How college basketball players who transferred but returned to their old school are thriving in their reunions
The reasons varsity athletes transfer vary, and each of the record-breaking more than 1,700 Division I men’s basketball players who entered the transfer portal during the 2021 offseason has a unique story. Coaching changes, playing time, spotlight, academic issues, academic opportunities, family reasons, and on-field patterns are just a few of the top reasons players seek out new schools.
But amid the unique dynamics behind each transfer’s story, there’s usually one common thread when it comes to their eventual destination, which is the desire for a fresh start. For a tiny fraction of the transfer population this season, this new beginning comes in an unexpected place: a school they have played for in the past.
Iowa State, Memphis, Minnesota, Utah and Tulsa are among the top programs whose rosters have been bolstered this season by bouncing transfers returning for a second stint after at least a season playing elsewhere. But the momentum is having an impact throughout Division I, as programs such as Dartmouth, Ohio, Quinnipiac, Rider and Stony Brook are also among those that have welcomed former players to their rosters.
In the case of those five programs, their boomerang transfers departed for big schools before returning this season for another go-around with the team they’ve suited up for in the past.
There may be NCAA eligibility hurdles to clear for players who transfer more than once, even if they return to a school where they previously played. But the transfer rate isn’t expected to slow anytime soon in college basketball, which means there will be more boomerangs to come.
“Transfers are up in general, but also, there’s a lot of times on both sides of the fence where you say, ‘you know what? Things were actually pretty good the first time around,'” he said. Quinnipiac trainer, Baker Dunleavy. “I think it’s going to be a trend, and we should all feel comfortable with it. It’s not going to work every time, but I think in general it’s something that’s going to be looked at holistically. in many different places.”
Quinnipiac is among the biggest benefactors of this season’s rebounding trend, with 6-foot-9 forward Kevin Marfo returning after a season at Texas A&M to use up a sixth and final season of eligibility as a student. graduate granted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Marfo, 24, is one of 40 players nationwide to lead his team in rebounds and assists, according to analytics guru Evan Miyakawa. Of those 40, Marfo ranks first with 14.9 combined rebounds and assists per game. He also returned to averaging over 10 points per game, as he did before moving to Texas A&M and playing a limited role for the Aggies.
“I didn’t have a lot of ego or pride when it came to coming back,” Marfo said. “I knew I had to make a smart decision. I knew I had to make a mature decision. I knew I couldn’t let my ego get the better of me and take away a great opportunity to come back here.”
Marfo’s case is an example of a player transferred to the next level and then transferred to play for the same staff at his previous school. Dunleavy said he disagreed with Marfo’s initial decision to transfer to Texas A&M, but that it ended “on a very respectful note.”
That cordial end made for a natural reunion, and now Marfo is working toward a master’s degree while helping pave the way for a Bobcats team that is part of the MAAC group of teams challenging Iona for the conference’s automatic NCAA tournament bid. .
“I think because I had a good weight here before I left, it gave me the opportunity to come back here and have another year,” Marfo said.
At the major level, this season’s rebounding transfer examples are mostly centered around coaching changes. Memphis guard Tyler Harris played two seasons for the Tigers under Penny Hardaway, then played last season under Steve Prohm at Iowa State before returning to Memphis as an extra this season after Prohm was fired. The 5-9 Memphis native now leads the Tigers in points in AAC games.
Utah winger Both Gach played two seasons for Larry Krystkowiak at Utah before moving to Minnesota last season and adjusting to Richard Pitino. Now, after Pitino was fired, he’s back in Utah playing for Utes first-year coach Craig Smith.
