College basketball a big transfer game for Cajuns, others
The UL basketball team has four new signees for the 2020-21 season, and among them just one — Michael Thomas, a point guard from Hamilton Christian in Lake Charles — is straight out of high school.
Two — former Mississippi State guard Devin Butts and ex-University of Portland big man Theo Akwuba — played at different NCAA Division I programs last season.
The other — guard Bryan Au — comes from a junior college program, Ranger College in Texas.
The high number of transfers, Ragin’ Cajuns coach Bob Marlin suggests, is no coincidence.
“We want to get older. … It’s important,” he said recently.
The need is a byproduct of both happenstance and the direction college basketball has turned to in recent years, even more so since the advent of the NCAA transfer portal — essentially, a clearinghouse for student-athletes looking for a new school — in 2018.
Two Cajuns — freshman guard Calvin Temple and sophomore big man Kristian Lafayette — entered the portal shortly after the conclusion of 2019-20 season.
Graduate transfer Jalen Johnson, who is headed to Mississippi State after leading UL in both scoring and rebounding last season, later did the same.
So the Cajuns needed some age for the season to come, in a hurry.
And they’re not alone.
As of Tuesday morning — according to verbalcommits.com, which tracks NCAA Division I basketball players who are coming and going — the count for 2020 was 879, fast-approaching last year’s 885, a record since data first was recorded in 2012.
The arguably sad but undeniably true reality of the portal era is that coaches — many often pressured to either produce right away in today’s what-have-you-done-for-me-lately culture of major college sports, or to start looking for a new job — no longer can afford to properly develop a full class of young players like they once could.
“A lot of people don’t have time,” Marlin said, “to take multiple freshmen, and then have those guys not contribute right away.”
No longer can all programs be patient enough to take time to develop talent, like Marlin and the Cajuns did when then-junior point guard Elfrid Payton, now with the NBA’s New York Knicks, led them in 2014, along with Mississippi State transfer Shawn Long, who played previously for the Philadelphia 76ers, to their only NCAA Tournament appearance in the 10-season Marlin UL era.
No longer can all be patient enough to develop talent like Marlin did when Bryce Washington and Johnathan Stove helped lead the Cajuns to a school-record number of victories in 2017-18, then to rebuild around new crop of youngsters.
And sometimes it’s just a matter of roster makeup developments, including injuries and departures, that prompt the need for an influx of newcomers with experience.
Thus the transfer additions for UL, although it still is not known if two of them — Butts and Akwuba — will be eligible to play right away, or if they will have to sit out a season in accord with current NCAA transfer rules.
A UL spokesman said Tuesday there was “no update” on eligibility.
Committee recommendations are that the NCAA not allow a one-time transfer exception for 2020-21 when the matter is voted on later this month, and if that’s the case those two would have to rely on a hardship waiver ruling to avoid sitting out.
For the Cajuns, in any event, the ratio of reliance on transfers and development of freshmen have varied on a year-to-year basis.
Last year, UL started the season with five true freshmen (Kobe Julien, Javonne Lowery, Mylik Wilson, Chris Spenkuch and Temple) and three new juco transfers (Tirus Smith, Dou Gueye and injured Durey Cadwell).
But Cadwell missed the entire season, starters Lowery and Julien both sustained season-ending injuries early on and UL finished 14-19.
Two seasons prior to that, in 2017-18, Washington’s and Stove’s senior season, the Cajuns went 27-7.
“If you look back at your team that set the school record for wins,” Marlin said, “we had four starters that were transfers in that lineup.”
Three were fourth-year juniors, one was a fifth-year senior.
And all four came from Division I programs after playing meaningful minutes for two seasons at high-major programs, then sat out a season after coming to mid-major UL: Frank Bartley IV (BYU), JaKeenan Gant (Missouri), Marcus Stroman (South Carolina) and Malik Marquetti (Southern Cal).
Washington was the fifth starter and Stove was UL’s sixth man that season.
“So, we certainly feel like we wanted to get older (for 2020-21),” Marlin said. “That’s the way that college basketball is happening these days.”
All over the country.
But transfers, of course, can be risky propositions too.
Many pan out.
Bartley, UL’s scoring leader his senior season, certainly did. Stroman, the Sun Belt Conference’ss assists leader as a senior, and Gant, a two-time SBC Defensive Player of the Year, did too. Marquetti was until he sustained a career-ending, season-senior knee injury.
But some don’t always mesh with new teammates. Others get hurt early on, or have discipline-related issues.
Smith, a juco-transfer who began his college career at UTEP, ended the season serving a disciplinary suspension.
Cadwell injured a knee last offseason and took a medical redshirt.
And the Cajuns invested two years in Johnson, who played his first two seasons at St. Louis University before transferring to UL. But after sitting out a season and playing last season, he’s out of the picture now.
Elsewhere in the Sun Belt, South Alabama — which has relied heavily on transfers lately — reportedly has learned that highly hyped Nebraska graduate transfer Dachon Burke will turn pro early rather than join the Jaguars for 2020-21.
Which is why the key to it all might be balance.
“So,” Marlin said, “the development piece of it important.
“But when you can get an older guy that’s played Division I basketball, even over a junior college guy, then it certainly makes sense to do that if you’ve got a relationship with the young man.”