A Deeper Dive Into the NEC Transfer “Epidemic”

As we churn through the dog days of summer, the talk of Twitter has focused on several issues related to college hoops. Student athlete compensation, the laughable non-conference schedules Rutgers and Georgetown recently released, and the growing number of transfers have mostly dominated the discussion. It’s the latter topic that caught my attention, especially as the NEC transfer market hit a fevered pitch this offseason with 24 premature departures. (Twenty-five if you count Earl Potts, who may not play collegiate basketball again.) 

According to Verbal Commits, there have been a record 849 players looking to take their talents elsewhere after the 2016-17 season, and it’s the transfer’s future destination that has been magnified of late.

Eli Boettger recently went through scores of transfer data and organized it into a fantastic post on AthleticDirectorU that I highly recommend.  The six seasons of data in a way invalidates the whole “transfer epidemic” narrative, especially after Boettger concluded that 58.7% of the transfers since 2012 left Division I basketball the following year. The idea that the majority of mid-major players are bolting for bigger and more prestigious programs turned out to be, in Boettger’s words, “almost entirely a myth.”

Additionally, Rob Dauster at NBC Sports was able to extract more data out of Boettger, specifically outlining where these transfers ended up after leaving their original destination. The data charts at the end of the Dauster’s post are the ones I’ll focus on when examining the NEC transfers relative to the rest of Division I.

There were other unfounded notions that Boettger shot down through his exhaustive research. On Twitter for example, he quickly debunked Seth Greenburg, after the former coach turned ESPN analyst threw out the opinion that most fifth-year seniors are likely to bolt for greener pastures as graduate transfers.

Back to Boettger’s research and how it relates to the NEC: the low mid-major (LM) transfers that make up the bottom 12 conferences according to KenPom have even more transfers leaving Division I. Only 4.7% of those players ventured to a top 6 conference, 5% to a top 20 conference, 17% to a “parallel” LM conference and 73.6% left Division I entirely.

The LM transfer leaving Division I at a higher rate, 73.6% versus 58.8%, does makes sense. If an underclassman isn’t good enough to crack a NEC/Big South/MEAC roster for example, then it’s unlikely another Division I school will take a chance on him right away. Instead, these players typically devote their sophomore season to showcasing their talent at a junior college, hoping they’ll find their way back to Division I as a junior. This approach has worked out well for former NEC players such as Sekou Harris, Leo Vincent, and Kevin Mickle.

What’s missing from Boettger’s extensive post is the year-to-year progression of the transfer. For example, while the sheer number of transfers has plateaued in recent offseasons (830 in 2015, 803 in 2016, 849 in 2017), does the percentage of up-transfers trend upward during that time frame?

A quick look at the NEC specifically shows us an interesting, and perhaps worrisome trend:

While the percentages of NEC players leaving for a top 6 or top 20 program seemed to level off from 2013 to 2016, the transfer exodus to a bigger program certainly hit its peak this offseason. Seven of the league’s suspected top 12 players coming into this offseason—Nisre Zouzoua, Quincy McKnight, Josh Nebo, Corey Henson, Miles Wilson, Elijah Long and Isaiah Still—have moved on. This is why I’m curious to look at the year-to-year data throughout the country. Perhaps 2017 is an outlier for the NEC and normalcy will be reestablished after the 2017-18 campaign?

Obviously it’ll take another offseason or two to answer this question, but the NEC is currently on notice.

Josh Nebo was one of the NEC stars who up-transferred to a Power 6 conference. (Photo Credit: Saint Francis U Athletics)

I’ve been told that the transfer discussions made its way to the league meetings this offseason, now that previously unaffected programs like Bryant, Saint Francis University and Mount St. Mary’s lost stars. Jamion Christian outlined some ideas to help combat transfers to Greg Swatek of the Frederick News-Post. In there, Christian’s suggestion to redistribute more of the NCAA tournament money to the league champion serves as a worthwhile idea. This would allow the program to reinvest, in facilities, the coaching staff, or add a cost of attendance stipend for every scholarship player.

Other coaches have theorized that a couple of failed moves upward could possibly inject some reality into players who have aspirations to play in a bigger conference, but may not have the physical attributes—size, speed, athleticism—to consistently produce at a higher level.

Unfortunately for the NEC coaches, these failed examples haven’t come to light as of yet. A quick glimpse at the noteworthy NEC up-transfers illustrates that most retained their impact at the higher level. This caveat was illustrated comparing the player’s KenPom offensive rating and their returning possession minutes (RPM) between their old team and new team. In most cases the player’s possession rate predictably went down (this makes sense with more scoring options on a better team), yet their offensive ratings were far more efficient. [Editor’s Note: John Templon explored this phenomenon for the 2012-13 College Basketball Prospectus.]

  • Coron Williams, Robert Morris to Wake Forest – +16.0 offensive rating, -0.6% RPM
  • Scott Eatherton, SFU to Northeastern: -1.4 offensive rating, +3.4% RPM
  • Marcquise Reed, Robert Morris to Clemson: +11.2 offensive rating, -7.3% RPM
  • Matt Mobley, CCSU to St. Bonaventure: +14.5 offensive rating, -3.1% RPM
  • Rodney Pryor, Robert Morris to Georgetown: +11.2 offensive rating, -2.2% RPM

We’ll surely learn a lot more of these 2017 transfers in the coming seasons. Will Nisre Zouzoua thrive as an undersized two-guard at Nevada in a very good Mountain West Conference? Can Eli Long and Miles Wilson provide a meaningful impact at their respective Power 6 programs? Will Kevin Willard properly utilize Quincy McKnight as an energetic, jack-of-all-trades guard for Seton Hall? It’ll take time for everything to play out, plus the 2016 transfers of Cane Broome, Marques Townes, and Elijah Minnie will give us more data points this upcoming season. (I, of course, love Broome’s upside at Cincinnati.)

Looking ahead, there are sophomore candidates within the league who could see their stock rise if they produce an All-NEC first team type of season. Adam Grant, Keith Braxton, Jashaun Agosto, Blake Francis, and Kaleb Bishop come to mind as possibilities to up-transfer should they emerge as the best in the NEC. Even so, will the transfer rate match or even surpass the 12 players that left for a top 20 conference this offseason? I’m skeptical.

The data suggests this offseason was an outlier, but obviously more is needed. Hopefully for the NEC’s sake, the league can begin to develop three and four-year players once again. Without them, building a program into a low mid-major powerhouse, a la Robert Morris 2009-2015, or LIU Brooklyn 2011-13, will be extremely difficult to do. Boettger’s data may have quelled some concerns on the so-called transfer epidemic, yet I’m not sure if the NEC coaches will be breathing a sigh of relief next spring when it’s time to assemble their 2018-19 roster.

You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride. Ryan wrote all ten NEC previews as well as the Iona, Manhattan and St. Peter’s preview for the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. Reserve your copy of the college basketball “bible” here.