Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Those are the five stages of grief. Odds are that Marist fans have been through that wringer of emotions since the beginning of March.
In three weeks, the Marist men’s and women’s basketball programs have lost a combined 10 players to the transfer portal.
You could put together a full-court five-on-five pick-up game with the names — Anabel Ellison, Emma Wax, Sarah Barcello, Trinasia Kennedy, Raheim Sullivan, Ricardo Wright, Braden Bell, Samkelo Cele, Matt Herasme, and, most damning of all, Jao Ituka — of the players that want to at least test the choppy waters of the transfer portal.
The reasons for leaving range from lack of playing time, to wanting a change of scenery, and to simply being too good for a team that can’t make it out of the middle of the MAAC.
The NCAA granting student-athletes a one-time, no redshirt transfer meant that plenty of players from all kinds of schools suddenly had the freedom to test the new-fangled transfer portal. Last year, we saw this play out on Twitter and ESPN, but it didn’t have a huge impact on Marist.
The women’s team lost 6-foot-4 freshman Caitlin Weimar to Boston University, and the men lost first-year guard Hakim Byrd to UMBC. Both were stinging losses, but nowhere near examples like the Syracuse women’s team that lost 11 players (including current Marist point guard Kiara Fisher) to the portal.
This year, after both teams flamed out in Atlantic City, the portal, or in Marist’s case, the black hole, has come with a vengeance. Head coaches John Dunne and Brian Giorgis have serious rebuilding to do before practice begins next fall.
The question many people are asking is whether this is a Marist problem or if something’s up with the bigger picture.
If we were to look at the men’s program as an isolated case, it would be tempting to say that there’s something wrong at the institutional level; a disconnect between Dunne and the players. The news of his contract extension came amid the mass exodus into the portal, and two players, Cele and Ituka, chose to leave after the fact.
But the fact that there are four women’s players in the portal and that three of them are not seniors should be eye-opening. Brian Giorgis is not only one of the best coaches in the MAAC but the entire country when you consider his body of work.
Wax saw very little playing time this season, but Ellison and Kennedy had substantial roles when they were not out with injury. In years past, most athletes transferred because of a lack of playing time or a disagreement with the coaching staff.
But now, if there is a chance to get to greener pastures, players don’t have to mull over sitting out a year as a consequence of going to another institution. Now, it’s an entirely new ball game.
Ellison is a prime example of a player who might not have transferred if we were in, say, 2018. She came into the season as the backup point guard behind Fisher and took over the starting role once the Syracuse transfer went out with a season-ending injury in January.
With Fisher due back, and talented recruit Jackie Piddock will arrive on campus next season, Ellison would have likely had a tough time cracking the starting lineup. Instead of weighing transferring and sitting out a year against coming off the bench at Marist, Ellison can look for a friendlier situation elsewhere without missing any time.
Then, there’s Ituka, who is in the category of being too good to play at his current school. The freshman from Maryland averaged better than 15 points per game on his way to easily taking MAAC Rookie of the Year honors.
He joins an already growing list of very talented mid-major players who want to try their luck at bigger schools. This is what the portal does. Like many things in our society, it helps the rich get richer while leaving a sizeable gap between the bluebloods and the would-be Cinderellas.
Yet, at the end of the day, can we really blame Ituka, Wright, Kennedy, Barcello, and everyone else for wanting to seek better opportunities?
Mid-major coaches (men’s and women’s) and athletic directors are in more of a precarious position than ever before. All of a sudden, building a “program culture” becomes a lot more difficult with players able to leave at the drop of a hat. The transfer portal is quickly becoming a culture of its own.
Instead of expecting to lock in a recruit for four years, coaches will need to sell their program on a year-by-year basis to both incoming recruits and established players.
Mid-major programs won’t stop being competitive. We’ll still see the upsets that we love in March even as the talent gap gradually grows wider, which it will since mid-majors are basically serving as a farm system for the Power Five.
The next few years should be telling in terms of the portal’s effect. How many more Saint Peter’s-type runs will we see? How will smaller teams adjust their recruiting strategies? How can they sustain success?
It’s a lot like the one-and-done rule that we see in men’s college basketball. Now, when out on the recruiting trail mid-major coaches will have to ponder the question, “am I at peace knowing that I’ll probably only get a year or two out of this player before they go onto a bigger school?”
Some coaches have been quick to embrace this strategy, others not so much. At Marist, Dunne and Giorgis seemingly have no choice but to rebuild through the portal. They cannot retool through recruiting alone and expect to be competitive next season.
At the mid-major level, we’ve reached an adapt or die situation regarding the transfer portal. Many people (myself included) don’t like it, but the reality is that it’s here to stay.
And right now, there’s a lot of adapting to do in Poughkeepsie.
Photo by Jonathan Kinane
Edited by Bridget Reilly and Mackenzie Meaney