Remember the reign of one-and-done freshmen? So last season. This year the hottest subset of impact players are one-and-done seniors. Consider Butler sharpshooter Rotnei Clarke, who played three seasons at Arkansas but left a few months after his coach, John Pelphrey, was fired in March 2011. After sitting out a mandatory transfer year Clarke has sparked the Bulldogs to a 16--2 record and a No. 9 ranking at week's end, with a team-leading 16.7 points and 3.6 threes a game. Likewise UCLA point guard Larry Drew II, who abruptly left North Carolina as a junior after being benched midway through 2010--11, idled for a year in Westwood. Through Sunday he was leading the resurgent Bruins with the best assist-to-turnover ratio (4.64) in the country.
Several other high-impact final-year transfers didn't have to sit out: Missouri forward Alex Oriakhi (who left UConn after the Huskies were banned from postseason play) and Oregon forward Arsalan Kazemi (who left Rice for undisclosed reasons) were two of 27 players given hardship waivers by the NCAA, up from 15 in 2011--12. Arizona point guard Mark Lyons, who averaged 12.2 points in three seasons as a shooting guard for Xavier, took advantage of a one-time transfer exception that allows graduates with eligibility remaining to play for another school right away if they are working toward a graduate degree. (Jeff Goodman of CBSSports.com estimates that about 50 of the 550 players who transferred last year qualified for graduate transfer exceptions, nearly twice last year's total.) Wildcats coach Sean Miller, who recruited Lyons to Xavier, happened to need a point guard—the position Lyons hopes to play in the NBA. "I had one year; I had to do it right," says the 6' 1" Lyons, whose confidence, experience and team-leading 14.9 points a game have helped No. 8 Arizona get off to a 17--2 start, its best since 1992--93.
The proliferation of graduate exceptions and hardship waivers, and the high transfer rate overall—according to the NCAA, 40% of D-I players will leave their original school before the end of their sophomore year—has created a burgeoning secondary recruiting market that is so frenzied that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has said he thinks transfers get recruited "harder than high schoolers." There are good reasons for that, says Miami coach Jim Larranaga, who has two transfers on his roster: "A lot of the adjustments that freshmen have to make, these guys have already made. And getting a chance to work with a player for the year he sits is of far greater value than recruiting a high school kid who has a big reputation but hasn't proven anything at the college level."
Even though coaches depart for greener pastures all the time with no penalty, many believe players shouldn't have the same freedom. "A year is enough of a deterrent that a player won't leave just because the coach benched him for a game," says Long Beach State coach Dan Monson. So the confusing and inconsistent paths to instant eligibility, and the potential for increased tampering by coaches who need to fill a short-term hole in their rotation—a back-channel activity that's already pervasive, according to some coaches—have created unease. "With 90 percent of kids, you've invested four years, including a year paying for them to redshirt and to develop," adds Monson. "And then their best year as a player, somebody else is going to benefit."
NCAA president Mark Emmert, who has complained publicly about the complexity of transfer rules, assigned a task force to explore alternate models. At the NCAA convention in Dallas in mid-January, the Leadership Council heard the task force's "statement of principles" on transfers, which includes allowing any player with a GPA of 2.6 or higher to transfer one time without penalty. That would be simpler, but no less controversial in college hoops. "There'll be free agency and all kinds of third-party influences," says Towson coach Pat Skerry. "I don't think you'll find more than three percent of the coaches that think that's a good thing for the game."
Whether transfers sit out or gain instant eligibility, their importance to a coach's team-building calculus isn't likely to change, nor is the flock of seniors migrating for their final season likely to abate. "College basketball," says Arizona State coach Herb Sendek, "has become a one-year-at-a-time proposition."
Yet for Clarke, Drew II and Lyons—not to mention their new teams—that one year can be well worth the move.