James Karnik had a number of reasons to be anxious when he entered his name in the NCAA transfer portal in March. The thoughts of change initially started tugging at him after his sophomore season at Lehigh, when the Mountain Hawks won 20 games and advanced to the Patriot League semifinals. But once the 2018-19 season was over, the team’s best players struggled to find viable options playing professionally.
Before he could explore his options, Karnik had to weigh what he was leaving behind.
Lehigh won just 11 games this past season, but the 6-foot-9-inch Karnik put up 12.2 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, starting 18 of the 22 games in which he appeared. If he returned, he was a potential All-Patriot League player.
But if he left, he could look for a program in a bigger conference and give himself a greater chance to get exposure as a player who was not highly recruited coming out of Surrey, British Columbia.
The coronavirus pandemic complicated the process. Karnik couldn’t take an official visit, couldn’t meet with potential teammates, couldn’t get a first-hand feel for the programs he was considering. The pandemic also raised uncertainty about the 2020-21 season.
But the trickiest new wrinkle is a proposal put forth by an NCAA subcommittee, focusing on waiver guidelines, that would allow first-time transfers such as Karnik to become immediately eligible rather than requiring them to sit one year.
The NCAA Division 1 Council could vote on the proposal May 20. But according to Michelle Hosick, assistant director of communications for the NCAA, the Board of Directors prefers that a vote not be taken on a temporary fix. Instead, they prefer a vote by membership for a permanent change in the rulebook for all athletes to be eligible for a one-time transfer.
Karnik, one of 745 Division 1 men’s basketball players in the transfer portal (including 181 graduate transfers who will be eligible immediately) according to Stadium.com’s Jeff Goodman, ultimately decided to transfer to Boston College, which the school confirmed Thursday.
But he is now one of 564 players who may or may not be eligible immediately.
“I kind of took a little gamble and committed to Boston College knowing that there was an opportunity for me to play right away,” said Karnik. “That being said, I’m fully aware that there could be a situation where I don’t play right away.”
Point guard Rich Kelly and forward Frederick Scott, graduate transfers from Quinnipiac and Rider, respectively, also have committed to BC. The Eagles had three players — sophomore guard Chris Herren Jr., freshman wing Julian Rishwain, and sophomore swingman Jairus Hamilton — enter the transfer portal, committing to play at San Diego, San Francisco, and Maryland, respectively.
Such a development was not unexpected.
“This is where college basketball is going,” said BC coach Jim Christian. “And I think there’s a lot of uncertainty now as to where it’s moving.
"So all these kids that are putting their name in the transfer portal, are they going to play next year? Are they going to be able to play right away?
“But it’s been a common thread for about five or 10 years of 700-800 kids every year transferring, probably three per team. It’s just what it is.
"Unfortunately, if what they’re expecting or want doesn’t happen very fast, they look for other opportunities. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, I’m saying it’s the nature of college basketball right now.”
That reality is staggering.
Ramifications of vote
Last year, there were 875 players in the portal; this year, 745. Across Division 1 programs in Massachusetts, the effects have been felt.
Holy Cross had eight players enter the portal after a 3-29 season under first-year coach Brett Nelson, who in turn, has landed an incoming class of seven for 2020-21. Northeastern has three departures, including Tomas Murphy, a graduate transfer who will play at Vermont.
Harvard’s Seth Towns, the 2018 Ivy Player of the Year, will play at Ohio State as a graduate transfer after dealing with injuries for two seasons. Teammate Bryce Aiken, the league’s top newcomer in 2017, is headed to Seton Hall. The University of Massachusetts is losing five players, UMass Lowell four.
“It’s gotten to a point where it’s crazy in terms of just how many transfers there are each and every year,” said UMass coach Matt McCall. “I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum where we’ve taken transfers and had a lot of success with them. We’ve lost some guys as well.”
Jon Steinbrecher, chair of the NCAA’s working group for the transfer proposal, acknowledged that the association’s present provisions for transfers didn’t fit the rapidly changing trends.
“The current system is unsustainable,” said Steinbrecher, also the commissioner of the Mid-American Conference. “Working group members believe it’s time to bring our transfer rules more in line with today’s college landscape. This concept provides a uniform approach that is understandable, predictable, and objective. Most importantly, it benefits students.”
“If this transfer rule gets passed," McCall said, “you’re only going to see it grow even more because guys are going to know they don’t have to sit out, and if it’s not going well off the rip, they’re going to have their eyes on something else.”