Notable players in their first season back at a school they previously played in after recording playing action for at least one season at another Division I school
|Player||First/current school||Transferred to|
|Tyler Harris||Memphis||Iowa State|
|Elijah Olaniyi||stony stream||miami|
|Kevin Marfo||Quinnipiac||Texas A&M|
|The two Gachs||Utah||Minnesota|
|Pedro Castro||Texas-Arlington||Houston Baptist|
|Jaylen Fornes||UNC Wilmington||Nicholls State|
|Caleb Grill||Iowa State||UNLV|
|Randy Miller Jr.||Central North Carolina||Indiana State|
|Dimencio Vaughn||Rider||Ole Miss|
Among those replacing Gach’s production in Minnesota is Payton Willis. Guarded 6-4, Willis is in his second stint with the Gophers after playing last season at the College of Charleston. Willis is Minnesota’s second-leading scorer with 16.3 points, shooting a team-best 41.8 percent from 3-point range and also leading the Gophers in assists and steals. It’s a much bigger role than he played for Minnesota in his first stint.
As a prospect in the recruiting class of 2016, Willis was recruited by current Minnesota coach Ben Johnson, who was then a Minnesota assistant. Ultimately, Willis committed to Vanderbilt under Kevin Stallings, but by the time he arrived on campus, Bryce Drew had replaced Stallings.
When he elected to trade after two seasons with the Commodores, Johnson re-recruited him from Minnesota.
“But then, just before my visit here, he left for Xavier,” Willis recalled this week.
Willis was going to cancel his visit to Minnesota amid Johnson’s departure, but Johnson sold him to the school anyway. When Willis was considering potential 2020 graduate transfer destinations after two seasons in Minneapolis, Johnson — still at Xaver — signed him for the third time.
Willis, however, chose College of Charleston. Finally, with a sixth season of eligibility in hand due to the pandemic, Willis considered his options after averaging 13.4 points for Charleston last season. Around the same time, Johnson landed the job as Minnesota chief and recruited Willis for the fourth time. It finally materialized.
“I was torn between going to play professionally or coming back to Charleston at the time,” Willis said. “Then Coach (Earl) Grant left for Boston College and I walked into the portal. But I still didn’t know if I was going to play professionally. Then Coach Johnson called me and it all came together. went well.”
A coaching change also played a part in the rebound story of Iowa State guard Caleb Grill. In fact, a coaching change also explains how he ended up at ISU the first time around. Initially, the 6-3 guard committed to TJ Otzelberger at South Dakota State. But when Otzelberger left for UNLV after the 2018-19 season, Grill reopened his commitment.
The Kansas native wanted to play somewhere reasonably close to home. Otzelberger, who had previously worked twice on the staff at Iowa State, told him positive things about the Cyclones program.
“It really helped me make the decision the first time around,” Grill said.
After his first season didn’t go to plan, Grill hit the portal and was ready to venture out and join Otzelberger at UNLV. He started all 27 games for the Runnin’ Rebels last season as a sophomore. Then Otzelberger left.
Of all places, he was going to be the coach at Iowa State.
“I knew he was going to be a candidate, and once he got the job, I was a little upset at first like I was when he left South Dakota State for the UNLV when I was in high school,” Grill said. “I thought we were going to build something special at UNLV.”
But Otzelberger wanted Grill to go with him.
“It was almost a no-brainer to be in a place that I really loved, but at the time it wasn’t the best for me,” said Grill, who is shooting 38.8% from 3 points for the No. 20 Cyclones and playing about 10 more minutes per game than he did as a true freshman under the previous team.
The weather is a little rougher in Ames, Iowa, than in Las Vegas — there’s a 47-degree difference between their projected high temperatures for Feb. 3 — but Grill said he doesn’t mind that. The time spent allowed him to appreciate the unique atmosphere of a university town.
“I didn’t realize how much I would miss that kind of atmosphere,” Grill said. “Almost everyone loves Iowa State around Ames and the area, but when you go there are a lot of people who maybe care about the hockey team or the Raiders, and that has kind of took away that feeling that you get at Iowa State where all the people in town are supporting you. I really like the support of Iowa State.
Grilling season at UNLV also made him appreciate the fine dining available at Ames.
“It may sound funny, but I never had Culver before I got here,” Grill said. “I think it’s one of the best fast food restaurants in the country. I was really excited to be back next to a Culver’s. It’s one of my favorite places in Ames.”