immediately became the focal point of a national title contender; he was a testament to Juwan Howard’s flash success, hard proof of life after John Beilein. The supporting cast has changed around him twice, increasingly for the worse, as the Wolverines went from an 11-seed in 2021-22 to not even making the tournament in 2022-23. Dickinson was just as good (if not better) in each subsequent season. You can understand, then, the star’s apparent frustration with Michigan’s even more dire outlook for next season — especially back when he entered the portal because it was really looking grim — and his desire to explore his options. Kansas is going to have a better year than Michigan next season, not just because Dickinson is there, but also because the Wolverines’ staff has generally failed to improve the personnel before and after Dickinson’s departure.
What they have now, post-Dickinson, is intrigue and risk. Caleb Love is the marquee acquisition of their portal, but good luck finding a North Carolina fan who wanted Caleb Love to return to Chapel Hill for another year. He was brilliant for the final month of the 2021-22 season, yes. But his shot selection and sheer volume demands were totally wild a year ago — the guy got up 244 3s (!!) and made just 29 percent of them, which is kind of amazing — and it will take some real cajoling to get him into a more efficient mode in Ann Arbor. Alabama wing transfer Nimari Burnett was intriguing coming out of high school but didn’t really stick out for the Tide in minimal minutes a year ago, and Seton Hall center Trey Jackson is an experienced but limited rotation piece.
Throw in a one-player recruiting class (No. 92-ranked shooting guard George Washington III), and Michigan’s spring hardly adds up to an improved Wolverines squad. Minus Dickinson, given past results, it suggests an ongoing, slow-moving slide.
Again: There are programs that lost more net-net. But for sheer symbolic defeat, it is hard to look past Virginia’s loss of Isaac Traudt. For years, Tony Bennett’s Virginia program has been built on long-term player development. Often, that has meant redshirting potentially capable young players, putting them in the lab for a year, and then unveiling them when they are more fully formed, armed with a better understanding of Virginia’s stylistic demands — particularly on the defensive end. This has generally worked really well for UVa’s players and for its coaches; Virginia’s success since Bennett’s arrival has been predicated on the constant regeneration of highly honed veterans.
The problem? In an era in which it is (rightly!) very easy to up and leave, what if your guys don’t stay patient? Or what if, as in Traudt’s case, they get homesick and want to move back closer to family and familiarity? This spring, that meant losing a highly sought-after player with plenty of other top-end high-major offers from a strong recruiting class that spent a year on Virginia’s books, trained under its tutelage, and then left before ever playing a minute. That would hit hard for any program, but especially at a place where the whole idea is a long-term mutual investment, a you-get-what-we-all-put-in-over-time ethos.
There is also the matter of veteran big man Kadin Shedrick’s departure to Texas. Shedrick did the long-term development process, became a very effective true center by his sophomore year, entered last season as the clear starter and then was benched in favor of Ben Vander Plas midway through the campaign. He was one of the more highly sought-after bigs in the portal when the Longhorns’ staff lured him to Austin. Virginia has four players arriving via the portal, as well as two top-70ish freshman talents arriving, and there are solid pieces already in the program. But losing Shedrick is a blow, and the loss of Traudt hurts for different reasons — reasons that go beyond the difficulty of unexpected turnover.
(Top photo of Gonzaga’s Mark Few: Ethan Miller / Getty Images)