At the end of Baylor’s 86-70 demolition of previously unbeaten Gonzaga on Monday night, the victorious Bears celebrated as hard as they played.
Macio Teague leaped atop the scorer’s table and raised both arms to the sky. Adam Flagler snapped selfies posing with the championship trophy. Davion Mitchell lay on the court making snow angels in the green and gold confetti. And Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua slapped a Baylor sticker onto a courtside bracket to signify the Bears were national champions.
It was a familiar title-clinching scene with one exception: Each member of that jubilant quartet began their college careers at another school.
In a reflection of today’s college basketball landscape, Baylor might be the most transfer-reliant championship team in the sport’s history. Not only were Teague, Mitchell, Flagler and Tchamwa Tchatchoua four of their team’s six leading scorers this season, that quartet also combined for 53 of the Bears’ 86 points against Gonzaga.
Remarkably, Baylor wasn’t even the most transfer-heavy team to reach this year’s Final Four. That was Houston, which features four starters and two other members of the team who began their careers elsewhere. UCLA and Gonzaga did not use quite so many transfers, but both brought aboard a select few. Johnny Juzang, the Bruins’ leading scorer, began his career at Kentucky, while Gonzaga guards Andrew Nembhard and Aaron Cook came from Florida and Southern Illinois.
In all, eight of this Final Four’s 20 starters were transfers, the highest percentage of any year in recent memory. From 2011 to 2015, there was never more than one transfer starter in the Final Four. In 2018, there were five. In 2019, there were three.
The prevalence of transfers at this year’s Final Four may offer a glimpse into the future of the sport. No longer is there a stigma attached to building around transfers. College coaches risk being left behind if they don’t scour the transfer market for talent as thoroughly as they recruit high school prospects.
As of late Monday night, there were more than 1,200 college basketball players in the transfer portal, according to data compiled by Verbalcommits.com. That’s already more than the 1,025 transfers the site listed at the end of last offseason.
Seven different St. John’s, Penn State and DePaul players have entered the portal. Memphis has five players considering a transfer. Other teams who have lost key pieces include Michigan State, North Carolina, Georgetown and Creighton.
The trend is partially a response to the expectation that the NCAA will abandon a rule requiring basketball transfers to sit out their first year at their new school. On April 15, The NCAA’s Division I council will vote on new legislation granting athletes permission to transfer without penalty once in their college careers.
What that means is that, for better or worse, free agency is coming to college basketball. The coaches who will flourish are the ones who adjust the fastest. It will require re-recruiting their own rosters at the end of each season. And sifting through the names in the portal in search of players who are a cultural fit and fill a need.
Of Baylor’s four standout transfers, only one came from a power-conference program. Unwilling to back up Jared Harper at Auburn, Mitchell sought a fresh start at Baylor, where the former top 100 recruit has blossomed into a dynamic two-way player and a potential NBA lottery pick.
Teague only had one scholarship offer in high school and began his college career at UNC Asheville. Flagler was also lightly recruited and spent his freshman year at Presbyterian. Least heralded of all might have been Tchamwa Tchatchoua, the Cameroonian big man who averaged a mere 3.4 points per game as a UNLV freshman.
Credit Baylor coach Scott Drew and his staff for outstanding talent evaluation. Mitchell, Teague and Flagler were three-quarters of an elite backcourt that sought out mismatches against Gonzaga and devoured them.
Time after time, Mitchell used a ball screen to get a favorable matchup against Gonzaga’s Drew Timme and then attacked off the dribble, creating scoring opportunities for himself or a teammate. Mitchell finished with 15 points and 5 assists. Teague and Flagler combined for 32 points, including five 3-pointers.
The sight of four transfers cutting down strands of net on Monday night will surely motivate more programs to target players in the portal.
Kentucky has been more active in the transfer market this spring after a down 2020-21 season. Expect more of college basketball’s premier programs to also mimic Baylor’s formula.
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