Big West basketball coaches feeling transfer portal frustrations

The front door to the NCAA transfer portal couldn’t close soon enough for a number of Big West Conference men’s basketball coaches.

By the time the two-month “transfer window” closed late last week, UC Irvine’s two leading scorers from last season had left town for higher-profile programs in other states.

Cal State Fullerton’s best player also made a seamless transition to the SEC, one of the most talent-stacked conferences in the country.

And the gloomy situation at Cal State Northridge didn’t get any brighter when its program centerpiece opted to play elsewhere next season.

Suddenly, the Big West looked small again.

“It’s become the wild, wild west,” Cal State Fullerton coach Dedrique Taylor said.

Over at UC Santa Barbara, however, the Gauchos took advantage of the transfer portal to bolster their roster.

UCSB, which clinched the Big West’s lone berth into the NCAA Tournament last season, added players from Kansas, Auburn and Creighton to a squad that already included reigning Big West Player of the Year Ajay Mitchell.

Long Beach State also appears to have lifted a difference-maker out of the portal for the second consecutive year.

LBSU brought in Isa Silva, a 6-foot-4 point guard who was rated by ESPN as the No. 2 player in California coming out of Sacramento’s Jesuit High School before playing limited minutes the past two seasons at Stanford.

A year ago, Lassina Traore transferred to Long Beach from St. Louis and went on to lead the Big West in rebounding (10.5) while also averaging 12.9 points per game.

LBSU coach Dan Monson said the new transfer rules should allow for more parity in the conference.

“A lot of guys at high majors that are sitting on the bench get a chance to play,” Monson said.

After the transfer portal debuted on Oct. 15, 2018, a major change was implemented in April 2021, allowing athletes to transfer with immediate eligibility.

That same spring, the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility for athletes who were affected by the COVID-19 outbreak from the spring of 2020 to the spring of 2021.

Shortly afterward, the Division I Board of Directors approved an interim policy that allowed college athletes to earn money off their name, image and likeness (NIL).

The higher the visibility of the program, the better the opportunity for an athlete to earn six figures or more in NIL deals.

Suddenly, coaches were facing outside influences they never dealt with before.

“The combination of those three things has sort of created a situation that, at times, seems chaotic,” said UCI coach Russell Turner, who recently completed his 13th season at the school.

After moving into a starting role with the Anteaters last season and averaging 15 points per game, DJ Davis announced on April 25 that he’d signed with Butler, one of 11 teams in the formidable Big East Conference.

A week later, fellow guard Dawson Baker announced he’d signed with BYU, a program he’d grown up idolizing. Baker averaged 15.2 points last season and totaled 1,017 in three years with the Anteaters.

Although he’ll miss the contributions of Davis and Baker, Turner said he believes it’s important for athletes to have alternatives.

“Those things are special opportunities that (Davis and Baker) get to have in place of what they would have had if they stayed another year here,” Turner said. “I respect those choices.”

Taylor, who’s coming off his 10th season at Fullerton, wasn’t as forgiving with his opinion of the transfer rules, especially after what happened this offseason.

Taylor recruited Latrell Wrightsell Jr. out of Omaha Central High School in Nebraska four years ago and watched him develop into a first-team All-Big West selection last season, averaging 16.3 points per game.

Alabama, which went 31-6 last season and captured the SEC regular season and conference titles, liked what it saw from Wrightsell and signed the combo guard in late April.

Taylor said he felt like a G-League coach losing his best player to the NBA.

“The bigger schools, with their resources, they just watch our games, they watch our numbers, they watch our stats, and they pluck whomever they think is necessary,” he said. “This is the first year that it’s really jumped up and nipped us in the bud in terms of us losing our leading scorer.”

Fullerton has benefited from the portal in the past, however.

E.J. Anosike was granted an extra year of eligibility due to the COVD-19 outbreak and the power forward transferred from Tennessee to Fullerton as a graduate student two years ago.

He went on to average a team-high 16.3 points and 8.3 rebounds, leading the Titans to an NCAA Tournament berth.

“It kind of works both ways, but it also kind of sucks because I think it’s the way college sports, in general, is going,” Taylor said. “There’s no more amateurism.”

Monson said he’d like to see the transfer window made even shorter, providing coaches more time to construct their rosters once it has closed.

Newly hired CSUN coach Andy Newman will try to begin rebuilding the Matador program without Atin Wright – their leading scorer last season (16.7 ppg) has transferred to Drake.

Turner said the extra year of eligibility granted to athletes has created the biggest challenge because there’s a larger pool of older players who are more likely to transfer, but he also said it’s inappropriate for fellow coaches to claim the changes have affected the quality of Division I basketball.

“The only perfect way to look at it for any of us is to try to figure how to best adapt to the situation that we’re each in,” he said. “It’s challenging. It’s not easy, but I don’t see how anybody would have much trouble with the idea that players have more freedom and more opportunity. That’s a good thing with, at times, frustrating consequences, but that’s just where we’re at.”

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