by Jeffery Gordon

Juwan Howard and Michigan used a combo of transfers and homegrown players to succeed in 2020-2021/Al Goldis-AP

It’s April 6th, which means the 2020-21 college basketball season has come to an end. The Baylor Bears routed the Gonzaga Bulldogs to take home their first national title in program history. However, this article will not be about that game or even about the season; it will be focused on the off-season and how coaches recruit to build their rosters. These days, coaches do not just recruit on the AAU circuit, but instead have taken an alternate route to recruiting players: the transfer portal There are already 1,220 names in the portal and the season only ended yesterday. Coaches such as Juwan Howard and Chris Beard have used this resource to lead their teams to successful regular seasons and deep runs in the tournament. 

According to the NCAA, “[t]he Transfer Portal is a NCAA application to systematically manage the transfer process for Division I, II and III student-athletes. The portal is the first step in the application of the Division I notification of transfer and Division II and III permission to contact.” In other words, student-athletes are able to put their name into a portal, which alerts schools that they are transferring from their school, allowing them to be contacted by other coaches. However, even if you do enter the transfer portal, you still have the opportunity to return to the school you are transferring from and remove yourself from the portal. We have already seen that be the case with Indiana University. After the firing of Archie Miller, Khristan Lander and Jordan Geronimo entered the portal but when IU hired Mike Woodson, he was able to keep the players home. 

There is still the trend of one and done freshman 4 and 5 stars in college basketball, but no team has won a national championship with a make up of that roster since Duke in 2015. That team was highlighted by the freshman trio of Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones. The last team ever to come close to even a Final Four with a predominantly freshman lineup is the 2017 Kentucky Wildcats who lost in the Elite Eight to eventual champion North Carolina. That team consisted of De’Aaron Fox, Bam Adebayo and Malik Monk. Another team that comes to mind is the 2018 Duke team with Zion Willamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish who lost to Michigan State in the Elite Eight as well. This certainly raises the question of whether coaches should recruit one and done players or tap into the trendy transfer portal? 

Michigan and Juwan Howard are a perfect example of choosing to go through the transfer portal to build their roster. Heading into this season, Michigan had commitments from two consensus top 50 players in the 2020 class in five-star PF Isaiah Todd and four-star Hunter Dickinson and were considered the front-runners for five-star SG Josh Christopher. Eventually, Isaiah Todd decided to decommit and go the G-League route and Josh Christopher committed to Arizona State to join his brother Caleb. Although Michigan returned four key players in Isaiah Livers, Franz Wagner, Eli Brooks and Brandon Johns, they suffered a major loss in 4 year guard Zavier Simpson and were in need of a point guard, but lost out on two high-end recruits. Enter Mike Smith, a transfer from Columbia University who led the Ivy League in scoring during the 2019-20 season. There were questions of whether he could handle power 5 college basketball due to his lack of height but Coach Howard took the chance. Next, Howard got a commitment from Chaundee Brown, a Wake Forest transfer who was a thousand point scorer in the ACC and a great perimeter defender. 

After starting the season off unranked, Michigan went on to win the Big Ten regular season title for the first time since 2014 and earned a number one seed in the NCAA tournament. Mike Smith averaged 30 minutes a game this year and was the Wolverines starting PG. Chaundee Brown came off the bench and provided a spark for Michigan and most noticeably scored 21 points in a second round victory over LSU to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. He also was able to limit Cam Thomas of LSU in the second half on the defensive end. Isaiah Todd showed flashes in the G-League bubble, highlighted by a game winner but did not get as much exposure as he might have had at Michigan. Josh Christopher only played in 15 games this season for ASU and averaged 14 points a game on 43% shooting from the floor. 

Both Todd and Christopher will be considered draft prospects for the upcoming 2021 NBA draft. With Todd’s size and athleticism and the way Christopher is able to score the ball, they both should find spots on NBA rosters. While Chaundee Brown and Mike Smith are not considered as high of NBA prospects as Todd and Chrisopher, they provided the 2020-21 Michigan team something neither Todd or Christopher could have and that is college basketball experience. 

With notable names such as Walker Kessler, Marcus Carr and Rocket Watts entering the portal head coaches will be looking to add some of these players and look at the success Michigan had with it. Schools like Kentucky and Texas could be building their rosters for next season mostly through the transfer portal, due to loss of players through the draft or portal. This all brings me back to the question I raised earlier: should coaches recruit one and done players or tap into the trendy transfer portal? I believe finding experienced players in the portal and recruiting players who will stick around for more than a year is the way to go about building a roster. This transfer portal reminds me of a type of college basketball free agency and I for one am really excited about the future of it.