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NCAA post-graduate transfers proliferating

As often as 10 times a year, graduated players with basketball eligibility remaining would contact Jay Wright to see whether a final season at Villanova might make sense.

Villanova Head Coach Jay Wright exhales late in the game. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Villanova Head Coach Jay Wright exhales late in the game. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)Read more

As often as 10 times a year, graduated players with basketball eligibility remaining would contact Jay Wright to see whether a final season at Villanova might make sense.

"You never say never in this business," the head coach said, "but we haven't felt like those players would fit our culture."

So Wright was stunned in April when Dylan Ennis, a point guard who had graduated but was expected to be the Wildcats captain in 2015-16, his final season, told Wright he was headed for Oregon.

"It shocked me," said Wright.

The rule that allows graduates to relocate without sitting out a year has become one of the most controversial in college sports. Adopted in 2006 to help athletes earn post-graduate degrees in programs not offered at their current schools, the graduate-transfer exception has evolved, in the words of Villanova athletic director Vince Nicastro, "into a kind of free agency."

Football moved the issue to the front burner in 2011, when quarterback Russell Wilson led Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl after transferring from North Carolina State. Since then this intercollegiate traffic has accelerated, particularly in basketball.

Last offseason, for the first time in Division I basketball history, more than 500 players switched schools, many of them graduate transfers. And it's clear the majority didn't do so to pursue advanced degrees.

"Among the graduate transfers in basketball, only 24 percent go on to get their graduate degrees at their new schools," said Nicastro.

The NCAA has promised to examine the exception at its January convention, and many believe it will force future graduate transfers to sit out a season. In the meantime, the debate continues.

Duke's Mike Krzyzewski has labeled the rule a "farce," while other coaches, like Wright, have grudgingly come to believe it can be a useful tool for some athletes.

"As a person trying to build a team and a culture, I don't like the rule," Wright said. "The fifth-year guy coming in and wanting to play right away, it's never really fit for us. But when you look at someone like Dylan Ennis and what's really best for the student-athlete, it's probably a fair rule.

"Dylan had done everything Villanova asked of him. He was a great student. He graduated. He was a leader on a Big East championship team. And he felt like this was the best way to help his professional aspirations. You owe it to him to allow him to do that."

There tend to be three types of these transfers: those who really want a postgrad degree; those looking to move up in class, basketball-wise, or wanting one last chance to play after riding the bench; and those who, like Ennis, think it will help their professional aspirations.

"We're a well-balanced team [especially with the arrival of five-star recruit Jalen Brunson, also a point guard], and Dylan saw that for his chances of going to the NBA, he might be better off showing his individual point-guard skills at a program that wasn't as balanced."

While some schools continue to spurn these transfers, others like Oregon and Louisville have embraced them as short-term fixes. In Ennis' case, Oregon had considerable returning talent but was short in experience at point guard.

While big schools like Oregon are benefiting, mid-major programs, where many players are looking for a basketball upgrade in their final seasons, have been hit hard.

"Guys are looking at it like it's their graduate school of basketball," said Wright. "And those schools are getting hurt. Is it fair? No. But it all comes down to the idea that we're trying to do what's best for the student-athlete."

Locally, Ennis has probably been the highest-profile example, but other programs also have been affected.

Temple's Anthony Lee left for Ohio State before last season. This year, Drexel's Damion Lee has transferred to Louisville. La Salle's Khalid Lewis is departing for an as-yet-unknown school. Penn State lost Jermaine Marshall to Arizona State in 2014, and Tray Davis, who went from Penn State to Cleveland State, left for Louisville in April.

Penn, meanwhile, will lose two players to the grad-transfer rule, Camryn Crocker and Henry Brooks. In the Ivy League, where it's extremely difficult for graduate students to get eligibility, the number of athletes leaving has been growing.

"This is a fairly sizable topic of debate in the Ivies right now," Penn spokesman Mike Mahoney said.

This year the NCAA eliminated the hardship transfer, which permitted players with a special need to switch schools without missing a season. So it's likely the graduate-transfer rule will get a long look when administrators convene in San Antonio.

What makes changing the rule so touchy is the growing trend to grant more freedom and benefits to college athletes.

"It all goes back to the Ed O'Bannon case and the idea that athletes are being exploited," Wright said. "The NCAA is trying in every way to give the student-athlete every opportunity for freedom of movement, short of paying them."

Nicastro suggested the NCAA might mandate two-year scholarships in these cases, a move that would help athletes truly interested in getting a graduate degree elsewhere and prevent those thinking only of basketball.

"Right now it just covers that one year, and, let's face it, when that one year is over and their eligibility is gone, most of these kids aren't hanging around to get their degrees," said Nicastro, who will step aside as Villanova's athletic director and move into a faculty position when a successor is named.

Arizona State coach Herb Sendek thinks making all transfers - regardless of circumstances - sit out a year may be the only way to find a permanent solution.

But as long as the graduate-transfer rule is in effect, coaches and administrators will continue to face difficult decisions.

"We've come to that point where we've got to find a balance," Wright said. "What are we really doing this for? Are we doing it for the student-athletes? Or are we doing it so universities can have good teams?

"It's a difficult issue because it's inhibiting coaches from building a culture of team. But on the other hand, it's definitely in the best interest of some student-athletes. It's making the jobs of administrators and coaches more difficult. But so what, if it's better for the student-athlete."

On the Move


These are postgraduate transfers who have left City Six men's basketball teams since the end of last season. No City Six teams have added any postgrad transfers.

City Six school   Player   New school   

Drexel   Damion Lee   Louisville

La Salle   Khalid Lewis   TBA

Penn   Henry Brooks   Wagner

Camryn Crocker   TBA

Villanova   Dylan Ennis   Oregon