The vote has wide-reaching ramifications for players who transferred under the presumption that it would pass and they would be able to play immediately.
“None of them who put their name in the portal know if they’re going to play next year or not,” Christian said.
The transfer proposal has been likened to free agency, giving athletes the power of choice but also jeopardizing programs’ stability and turning recruiting into even more of a never-ending cycle.
“I think that recruiting transfers in general is going to accelerate,” said UMass Lowell coach Pat Duquette, a former assistant at BC and Northeastern. “It seems like there’s going to be probably more movement, so you’ve got to be able to tap into the other side and recruit transfers more than you ever have.
“Ten, 15 years ago, at BC and Northeastern, we just did it with four-year guys. Once in a while, you’d get a transfer, but basically, you’re recruiting high school kids and developing them and they’re staying four years. I just don’t think you can approach it that way.”
UMass Lowell has added forwards Darion Jordan-Thomas (Wagner) and Charlie Russell Jr. (Tulane), along with guard Greg Hammond (Rhode Island).
“I don’t think many coaches are that surprised anymore," Duquette said, "and I think most coaches are working hard to have continual depth on their recruiting boards so when and if that happens, you’re ready for it.
“That’s an adjustment we’ve all been forced to make. I think three, four, five years ago, you were taken a little bit more by surprise. I think now we’ve had time to adjust.”
Reducing the risk
Out in Amherst, McCall has added Mark Gasperini, a 6-10 post player from American University who prepped at Brimmer & May, along with Tabor grad Noah Fernandes via Wichita State.
“The landscape now, it’s going to be impossible to bat 1.000,” McCall said. “It’s going to require us as coaches to make sure — and not that we don’t do this anyway — but just the investment and the relationships that you have to build with your guys each and every day will become so important."
For Christian, one way to take away some of the risk was to seek out graduate transfer students. Those players have immediate eligibility.
“Nobody knows what’s going to happen until that vote actually happens,” Christian said. “We’ve kind of targeted people that we know can play right away. So we went after graduate students because we know they can play.
"Obviously you keep recruiting. If you find the right kids who can really satisfy needs for your program and are good kids and want to be at BC, you recruit them.”
Duquette said he could see gravity hitting the numbers eventually.
“If you follow these transfers closely, a lot more of them don’t work than do work,” Duquette said. “So I’m not convinced that guys aren’t going to, at some point, realize that there’s just as much if not more risk involved in transferring as there is in staying.
"So I can see an immediate jump if the new rule takes place, but I could see it leveling off as well when guys see that it doesn’t always work.”
Craig Larson of the Globe staff contributed to this report
Division 1 transfers involving Massachusetts colleges
G Rich Kelly, Quinnipiac to Boston College
F Chris Doherty, Notre Dame to Northeastern
G Noah Fernandes, Wichita State to UMass
F Mark Gasperini, American to UMass
G Greg Hammond, Rhode Island to UMass Lowell
F Darion Jordan-Thomas, Wagner to UMass Lowell
C James Karnik, Lehigh to Boston College
F Charlie Russell Jr., Tulane to UMass Lowell
F Frederick Scott, Rider to Boston College
G/F Malcolm Townsel, State Fair CC to Holy Cross
G Bryce Aiken, Harvard to Seton Hall
G Maxime Boursiquot, Northeastern to TBA
F Sy Chatman, UMass to TBA
G Keon Clergeot, UMass to SE Louisiana
G Kyle Copeland, Holy Cross to TBA
F Samba Diallo, UMass to Manhattan
F Connor Niego, Holy Cross to TBA
G Myles Franklin, Northeastern to TBA
G Sean East, UMass to Bradley
F Joey Glynn, UMass Lowell to TBA
F Jairus Hamilton, Boston College to Maryland
F Marlon Hargis, Holy Cross to TBA
G Chris Herren Jr., Boston College to San Diego
F Darius Henderson, UMass Lowell to Montana
G Donovan Ivory, UMass Lowell to Boise State
G/F C.J. Jackson, UMass to TBA
G Drew Lowder, Holy Cross to TBA
F Tomas Murphy, Northeastern to Vermont
G Jordyn Owens, UMass Lowell to TBA
G Joe Pridgen, Holy Cross to TBA
G Julian Rishwain, Boston College to San Francisco
F Ciaran Sandy, Holy Cross to TBA
F Seth Towns, Harvard to Ohio State
C Blake Verbeek, Holy Cross to TBA
G Lincoln Yeutter, Holy Cross to TBA
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