The Washington Post
At any college game, buy the program. You need it.
At one point in Maryland’s earlyseason run of nonconference men’s basketball games, the Terrapins’ point guard, who played the past four years at Rhode Island, passed — waist-high — to a teammate who played last season at Utah, on a fast break. The ball squirted away.
Mark Turgeon, the Terps’ 10thyear coach, yelled at Fatts Russell, the point guard and longtime Rhode Island Ram, “Throw a bounce pass!”
Ian Martinez, the wing and onetime Utah Ute, said, “I was telling him to throw a lob.”
“So there’s three of us, and we’re on three different pages,” Turgeon said.
In Division I men’s basketball this year, there are 1,068 players on 1,068 different pages. That’s how many players left one school and showed up at another in the first season in which players could transfer without sitting out a year — an average of three per program, according to the NCAA.
That decision was long overdue and wholly appropriate. The idea that coaches, who make millions of dollars annually, could hop from program to program unfettered but their players, who only this year were allowed to make even pocket change off their own brands, were limited in their movements was absurd. But there is an unmistakable and unintended result on the product: The sport essentially has a new free agent class each spring, and following a roster’s evolution during the offseason can be as difficult as developing chemistry once that season starts.
“I think it was close to 1,000 people in the transfer portal,” said Russell, who played 119 games for Rhode Island and will play his sixth for Maryland
on Thursday, when the Terrapins face Richmond in the Bahamas. “See, that’s too many people. There’s going to be certain people that’s not going to get the opportunity or have places they want to go. It gets tough.”
The Terrapins (4-1) are a microcosm of the trend. Russell has scored 1,658 points in his career — but just 64 in the uniform he currently wears. Qudus Wahab, the starting center, was a member of the 2021 all-big East tournament team with, of all teams, Georgetown. Martinez averaged nearly 16 minutes per game for Utah a year ago — yet now is in Turgeon’s rotation. Sophomore forward Pavlo Dziuba previously played at Arizona State. Graduate student Simon Wright previously played at Elon.
And Xavier Green played four years and 121 games for Old Dominion. Now he’s a grad student at Maryland — and, at 25, the oldest player in the Big Ten.
Who are these guys?
“You used to sit there and say, ‘All right, we’re going to be pretty good for the next two, three years,’ ” Turgeon said. “You just don’t do that now. You can’t.”
That’s because the entire sport is fluid. Try to follow along. Defending champ Baylor is getting double-figure scoring from guard James Akinjo, who started at Georgetown and then went to Arizona. Arizona has Pelle Larsson of Sweden via Utah, as well as Justin Kier of Virginia via Georgia and Oumar Ballo of Mali via Gonzaga. Gonzaga, which faced Baylor for the title, has Andrew Nembhard of Canada via Florida and Rasir Bolton of Virginia via Iowa State.
The sport is consumed by a six-degrees-of-kevin-bacon syndrome. There’s no end. It’s dizzying. And no program is left untouched.
The process, from the player’s perspective, can be alluring and exhausting. Players spend their prep and AAU careers being wooed by college programs, and this is merely another opportunity to have coaches tell them what a good fit they would be. When Russell — who said, “I put my heart and soul into Rhode Island” — asked URI officials to put his name into the transfer portal, the response was instant.
“It took, like, seconds,” he said. “I was excited at first. But after a while, it just gets draining.”
A Philadelphia native, Russell knew Terps senior forward Donta Scott, a mainstay in College Park, as well as guard Hakim Hart, also from Philly. Socially and with his teammates, he said he has settled in almost instantly.
“I probably shouldn’t say this,” he said, “but it kind of feels like home. I feel like I’ve been here four years.”
As much as the Terps had coming in this offseason, they also had outgoing personnel. Darryl Morsell played four years in College Park, becoming a defensive stalwart while averaging more than eight points. After four years, he had a shoulder injury — which limited his opportunities professionally. Eric Ayala was returning for the Terps, which limited Morsell’s opportunities to expand his offensive role.
So he transferred to Marquette. There, he’s excelling for new coach Shaka Smart, averaging 17.3 points and more than 31 minutes per game.
Morsell exemplifies the other aspect of the modern transfer: There doesn’t have to be bad blood.
“I think he had his mind made up,” Turgeon said. “He wanted something different.”
So when Morsell scored 22 to help lead the Eagles to a victory over Mississippi last week, Turgeon texted his old player congratulations. But if Morsell comes on the screen wearing blue and gold, it’s a bit of a gut punch.
“I can’t watch it,” Turgeon said. “It just doesn’t feel right.”
There, then, is modern college basketball. Recruit kids out of high school, as you always did. But also: Keep in mind whom you recruited out of high school and lost because they might be available again. Understand who might be looking for a change of scenery. And, finally, re-recruit your own players, who might feel committed to the program just because they’re in the program.
“It’s demanding,” Turgeon said. “Recruiting’s the hardest thing we do — not even close. So you got to find that right mix. Who you think might be leaving early for the NBA? How many high school guys are you going to sign? Is the high school guy going to affect you getting a really good transfer — or vice versa? It’s a delicate deal.”
For Maryland, it means a team assembled from all corners of the country might not know which way a pass on the break is going to go. The glory days of the Terps meant watching Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter, Steve Blake and Drew Nicholas develop — individually and together. Those days seem antiquated.
“I think every team will be different every year,” Turgeon said.
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