Commentary

Mid-majors welcome power-conference transfers with open arms

Originally Published: September 19, 2008
By Kyle Whelliston

As a prep, Jonathan Huffman was a 6-foot-5 shooting star at Central Park Christian in Birmingham, just another wide-eyed kid trying valiantly to model his game after Michael Jordan's. But then something interesting happened -- his height shot up seven inches, but his hands remained small and soft.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Hoffman
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesJonathan Huffman decided to follow former Louisville assistant Kevin Willard to Iona.
"I was always a good outside shooter," said Huffman, who averaged 17.1 ppg and 10.2 rpg in his senior year in high school. "But once I grew, I never lost my touch."

For someone who required a complete wardrobe overhaul for his suddenly skyscraper-like frame, a power conference like the Big East was the most natural fit of all. Rick Pitino, who once said the 7-foot Huffman possessed a "Taquan Dean jump shot," signed the Alabama native to a national letter of intent. The intriguing, defense-stretching offensive weapon would suit up in red and black for the 2005-06 season.

But Huffman spent two long seasons on the Louisville bench in his warmups, completely lost in the shuffle behind Cardinal big men like David Padgett and Terrance Farley. He averaged only 4.2 minutes per game in two seasons, mostly registered during early-season blowouts and in Big East garbage time. As of March 2007, the end of his sophomore season, his measly stat sheet showed just 1.1 ppg over the course of 27 games, and a long list of "Did Not Play-Coach's Decision" entries.

Eighteen months later, Huffman is an Iona Gael, having joined the ranks of former power-conference players who have made the decision to sit out the NCAA-mandated transfer year and resurface at mid-major programs. Following the recent lead of productive transplants like Josh Akognon (Washington State to 2008 Big West champions Cal State Fullerton) and recent Appalachian State scoring leader Donte Minter (a former Virginia Cavalier), there will be over 50 "trickle-down transfers" becoming eligible in the 2008-09 season.

And some of these fresh-starting players at mid-major schools, with increased playing opportunities and heightened expectations, could make major impacts on league races.

"He simply didn't get to play that much [at Louisville]," said Iona head coach Kevin Willard, who watched Huffman shoot a combined 16-for-20 during a three-game Labor Day weekend trip in Canada. "But he's in great shape, he runs the court well, and he's always been such a good outside shooter. It's going to be hard for teams to rotate on him when he steps out. I've given him a simple rule: If you're open, just shoot the basketball."

In Huffman's example, it was simply a matter of staying loyal to a coach who understood him. Last summer, when Willard accepted the task of building his own program after six years as a Louisville assistant, Huffman threw out his list of possible transfer destinations (which included close-to-home schools like Auburn and UAB) and followed Willard to Iona's New Rochelle, N.Y. campus.

"I've felt comfortable with Coach Willard from the beginning," said Huffman. "He's been a real father figure to me. I've always been able to trust him, even with off-the-court stuff. I also didn't want to go through too many new things when I transferred. I've found out that the process of going to a new place is hard enough as it is."

Change of Scenery

Of the players who will be eligible this season after sitting out a year, here are some to keep an eye on. (*Player will be eligible after the fall semester)

Player Current School Former School
Ben Allen, C, Jr. Saint Mary's Indiana
Jamal Barney, G, So. Loyola (Md.) Providence
Bilal Benn, G, Jr. Niagara Villanova
Casaan Breeden*, F, Sr. Charleston Florida State
Rob Garrison, G, Jr. Niagara UConn
Xavier Hansbro, F, Jr. Georgia State Ole Miss
Joe Harden*, F, So. UC Davis Notre Dame
Marquez Haynes, G, Jr. Texas-Arlington Boston College
Mac Hopson, G, Jr. Idaho Washington State
Jonathan Hoffman, F, Jr. Iona Louisville
Maurice Joseph, G, Jr. Vermont Michigan State
Phil Nelson, F, So. Portland State Washington
Champ Oguchi, G, Sr. Illinois State Oregon
Kashif Pratt, G, So. Iona Seton Hall
Bernard Rimmer, F, Jr. Georgia State Mississippi State
Lamar Roberson, F, Jr. La.-Lafayette UNLV
Sylvester Seay, F, Jr. Fresno State Arizona State
Ricky Torres, G, So. UMBC St. John's
Benny Valentine, G, Jr. Eastern Washington Texas Tech
Decensae White*, F, Jr. Santa Clara Texas Tech

But in some cases, players are transferring to return home. As a sophomore, Marquez Haynes was a mid-major recruit at Irving Nimitz High School in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, and was heavily pursued by local Southland Conference school University of Texas-Arlington with a flurry of e-mails and letters. But when the 6-3 guard scored 20.6 ppg during his junior year, showing up on top 100 lists around the country, Haynes vaulted himself into a completely different recruiting stratosphere.

