By JOHN ZENOR
Coach Bruce Pearl and Auburn lost two stars to the NBA from what I considered college basketball’s best frontcourt.
So, the Tigers did what most college programs are doing: They turned to the transfer portal. Auburn filled the gaping voids left by likely first-round picks Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler with a former LSU commitment and then a key NCAA transfer portal pickup. Problem, presumably, solved.
“All of a sudden, the season’s over and you’re down two first-round picks on the front line,” Pearl said.
It’s one example among many in a new world of college basketball. Instead of being stuck picking up one of the few remaining recruits when top players exit early and sometimes unexpectedly, coaches can raid the transfer portal for a college veteran or four.
Today, one program’s loss is another’s gain.
Pearl counted on four transfers, including Kessler, and prized freshman Smith — the potential top NBA draft pick — to the program’s first No. 1 ranking and a regular-season Southeastern Conference championship last season. The Tigers went from 13-14 to 28-6.
Other teams are trying to fortify their rosters or spark similar rebounds with transfers to supplement the traditional high school signees.
Players had until May 1 to enter the portal to be immediately eligible in fall and winter sports, but some top names still haven’t announced a destination.
Those include late entries like Kentucky’s Keion Brooks, Baylor’s Matthew Mayer and New Mexico State’s Teddy Allen — presuming none of them opt to turn pro instead.
Florida’s Keyontae Johnson, who hasn’t played since collapsing on the court in December 2020, has also entered the portal hoping to make a comeback.
Among the notable moves in women’s basketball, twins Haley and Hanna Cavinder, who both have large social media followings, have transferred from Fresno State to the Miami Hurricanes.
As easily as the portal can take away — it can give right back.
Among the biggest portal moves was SMU’s high-scoring guard Kendric Davis saying he was heading to Memphis, which lost one-time top recruit Emoni Bates to the portal. Bates hasn’t announced a new school.
Iowa State landed Temple point guard Jeremiah Williams after losing Big 12 freshman of the year Tyrese Hunter to the portal.
Graduate transfer Emmitt Matthews returned to West Virginia, where he was a three-year starter, after one season at Washington. He has logged 98 starts at the two schools. The Mountaineers have landed three Division I transfers and two junior college players.
Texas Tech signed Texas forward Jaylon Tyson and Gardner-Webb guard D’Maurian Williams while receiving other commitments, giving the Red Raiders the top transfer class according to the 247Sports rankings.
Auburn hasn’t been quite as busy in the transfer portal this offseason, but added two big offseason additions in former 5-star LSU commitment Yohan Traore and Morehead State transfer forward Johni Broome. Broome averaged 16.8 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.9 blocked shots as a freshman.
Smith and Kessler declared for the draft after one season at Auburn. The Tigers lost to Miami in the second round of the NCAA Tournament after landing a No. 2 seed.
Meanwhile, coaches are still not sure who will be on their roster come next season.
“It’s not changing. The portal’s here for good. NIL’s here for good,” said ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg, who spent two decades as a college head coach. “But the uncertainty of the spring and summer is also here for good, and it’s not going to change.
“There’s going to be a constant movement of rosters all the way up to the middle of the summer. Whether it’s good or not, it’s not changing.”
Arkansas made an early splash after relying heavily on several transfers for an Elite Eight run.
Razorbacks coach Eric Musselman has added Rhode Island brothers Makhi and Makhel Mitchell, Missouri’s Trevon Brazile and Arizona State’s Jalen Graham to go along with a recruiting class already ranked second only to Duke in the 247Sports composite ratings with three 5-star prospects.
Transfers played leading or key supporting roles for a number of last season’s top teams, and likely will in 2022-23 as well.
No team felt the transfer portal’s sting quite like LSU, which appeared poised to lose every scholarship player from last season to either the portal or the NBA draft. LSU fired coach Will Wade and has NCAA sanctions potentially looming. New coach Matt McMahon kept some key players and recruits in the fold and brought in transfers, too.
The national champion Jayhawks added a key piece last May 17. Two-time All-Pac 12 guard Remy Martin transferred after four seasons at Arizona State. He mostly served as a key reserve but made 4 of 6 3-pointers and scored 14 in the championship game.
Kansas coach Bill Self still thinks the Power 5 programs need to build rosters with high school recruits, placing an emphasis on the early signing period in November. Top freshmen aren’t nearly as readily available to plug unexpected holes in the spring.
“But what the transfer portal does, it allows you not to take a step back whenever you have unexpected things happen during the season,” Self said during the Jayhawks’ run to the national title.
National runner-up North Carolina got a huge boost with the arrival of forward Brady Manek, a four-year starter at Oklahoma. Manek averaged 15.1 points and 6.1 rebounds and shot 40% from 3-point range.
Greenberg cites players like Manek, Martin and Kentucky’s Kellan Grady (from Davidson) as transfers who proved good fits with their new teams.
“When you go into the portal as a coach, you need to find guys that fit your core beliefs and your non-negotiables,” the ESPN analyst said. “You’ve got to find guys that you feel are winning players. And you’ve got to find guys that fit your needs and also (understand that) winning is more important than anything else.
“The guys that went into the portal and were about winning ended up doing well.”
This offseason, UConn has lost four players to the transfer portal and two more — guards RJ Cole and Tyrese Martin — opted to turn pro rather than return for their extra COVID-19 year.
“It’s almost like a different type of sport in terms of your program and how you’ve got to adapt and be agile,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said. “It’s something, obviously, that we’ve got to adjust to.”
Overall, Pearl feels like the portal is good for the players and college sports. After all, he’s made plenty of stops in his own career before landing a new eight-year, $50 million contract from Auburn in January.
“I don’t like that there are three-and-a-half players per team in the portal,” Pearl said. “I’d rather teach them to fight than flee, but that’s OK. I transferred several times in my career.”
Now, it’s also about business for the players, too.
AP Sports Writer Pat Eaton-Robb contributed to this report.