Transfer players, 'quick fix,' becoming more common among MAC schools

1/7/2013
BY RYAN AUTULLO
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
UT's Rian Pearson moves in front of Justin Drummond in practice. Pearson transfered from Green Bay, Drummond from Loyola (Md.).
UT's Rian Pearson moves in front of Justin Drummond in practice. Pearson transfered from Green Bay, Drummond from Loyola (Md.).

When the Mid-American Conference pops the cork this week on its league season, several headlining teams will roll out lineups constructed of players who began their careers elsewhere.

Most of the title contenders in the MAC have chosen the often controversial method of augmenting their roster with transfers, a quick fix for success no longer viewed as uncommon in a transient era in which a flurry of players nationally are fleeing from one program to another.

Of the 60 starting spots among the MAC’s 12 teams, 17 feature a player that arrived from another NCAA institution or a junior college. Eleven of them hail from the West division, where Eastern Michigan accounts for a league-most four and the University of Toledo three.

In all, 40 players have emigrated from elsewhere to the MAC, whose recent alumni of transfers includes conference players of the year and All-MAC selections. Only two schools, one being Western Michigan, whose coach Steve Hawkins has an aversion for taking transfers, are comprised entirely of players signed from high school.

Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk, whose reliance on imports was the main reason his team upped its win total by 15 games last season, believes the MAC’s position within the basketball rich Midwest makes it an ideal destination for disenchanted players seeking a second lease on their college careers.

"I think geographically there’s so many good players in the area and guys that may go to high-major schools initially," said Kowalczyk, who has six transfers. "Because of that, this league has had a history of doing well with transfers."

A sample: Players of the Year Al Fisher (Kent State, 2008) and Mike Williams (Western Michigan, 2004), both of whom arrived after toiling at a junior college; Anthony Simpson (Kent), Carlton Guyton (Kent), and Quincy Diggs (Akron), each named the MAC’s top sixth man from 2010 to 2012; Ohio’s Armon Bassett, a defection from Indiana who garnered MAC tournament MVP honors in 2010; and former Colorado player Xavier Silas, who led the league in scoring in 2010-11 with Northern Illinois before embarking on a nomadic NBA career.

"I did research on the league, and they had a lot of transfers that did well," said Toledo’s Justin Drummond, who is poised to be among the MAC’s best players after sitting out this year upon his transfer from Loyola (Md.).

The league’s current wave of transfers consists of four players — Toledo’s Rian Pearson, Eastern Michigan’s Derek Thompson, Central Michigan’s Kyle Randall, and Kent State’s Chris Evans — who lead their teams in scoring, and four others averaging in double figures. Pearson (19.2 points per game) and Evans (16.5 ppg) are the league’s top scorers.

Bowling Green's Richaun Holmes rebounds against Michigan State's Alex Gauna. Holmes transferred from Moraine Valley (Ill.) Community College.
Bowling Green's Richaun Holmes rebounds against Michigan State's Alex Gauna. Holmes transferred from Moraine Valley (Ill.) Community College.

Bowling Green’s Richaun Holmes, who ranks third in the MAC in blocked shots, is one of two transfers for the Falcons. Like teammate Josh Gomez, who is sitting out this season, Holmes fits the archetype desired by many coaches, including his, concerning transfers. That is to say they play a position — interior — often bereft of high school talent prepared to make an immediate impact, and they have three years of eligibility remaining.

"When you have a young man for three years that’s a bonus," Falcons coach Louis Orr said. "They still have time to grow and develop. The year he sits out is important. The transfer improves. He learns the system and he grows."

The teams picked at or near the top of the MAC preseason polls have undergone an infusion of transfers. Projected West winner Toledo has six, while defending division winner Eastern Michigan has eight. In the East, reigning tournament champion Ohio boasts seven transfers, while perennial powers Akron and Kent State have three and five, respectively.

Akron coach Keith Dambrot, who guided his team to the MAC title game the past six years, has accepted five transfers in his nine seasons as coach. It is coincidental, he insists, that three of them (two starters) are on this season’s roster.

"We could go the next three or four years and not take another one," Dambrot said. "We’d prefer to have all high school kids. That’s not to say we’re not going to be flexible. We like to have them all for four years. It’s easier to be more consistent, and I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been one of the most consistent teams in the league."

Drawbacks exist. Orr says the hasty recruitment of a transfer, sometimes lasting weeks instead of the years used on a high school prospect, can lead to an inaccurate determination of one’s character. Pursuing transfers can also cause younger players already on the team to grow disgruntled, fearing their playing time will dry up with the arrival of an upperclassman poised to contribute immediately.

Those fears, along with others, are shared by Western Michigan’s Hawkins, who has taken only two transfers — both from a junior college — in his 10 seasons as coach of the Broncos.

"In a lot of situations transferring is a form of quitting," Hawkins said. "Not all. You really have to look into it. A lot of cases it is things got too difficult, and I’m quitting, or I wasn’t getting enough playing time, or coach was messing me over.

"There’s a lot of reasons and the majority are bad. If you get too many of those kids together you can get a lot of quitters on a team, and I think that’s dangerous. That doesn’t mean there’s not good reasons for transferring. There are."

All coaches interviewed for this story espoused one common theme: No two recruits are ever the same. One might bolster a program. Another might destroy it.

"We’re all going to be a product of past experiences," Hawkins said.

At Toledo, Kowalczyk inherited a program that spiraled to the lowest depths of ineptitude prior to his arrival, having won a combined 11 games in the previous two seasons. Had Kowalczyk tried to lift the program though the recruitment of high school players, more futility would have followed — at least initially.

His quick fix consisted of two players — Pearson and Matt Smith — who followed him from Green Bay, another in Iowa State’s Dominique Buckley, whom Kowalczyk had known from recruiting, and a fourth in New Mexico’s Curtis Dennis. All four of them fulfilled meaningful roles a year ago, and all but Dennis, who transferred to Iona, are starting this season.

"I think the misconception is transfers are nothing but problems," Kowalczyk said. "That’s the old school model. There’s some truth to that, but there’s a lot of guys out there that it wasn’t the right fit, or they weren’t playing enough.

"This is a league that’s thrived on taking transfers and I think it will continue to do so."

Even Hawkins might be coming around. He recently hosted a perspective transfer on a campus visit, only to see that player commit elsewhere.

Contact Ryan Autullo at: rautullo@theblade.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.