"We just stopped going after him after that," said UTA head coach Scott Cross. "He pretty much just blew up; his recruitment just got out of control. We knew we had no chance. He was looking to play at the highest level of college basketball."

Haynes chose Boston College, but often found himself taking a seat in the ACC. He served as a seldom-used role player in two seasons with the Eagles, playing a sporadic 17.5 minutes as a sophomore and averaging 3.8 ppg. When he decided to move on last summer, he remembered his roots.

"All of a sudden he called up and said he was interested in transferring," recalled Cross. "He came and visited with us, and we had a scholarship available, so we were more than happy to take him in. Tommy Moffitt was one of his high school teammates who plays with us now, they have a great friendship. … Tommy helped a lot in bringing Marquez here.

"Now he gets a chance to elevate his game and be a go-to-guy, instead of just another player."

Maurice Joseph is another coveted high-major prospect that returned home for a chance for game elevation. Given the choice between schools including Boston College, Ohio State, N.C. State and Wake Forest, the highly-touted perimeter threat jumped at the chance to play for Tom Izzo at Michigan State. Though Joseph delivered 5.9 ppg in 31 games in his second collegiate season, he had a hunger for more playing time. So after the 2006-07 campaign ended, he took his game to the University of Vermont.

"Being closer to my family was part of it," explained Joseph, who grew up 90 minutes north of campus in Montreal and hasn't lost his slight Quebec accent. "But I definitely wanted to be more of a focal point, play a bigger role for a team. At Vermont, I know I'll get a chance to play a lot of minutes for a team that can go to the Big Dance every year."

In Burlington, he'll join up this season with fellow junior Marqus Blakely, the America East's returning player of the year (19.0 ppg, 11.0 rpg), as the Catamounts aim for a reprise of their mid-decade NCAA glory days.

"I've learned that this is a very guard-heavy league," said Joseph, who spent his transfer season healing from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder. "In the Big Ten, if you have a talented big guy you can win a lot of games … the key difference is the physicality. But we've got a great backcourt with Marqus, myself and [senior guard] Mike Trimboli here at Vermont. We have a chance to do some real damage in this conference."

In the cutthroat, breakneck-paced world of summer prep recruiting, it's virtually impossible for a smaller school like Vermont, Texas-Arlington or Iona to attract the attention of a highly rated prep talent, especially when power-conference teams with well-known names are in the mix for a player's services.

But there is no such thing as "secondary recruiting" -- that is to say, there won't be a trend of mid-major coaches lurking around the ends of SEC benches anytime soon. NCAA rules clearly stipulate that Division I players who intend to transfer to another D-I institution must obtain a "permission-to-contact" letter from their school's athletic director before talking to another school, permission that ADs are within their rights to refuse. And except in extraordinary circumstances, players only have the opportunity to transfer between D-I colleges once, and the NCAA's "five-year clock" of eligibility starts ticking at the beginning of freshman year.

And if a transfer destination doesn't work out, a player's only remaining exit strategy is usually to drop off the D-I map -- to Division II, III or the NAIA.

[+] EnlargeMaurice Joseph
Sally McCay/UVM PhotoMaurice Joseph, right, will partner with returning America East POY Marqus Blakely, left, at Vermont this season.
"Transfers are a dicey business," said Willard, who will also bring in guard Kashif Pratt, who left Seton Hall in 2007 after his freshman year, dissatisfied with his 5.7 minutes per game. "You should never take a transfer just to take one. You have to be very, very careful, and make sure it's as good a fit as possible, make sure the kid is transferring for all the right reasons. From my perspective, I look at it as a player's last chance. If he goes to a new school and doesn't like it, he's screwed. He pretty much can't leave again."

Either way, players must spend a year establishing residency at their new school as a full-time student, except in rare cases when an NCAA waiver establishes instant eligibility. But for many of these former power-conference players who make the jump to mid-majors, the opportunity for a fresh start is worth both the risk and the one-year wait.

"So far, this has really worked out," said Huffman of his transfer process. "It's just right here at Iona, I've really fit in well. The only tough thing has been sitting out and not being able to play, but that's over now."

Kyle Whelliston is the national mid-major reporter for Basketball Times and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Kyle Whelliston

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
Kyle Whelliston has contributed to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage since 2005. He covers mid-major programs for Basketball Times magazine, and will have a basketball travelogue of the 2008-09 season published next summer. Whelliston also founded midmajority.com and statistical database site Basketball State (bbstate.com).