‘Plan for chaos’: Roster upheaval dominates college hoops

Bobby Hurley knows what’s coming.

At some point in the months ahead, one of his Arizona State players will walk into his office with surprising news.


“There’s a guy on my team right now that mostly likely is going to transfer that I won’t even think that he’s going to transfer,” the coach said.

Just like that, it will be time to rework roster plans and search for a potential replacement. And that scenario is playing out across college basketball in the transfer portal era, illustrating how roster management has become a major challenge for coaches facing abrupt — and sometimes drastic — changes in a wild world of free agency.

“Coaches love to control things … control offense, control defense, control everything in your program so it doesn’t go haywire,” said coach Scott Drew of fifth-ranked Baylor. “And roster management is the hardest thing to control because you never know from one year to the next who will transfer, who will turn pro.

“It used to be most college (teams) were dealing with three, four new players a year,” Drew added. “Now more and more are dealing with six, seven, eight new players.”

The days are gone of confidently projecting how a team will look after a few years of players developing together. Instead, it’s a guess now that players can freely move to chase minutes or endorsement opportunities elsewhere — especially if they have an extra year of eligibility because of the pandemic.

That has created a new coaching routine: spend the season essentially re-recruiting your own players to stay, then dive into the portal afterward to fill inevitable new roster holes.

“It’s more work intensive than ever in the spring,” said Hurley, who has four transfers and two scholarship freshmen as the season begins. “Even as your season’s winding down, you’re constantly communicating with your own players, trying to get a feel for where they are, what they might do or not do.

“And so that would give me an idea of what our roster could potentially look like based on what everybody’s going to decide to do here first. … Then the conversations begin in terms of trying to retool your roster.”

The October 2018 launch of the portal allowed athletes to declare transfer plans and for schools to contact them. But the NCAA’s move in April 2021 to grant athletes a one-time transfer without sitting out a year amounted to seismic change.

In its most recent data, the NCAA reported that 1,480 men’s basketball athletes in Division I entered their names in the portal from March to July 2021 as the rule was discussed and enacted, up from 810 for that range a year earlier. And 1,138 players — 769 undergraduates and 369 graduates – ultimately transferred during the 2020-21 sports season compared with 713 the previous year.

That would be the equivalent to nearly a quarter of scholarships (more than 4,700) available for 363 teams in Division I. And that accounts for only the first few months of what is now a full-on portal rush that has left coaches scrambling.

“You have to be in a position to pivot, alter and change,” said Hubert Davis at top-ranked North Carolina, which reached last year’s NCAA championship game.

Jon Scheyer, preparing for his debut season at seventh-ranked Duke, put it bluntly: “You do have to plan for chaos.”

At minimum, coaches face tougher decisions for building a roster for the season ahead, much less trying to map out years beyond.

“It’s a headache,” said Miami coach Jim Larranaga, fresh off the program’s first run to the NCAA Elite Eight. “Right now we have four seniors. I’d love to replace four seniors with four kids in high school. But that will make us so young next year that we can’t compete against the older and more experienced teams. So it’s a constant balancing. It’s like a seesaw.”

The challenge begins with determining how to use a program’s annual allotment of 13 scholarships. For many coaches, there’s little benefit to using them all, starting with the odds that players seeing little action will bolt.

“Are 13 guys going to play? No. So then who’s going to be unhappy?” Wake Forest coach Steve Forbes said. “Back in the days when I started, I redshirted guys. You say redshirt to somebody now, they think you’ve lost your mind.”

Scheyer — who is taking over for retired Hall of Famer Mike Krzyzewski — would prefer to hold back at least one scholarship annually to react to the unexpected.

“We want to be careful not to over-recruit to get where we have 13 scholarships,” said Scheyer, whose first team has two power-conference transfers among 11 new players.

“Things happen late now so you want to make sure you have wiggle room and flexibility. That can be hard to predict.”

Hall of Famer Tom Izzo at Michigan State has noticed lower scholarship numbers across the sport — even with his own team having 10 recruited players this season.

“Why do a lot of schools have 11, 12, 10 guys on scholarship? Because they’re holding off for this, they’re holding off for that,” Izzo said. “Or they know they can’t keep 13 happy anymore. So there are kids that are not getting a scholarship in high school because everybody’s just going with the transfer. There’s some unintended consequences with this whole thing.”

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