Transfer talent increasingly important as competition heats up
Eastern Michigan has joined an ever-growing list of programs relying on transfers
Transfers bring maturity, experience that can take time for freshmen to develop
Knowing opportunities are limited, transfers are desperate to prove themselves
Daylen Harrison is a chemistry major. The subject grabbed hold of him in Mr. Graham's middle school science class and it has been a periodic fixation ever since. He may go into engineering, or maybe enter pharmacy work. Regardless, one idea has always intrigued him: How fundamental forces can bring things together.
Which leads him to the current experiment in Ypsilanti, Mich. An unexpected coaching change led the 6-foot-6 swingman to leave Wyoming and make the move to Eastern Michigan. In the process, he wound up in his element on every possible level.
Harrison joined two other transfers: Arkansas' Glenn Bryant and Syracuse's Da'Shonte Riley. In fact, of 15 names on the Eagles' roster, nine began their careers elsewhere. And so Eastern Michigan has become yet another program attempting to build by dipping into an ever-growing list of talent bouncing from one program to the next, trying to win sooner, rather than later.
"We've been places and didn't have the type of success we wanted," Harrison said, "but we think we can get it here."
It is not organic shopping, perusing the transfer market for key ingredients in program-building. The more natural path of cultivating freshmen is the preferred one. Some just don't see that as a viable option, not when a new regime finds a dearth of ability on arrival, not when initial struggles could turn off young talent anyway, not when transfer options are abundant and make sense in offering a team its foothold.
A year ago, Iowa State featured eight transfers with varying levels of eligibility. This year, Missouri also has eight players from elsewhere on board. The reasons for those roster compositions vary. The philosophies were similar: The right secondhand players can offer first-rate reliability.
"The biggest thing we needed to do was get the talent to where we needed it to be to compete in the Big 12 conference," Cyclones coach Fred Hoiberg said. "It's the landscape of college basketball now...In the case of the six guys we've had in the two-year (span), they're very talented players that played key roles at their teams in previous spots. It's a good way to increase your talent base. It worked for us."
The blueprint, Hoiberg said, was to steady the program and then bring in four-year talent. Then there's Missouri, coming off a 30-win season and now situated in the preseason top 25. "The quick fix never came to my mind," Tigers coach Frank Haith said. "It was all about maintaining success, not having that huge drop-off...If we went out to sign freshmen kids that were not good enough for this level, it's not fair to the kids, it's not fair to the program, it's not fair to our fan base. We wanted to sustain, maintain. Now we're on solid footing."
While Rob Murphy coached at Syracuse, that program welcomed one transfer, total: Wesley Johnson. That experience -- Johnson played one season and became the No. 4 overall pick in 2010 -- cured Murphy of hesitation. When he arrived at Eastern Michigan and had to fix a program that hadn't played in the NCAA tournament since 1998, Murphy had his plan.
"I knew the way for us to get good right away was for me to be able to go get two or three guys that probably were unhappy, that were really good players that could come here and have an immediate impact," Murphy said. "If I can get three quality transfers -- guys that have probably had 200 practices under their belt, played in probably 40-plus games -- you can't replace that experience with a high school player."
Murphy did not consider it risky business. He coached Riley at Syracuse and was in the process of helping the player and his mother find a new spot when he accepted the Eastern Michigan gig. Instantly, he had a towering presence that, given how much hype he received while at Detroit Country Day School, offered validation in Michigan circles by name-recognition alone.
Then came Bryant, another Detroit native and an Oak Hill Academy product, who wanted to be near his mother. Then came Harrison. Then came the immersion process. The players lived together in the Peninsular Place apartments near campus. They worked out together. If Eastern Michigan road games weren't televised, they positioned a laptop high enough that they all could watch at once.
"Having a couple years under your belt, we kind of knew what to expect and what to do, so we gelled pretty quickly," Bryant said. "We're really all adults, there's nothing we have to adjust to or anything. We all played the same sport we have been for years. We all expect the same things from each other. That really wasn't a problem."
All of them sat out the 2011-12 season. In a meeting with the Eagles' holdovers before that campaign, Murphy laid out the dynamic: If you have success in practice against these guys, when we get into MAC play, you won't see anybody much better. Eastern Michigan won the MAC West division after being picked 11th overall and Murphy won Coach of the Year honors. "When we stepped on the floor against other opponents, they were totally confident," Murphy said. "Because those (transfer) guys beat them up in practice and made them work hard."
When Harrison made his visit to Eastern Michigan, Murphy told him, simply, that he had to get it right this time. Hence the more subtle benefit of relying on transfers: Provided that they are not lost causes as citizens -- Hoiberg said he leaned on his NBA experience to do full background checks on each transfer he signed -- they are desperate to prove themselves.
Haith took his club to Europe in the offseason and did other team-building activities to get it to coalesce, given the new-blood infusion. It didn't take long. "They're manageable, because this is it for them," Haith said. "They got to get it right. They know they have to work at it, this is it. There's no other place to go."
If it is not the normal way to do things, it provides a bridge to it. Instead of perhaps getting ground to dust in the Big 12, Iowa State beat Kansas and Baylor in the regular season and then Connecticut in the NCAA tournament before giving eventual national champion Kentucky a run and bowing out. "You can talk about your system all you want," Hoiberg said. "If a recruit can see your product on the floor at the highest setting, that's great."
The first day of practice for Eastern Michigan was liberating. The core of this year's team traded in scout-team duties for the more acute responsibility of defending a division title and earning a postseason bid. They had ventured out for college basketball careers and they all came back, finding restorative refuge in Ypsilanti. Now they wanted to see how far they could go.
"We're hungry, I can tell you that much," Bryant said. "After sitting out a whole year, we got a hungry group of guys ready to get after it."
Brian Hamilton is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. You can follow him on Twitter at @ChiTribHamilton.