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Transfer portal, NIL challenge teams to fill and maintain rosters, even as March Madness continues

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Morehead State coach Preston Spradlin wasn’t surprised when several players from his 2021 March Madness team eventually took their talents elsewhere, with a couple landing at Power Five programs.

The Eagles’ return to this year’s NCAA Tournament shows he didn’t panic. Even though the Ohio Valley Conference school tucked in the eastern Kentucky mountains lacks the flashy profile and deep resources that larger programs can offer — especially when it comes to name, image and likeness (NIL) — Spradlin worked the transfer portal to his advantage by selling small-school virtues along with a successful resume.

“We’ve had some guys who played at the Power Five level that have come down because they wanted a bigger role and wanted to experience playing more and all those types of things,” the eighth-year coach said the day after Selection Sunday. “So yeah, there’s give and take both ways and it works in both directions.”

No matter the level, the transfer portal that opened March 18 presents basketball programs with the dual challenge to fill roster vacancies and prevent their own players from leaving and deepening the vast pool of talent. That’s been an ongoing obstacle for sure, perhaps more so in an era of expanded movement with the one-time transfer exception and the extra year of eligibility granted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though the numbers taking advantage of the extra year is expected to drop in 2025 as players complete eligibility, the portal remains a free-for-all with the pool already at more than 750 Division I men and nearly 600 D-I women as NCAA Sweet 16 action resumed on Thursday.

Clemson guard Joseph Girard III, who transferred from Syracuse after Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim retired, said there are pros and cons and the portal is a good second chance for players whose decisions in high school didn’t pan out as expected. South Carolina women’s coach Dawn Staley has also turned over the top-ranked Gamecocks roster after departures of several veterans and acknowledged that the portal’s presence requires relationship building.

“If you don’t have a strong staff and a strong connection with your team, it gets hard because, you know, you’re thinking about who is going to jump in the portal, how you prep for the NCAA Tournament,” she said.

For schools from lower-profile conferences, the so-called mid-majors, keeping players from seeking greener pastures at bigger schools is even tougher. Especially when the big teams can sweeten the pot with lucrative NIL opportunities along with more exposure on the bigger stage.

“It’s a different game than what it’s been,” said Dayton men’s coach Anthony Grant, who wondered about NIL and the influence of agents and sponsors involved with players.

“I think the beauty of college athletics has always been the ability to bring a team together and grow a team together. … As a coach, you begin to question if that piece of it can remain a part of the game. Whether it’s basketball or football, or really any sport, I think that’s in the balance right now.”

Though the portal’s opening right after Selection Sunday gave schools who aren’t playing in the postseason an initial peek at who’s available, many of the 68 men’s and women’s teams that began NCAA play last weekend had a bigger goal to focus on. That’s the case with schools competing in lower-tier tournaments such as the NIT and CIT.

That doesn’t mean coaches aren’t looking. Recruiting never really stops. Although coaches, such as Nevada’s Steve Alford, wish the window could have opened after the Final Four to allow tournament teams and their coaching staffs to enjoy the most important part of the season.

Added Longwood coach Griff Aldrech, “It’s disappointing because you want to really enjoy and be present in this moment.”

How it all shakes out remains to be seen.

Though the bigger schools at first glance figure to benefit by raiding rising talent from smaller school, there’s also the chance for lateral movement among Power Five and mid-major members. Morehead State, for example, earned its second OVC title in four seasons with four players from mid-major schools along with a major NAIA addition in forward Riley Minix, who was one of Division I’s top 10 scorers.

This despite losing forward Johni Broome to Auburn — where he became an All-Southeastern Conference selection — and guard Ta’Lon Cooper to South Carolina (after a one-year stopover at Minnesota) from the 2021 OVC title team. Both players helped their schools reach the Big Dance.

“The key is still figuring out what kind of players you want to build your program with,” Spradlin said, “and then figuring out the best avenue to get those players. NIL has not necessarily been a factor for that.”

Drexel women’s coach Amy Mallon made it work the other way, filling the void left by the departure of No. 2 scorer Kylie Lavelle to Penn State by adding starting guard Amy Mallon from Villanova. Dragons leading scorer Amaris Baker transferred in from a junior college.

“We benefited,” Mallon said.

And then there’s Montana State, where six of eight new scholarship players came from other Division I schools. Like many student-athletes who change venues, they arrived with something to prove, and the destination mattered less than the opportunity.

While coach Matt Logie acknowledged the transfer portal and NIL are changing rapidly, the Bobcats made the tournament by sticking to two basic principles.

“Number one is player development,” Logie said. “And the second part is team building. That’s not just roster building. We’ve always taken great pride in the basketball family that I’m a part of in player development and team building. Once that process started in earnest in June, nothing was really different about our journey.”

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AP Sports Writers Teresa M. Walker, Eddie Pells, Mitch Stacy, Mark Long, Pat Eaton-Robb, Pete Iacobelli and Freelance writer Mark Rosner contributed to this report.

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AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball

By GARY B. GRAVES
AP Sports Writer

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