As the recruiting process of big-time high school basketball prospects becomes evermore competitive and scrutinized, landing high-quality transfer players also has become a premium for coaches.
These players can make or break a team. If successful, they help sustain success or boost a turnaround. If there’s no positive impact, a risk likely failed.
The most impactful transfers in the Big Ten this season have been making their mark at Michigan and Nebraska, the Gophers’ next two opponents.
The No. 24 Wolverines, who play host to the Gophers on Saturday, are led in scoring by Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews, who is averaging 14.4 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.9 assists this season.
Matthews, a 6-foot-6, 220-pound junior from Chicago, sat out last season after playing his freshman year with the Wildcats in 2015-16. He is one of eight Division I transfers leading their teams in scoring among major conference programs. Also included in that group is Nebraska’s James Palmer Jr., who is the Big Ten’s second-leading scorer in league play at 20.0 points per game.
“He’s exciting to coach,” Wolverines coach John Beilein said of Matthews. “He’s got athleticism probably as good as we’ve had.”
Akeem Springs and Reggie Lynch with the Gophers had probably the biggest impact of any two transfers in the Big Ten last year.
Springs graduated, and the loss of Lynch, a 6-foot-10 senior center, to a suspension a month ago has taken the Gophers — 1-7 without him — out of NCAA tournament contention.
Where would Michigan be without Matthews this season? He helped lessen the loss of All-Big Ten guard Derrick Walton Jr. to graduation and forward D.J. Wilson early to the NBA.
“He’s been able to come in and give them significant minutes and be really good, so that’s important,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “When you’re getting a transfer like we did — Reggie was one of those guys — you never know how the pieces are going to fit when you add a transfer. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Clearly it’s working [with Matthews]. He’s fitting right in with their team. Sometimes it takes some time.”
In the case of Gophers junior forward Davonte Fitzgerald, it has taken longer than expected because of injury.
Fitzgerald, a 6-8 forward who transferred from Texas A&M, was supposed to play his first year with Lynch in 2016-17, but he suffered the second major knee injury of his career.
After being out for two seasons, the Georgia native never really showed his potential until Tuesday, when he had 16 points, six rebounds and three blocks in a 94-80 loss at Iowa. It was highest-scoring game with the Gophers. His 4-for-4 shooting from three-point range was also a career-high.
Lynch’s suspension and injuries to guard Amir Coffey (shoulder) and forward Gaston Diedhiou (ankle) have the Gophers relying more on others such as Fitzgerald for production.
“I had been struggling with my three-point shot and struggling with consistency,” Fitzgerald said. “Lately I’ve been shooting well, so hopefully I can keep that flowing, and we can get some wins down the stretch.”
Besides Lynch and Fitzgerald, Minnesota has a third transfer on its roster in 7-foot-1 former Louisville center Matz Stockman, who is not eligible until next season.
“I told him yesterday in practice, ‘We’re losing all of our big guys next year, you’ve got a great opportunity in front of you,’ ” Pitino said of Stockman. “He’s looked good.”
More opportunity to play elsewhere is the biggest reason why players transfers. The pool reached over 500 players last year, and it could expand in the future, with the NCAA working on proposals where nongraduate transfers could leave and play right away if coaches depart or if their grade-point average is at a certain level.
“If they do that like they say they’re going to do, that is going to drastically change our sport,” Pitino said. “I don’t think it’s wrong. I get why they’re doing it.”
Like Michigan, Nebraska had to reload following key player departures (three left the program) — and coach Tim Miles struck gold twice in the transfer market.
Ex-Georgetown forward Isaac Copeland is second on the Cornhuskers in scoring (13.2) and first in rebounding (6.4).
Will Pitino be looking in the spring for transfers to sit out or play right away to help the Gophers have more success next season?
“The stars got to align a little bit,” he said. “It’s got to be the right fit.”