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America East hoops coaches speak out against transfer rules

On Jan. 28, 2012, then-junior guard Logan Aronhalt scored nine of Albany’s last 14 points to fend off a pesky Hartford team on the road. The Great Danes’ co-captain finished with 17 points and eight rebounds, exceeding his season averages of 14.6 and 4.7, respectively.

But four months later, head coach Will Brown would never again be able to rely on Aronhalt to lead his team. The junior, who had taken a medical redshirt as a true freshman, completed his degree in human biology in May 2012 and chose to exhaust his collegiate eligibility at Maryland in 2012-13 via NCAA bylaw 14.1.9.1, aka the one-time transfer exception.

Under this rule, student-athletes who graduate but have a year of eligibility remaining can transfer and play immediately as long as they enroll in a master’s program not offered by their previous school.

The Graduate Transfer

According to Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn, 35 players have transferred up at least one level — for example, from the America East to the Atlantic 10 or from the Atlantic 10 to the Atlantic Coast Conference — via this bylaw since 2008, with the annual number increasing each year. Aronhalt is one of those players, a low-major player lured to the big stage.

In 2013-14, 13 graduate Up-Transfers will play for new teams. And that’s just the Up-Transfers, a term coined by Winn.

Overall, at least 24 eligible graduate transfers — including Brian Freeman, formerly of Binghamton — will suit up for new schools this fall, according to ESPN’s Jeff Goodman.

The one-time transfer exception, amended to its current state in 2006, has forced coaches to alter their approach to roster building. Before the rule’s inception, a coach had no qualms redshirting a player — for reasons ranging from a logjam at the player’s position to the player’s wiry frame needing a year in the weight room.

“The danger is now, and I said this to my staff, if the rules stay like they are — my assistants have mentioned to me, ‘Hey, this kid has a chance to be really good. Maybe we take him, redshirt him for a year, let him get stronger, then we have him for four years,’” Brown said. “But you don’t want to redshirt a kid and develop a kid so he can play his final year somewhere else.”

As more and more student-athletes have elected to play their final years somewhere else, more and more coaches have spoken out against the rule.

“My thing is it’s very difficult to get a master’s degree in one year, so these kids need two years to get a master’s degree,” Brown said. “If there’s any interest academically in getting a degree, then have him sit out … get a year of your master’s under your belt. In year two, finish your master’s degree and play.”

America East commissioner Amy Huchthausen said the NCAA does not track the academic progress of student-athletes who are no longer eligible for competition, but she validated Brown’s concerns.

“Anecdotally what we’re hearing is that most of [the graduate transfers] are not completing their master’s degrees or they’re selecting one-year programs,” she said. “But I don’t have any information to say whether they are actually completing their master’s degrees or not.”

Many coaches view this as a loophole, as players essentially become free agents seeking the ideal setting for their final year of eligibility. In many cases, loyalty takes a backseat to prospects of playing time, a more realistic shot at the NCAA tournament or increased exposure to professional scouts.

The Hardship Waiver

But graduate transfers are not the only student-athletes contributing to the downward spiral toward free agency in college basketball. Via the hardship waiver, many players have been granted immediate eligibility in the last several years, though the NCAA did not respond to Pipe Dream’s request for the exact number.

Most notably in the America East, the NCAA accepted former Binghamton guard D.J. Rivera’s hardship waiver, making him eligible for the school’s run to the 2009 NCAA tournament. League coaches derided that move by colluding to omit Rivera from the all-conference first team, and they have grown all the more disgruntled by the NCAA’s inconsistency.

In the last year alone, the NCAA has seemingly handled each hardship case with a different set of guidelines.

Last week, the NCAA rejected Ahmad Starks’ hardship waiver. Starks, a Chicago native, had transferred to Illinois to be closer to his sick grandmother, but the NCAA denied his request, citing the 100-plus mile distance between the Champaign campus and his grandmother’s home. Perhaps that’s fair. How frequently can a student-athlete trek more than 100 miles to tend to an ill relative?

Last season, though, the NCAA granted Tavon Sledge immediate eligibility at Iona after the diminutive guard left Iowa State to be near an ailing relative in New York. Sledge, however, told Slam Online that he had also considered transferring to Ole Miss, a school more than 1,000 miles from Iona’s New Rochelle campus. Sledge ultimately chose to play closer to home, but it raises a question: Should he have received the waiver if helping a sick relative was not necessarily the driving factor behind his transfer?

“How [the NCAA] gets to those conclusions or decisions sometimes is tough to understand because I’ve seen it work both ways,” Binghamton head coach Tommy Dempsey said of the NCAA’s general dealing with hardship waivers.

“I don’t think it’s fair,” Stony Brook head coach Steve Pikiell added. “Some kids have to sit out a year and other kids don’t have to. It’s become a real difficult rule to navigate.”

The NCAA’s lack of transparency certainly doesn’t clarify its decision-making process.

“They’re not in position to lay out, ‘Here’s exactly why this person’s waiver was approved. Here’s the reason. Here’s all the supporting documentation,’” Huchthausen said. “I think the mystery of it, if you will, at least from the coaches’ perspective, is the most frustrating part.”

The Solution

Coaches across the country, from Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski to Brown, Pikiell, Dempsey and Vermont’s John Becker, think the NCAA must amend transfer rules.

“If I was working at the NCAA I would probably make every [transfer] sit out no matter what,” Dempsey said. “If the NCAA came out tomorrow and said regardless, no matter what, you have to sit out, I would support that.”

Becker — who took advantage of the graduate transfer rule last year when he brought in Trey Blue from Illinois State — and Brown echoed that sentiment. Pikiell only requested consistency from the NCAA.

“It either has to be everyone can transfer and be eligible right away or nobody can,” Pikiell said. “I definitely think it’s a rule that there’s no in-between category where you can have both.”

Huchthausen, who is also the chair of the NCAA Leadership Council’s Transfer Issues Subcommittee, said the coaches’ displeasure with the current rules has not gone unnoticed.

“It’s their sport,” she said. “It affects their livelihood, and it affects how they operate their programs.”

But reconstruction won’t occur overnight. Huchthausen said a policy change could be implemented sooner than a full legislative overhaul, as, for example, the Subcommittee for Legislative Relief could simply alter its process for reviewing waivers rather than rewriting the rule itself.

The process is still in its early stages. Where it may head, we don’t know.

“Hopefully,” Huchthausen said, “we can have some things in place by the time next spring rolls around.”

This is the first article in a two-part series on transfer rules. Next up: the players’ perspective.