As the Final Four Finishes, a Parallel Transfer Season Plays Out, Too

HOUSTON — It wasn’t long before Kansas and North Carolina tipped off for the men’s college basketball championship in New Orleans last April that Darrion Trammell called San Diego State Coach Brian Dutcher with some news. He wanted to join the Aztecs.

Now, a full year later, it is easy to see the consequence of that decision.

Trammell, a transfer from Seattle University who was courted by Texas Tech and Southern California, among others, has been an indispensable cog for San Diego State, which has reached the men’s Final Four for the first time. He scored 21 points in the upset of top-ranked Alabama, and his free throw with 1.2 seconds left lifted the Aztecs over Creighton in the South Regional final.

“It’s wild how it’s all worked out,” Trammell said on Friday, one day before San Diego State was set to play Florida Atlantic for a spot in the national championship game. “Ultimately, the grass isn’t always greener. I’m one of the luckiest ones.”

He wasn’t the only one with good fortune.

San Diego State was able to put a full-court press on Trammell — flying Dutcher and his three assistants to Seattle to meet with him over shrimp scampi and entertaining him on a visit to campus — because its season had ended early, after a first-round loss in the N.C.A.A. tournament.

In basketball, the creation of the transfer portal, and teams’ reliance on it to reconstruct their rosters, has given birth to a sort of consolation bracket for teams whose seasons come to a premature end, a shadow recruiting season that begins alongside the N.C.A.A. tournament.

So, while San Diego State, Connecticut, Florida Atlantic and Miami coaches were busy poring over video and drawing up game plans for Saturday’s national semifinals, everyone else was making pitches and setting up visits with some of the 1,100 men’s players who have jumped into the transfer portal since it opened on March 13, the day after the bracket was announced.

Already, players like Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson, North Carolina’s Caleb Love, Oregon’s Kel’el Ware and Kentucky’s Sahvir Wheeler are looking for new homes, and a pair of former elite high school prospects have found one — JJ Starling going from Notre Dame to Syracuse and Skyy Clark going from Illinois to Louisville.

Women’s players to hit the portal include North Carolina’s Kennedy Todd-Williams, Duke’s Shayeann Day-Wilson, Iowa State’s Lexi Donarski and James Madison’s Kiki Jefferson, while Belmont’s Destinee Wells has already signed with Tennessee.

“Yeah, how about that?” Miami Coach Jim Larrañaga said. “The more you win, the less you are able to recruit. That doesn’t really make sense, but it’s true.”

Another certitude is that astute mining of the portal can prompt quick turnarounds. Pittsburgh, North Carolina State, Missouri and Kansas State all had losing records last season, but overhauled their rosters and landed in the N.C.A.A. tournament this season.

In this men’s Final Four, eight of the 20 players who are expected to start on Saturday began their careers elsewhere. Seven of the 20 starters in the women’s semifinals on Friday were transfers, including four of the five L.S.U. starters.

“Without question, you can win right away,” Rick Pitino said when he was introduced recently as the coach for St. John’s, adding that he expected to have six to eight new players. “If you have these collectives, then you go out there and you get yourself free agents.”

The Connecticut men’s team used the portal the way an N.B.A. team might, to refine rather than reshape its roster. The Huskies added three guards: Tristen Newton, Nahiem Alleyne and Joey Calcaterra, all of whom are good shooters who can better spread defenses around center Adama Sanogo.

San Diego State was so occupied evaluating and entertaining players in the portal last year that it did not begin watching high school-age recruits in person until June, something that once would have sounded like recruiting malpractice. It is likely to happen again this year.

A sign of how energetically teams are working the portal came last week at the East Regional at Madison Square Garden, when Florida Atlantic Coach Dusty May raised eyebrows by saying that some schools (or their intermediaries) didn’t have the courtesy to wait until the Owls’ season was over to contact his players.

“They’re getting recruited now,” May said. “They’ve been recruited through this tournament.”

These aren’t wild aspersions. They came right from his own players.

Asked Friday if he was bothered by that, May shrugged. “I wasn’t accusing anyone,” he said. “I never said the word ‘poaching.’ I just said our players are being — there’s a lot of avenues to get directly to players now.”

He added: “I wasn’t complaining. It’s stating the obvious.”

Alijah Martin, a guard with two years of eligibility remaining, declined to say whether he was among the Owls who had been contacted about transferring. “That’s what’s going to happen when you play on good teams,” he said. “Other teams are going to want your help.” He added that May had handled the situation well: “Most coaches would immediately feel like you’ve been backstabbed.”

No school in the men’s Final Four — and perhaps in the country — has been as deeply immersed in the transfer world as San Diego State. It has been an integral element of the program for nearly a quarter-century.

When Steve Fisher, the former Michigan coach, lifted to life a moribund program, he did it largely by attracting talented players who were looking for a fresh start. When the Aztecs won the Mountain West tournament and reached the N.C.A.A. tournament in Fisher’s third season, in 2003, they started five transfers.

Since then, they have been a second home for West Coast players whose ambitions had changed. Xavier Thames, a bounce-back player from Washington State, was one of five transfers who in 2014 carried the Aztecs to a 31-5 record and the round of 16. Malachi Flynn, now with the Toronto Raptors, was one of three transfers who started in 2020, when the Aztecs were 30-2 before the N.C.A.A. tournament was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In addition to Trammell, the Aztecs on Saturday will start Matt Bradley, a physical guard who began his career at California. Coming off the bench will be guard Micah Parrish, who transferred from Oakland, and forward Jaedon Ledee, who arrived via Texas Christian and Ohio State. “The transfer portal hasn’t changed our program too much,” said David Velasquez, an assistant coach at San Diego State who has been in the program for 21 years. “It did in terms of competition for transfers.”

The talent may not flow so freely next season. The N.C.A.A. recently sent a memo to schools indicating that it aims to rein in movement. Players would still be allowed a first transfer, and would be allowed to move again if they graduate without having to sit out a season. But if a player leaves a second school, he or she would have to apply for a waiver to be eligible immediately. Otherwise, players would have to sit out a year — as they had until recent years.

Some schools have proceeded with business as usual, while others have said players who can play immediately would be a priority.

Dutcher said on Thursday that he’d spoken to a recruit on the way to the stadium for practice, urging him to be patient — that there’s a reason he and his staff aren’t more attentive.

“While we’re sitting here getting ready for the greatest event in the world, there are coaches doing home visits and recruiting for next year’s team,” Dutcher said. “So as focused as I am now, I’ve also got one eye on the future. If you don’t do that, you shouldn’t be coaching.”

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