Portal Door Slams Shut, What’s Left When the Smoke Clears?

The transfer portal closed on May 11th with 1,746 DI basketball players seeking greener pastures. With 351 DI programs, teams lost an average of nearly five players to the portal. In DU’s case, they lost promising freshman Justin Mullins to  Northwestern and second-team preseason All-Summit league player Tevin Smith to Cleveland State. Both players would have been projected starters for the 2023-24 season. Scores of players remain uncommitted until the start of a new school year.

The Summit League did not fare any better than the Pioneers with a number of outstanding players seeking greener pastures.

League champion Oral Roberts lost their head coach Paul Mills to Wichita State. Then, ORU’s top player Max Abmas exited to the University of Texas. Their 7’5″ center Connor Vanover, is the Golden Eagles’ second highest scorer with 12.7 ppg. is portal-bound or headed to the NBA entry draft. The list goes on for the defending champion Golden Eagles.

Nearly every team in the Summit League has had major defections with the exception of North Dakota, Omaha and South Dakota State. North Dakota State lost perhaps the best player in the conference in 6-foot-11, 235-pound forward Grant Nelson. UMKC is losing their top guard tandem of RayQuawndis Mitchell and  Shemarri Allen. St Thomas lost their leading scorer Andrew Rohde. South Dakota lost their top three scorers, highlighted by the exit of Kruz Perrott-Hunt.

In a strange twist of fate, the portal departures may level the playing field in the conference while rewarding teams that retain a core of good but not great players. Team chemistry may trump individual skill in this brave new world of college basketball.

In an article in The Brookings Register, Andrew Holtan cited three factors that explain South Dakota State’s ability to retaining players. In Holtan’s opinion, three factors have allowed SDSU to avoid losing its core roster members to the transfer portal. The first is a tradition of winning. The Jackrabbits, historically, have been the basketball blueblood of the Summit League. Second, they heavily recruit the Midwest and their own backyard- South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin. The third reason is coaching. SDSU has done a great job of staying consistent with its coaches. 

DU head coach Jeff Wulbrun has the team headed in the right direction but winning is a chicken-or-egg proposition. This will always be a recruiting barrier until DU can consistently string together 18-20 win seasons. However, DU has successfully recruited international players who appear less inclined to transfer. Two recent DU commitments, Jaxon Brenchley and Tyson Garff, are from the western states so the staff appears to be cultivating western talent pipelines. Former head coach Joe Scott had excellent success with North Texas and Colorado players but these two areas seem relatively untapped to date by the current Denver staff. Finally, keeping Wulbrun in place must be a priority to establish a stable foundation and culture at the University of Denver.

DU is still seeking a big man to replace former center Lukas Kisunas to hold down the middle and could use another power forward. Luckily, star Tommy Bruner will still be manning the point for the Pioneers and Denver landed a trio of perimeter ball-handlers and three-point shooters. Talented Touko Tainamo will anchor the front line and All-Illinois prep player DeAndre Craig is joining the Pioneers.

There is no doubt that the top programs that emerge from the portal turmoil have strategies to retain core players while working the portal to fill in the departures. And, no doubt, NIL (name, image & likeness) will continue to play a major role in roster composition. Denver’s attractive location, especially compared to many of the other Summit League outposts, and high-level academics are the other aces DU has up its sleeves.

Maintaining a steady path to competitiveness has never been more difficult in college basketball but opportunities remain for the programs that navigate the rough waters of the transfer portal. Over the short term, Denver will be busy replacing several key players and preparing for a new Summit League season. However, it may take until well into the season to determine the winners and losers in the game of musical chairs.

4 thoughts on “Portal Door Slams Shut, What’s Left When the Smoke Clears?”

  1. Hope there is still some size, speed and three-point shooting still in the portal for the Pioneers. Both are big needs.

    I’ll be honest – I am not seeing a ton to be excited about yet for next season. Certainly, DeAndre Craig is a very nice freshman recruit who could be a very good one, and perhaps Brenchly can be an 6-to-8 PPG guy to go along with Bruner and Tainamo, but there are still a lot of holes in the lineup. So far, the best I can hope for is for DU to get above .500…

    Having to rebuild the roster every year like this is going to destroy mid-major basketball, especially for those schools like DU without D-I quality local talent pools. The better players will leave for better programs and more money elsewhere, leaving little continuity and a yearly crapshoot to see what the DU coaches can cobble together from the portal.

  2. EL Swambo;
    I agree with you on the advantage this portal system gives to the upper ranked division one teams over lower div. 1 and two.
    A player develops into a star player on a lower ranked div.1 or on a div.2 team He sees that he is good enough to play for a top div. 1 team. Tempting . very tempting. to want to transfer up.

    Opposite A player on a top div.1 team like our Hockey Pios. He finds himself buried behind better players and gets little or no playing time. He wants to play hockey and not just watch his team. He would be tempted to seek a lower class team in div1; even in Div 2. so he can be out on the ice , not sitting on the bench.

  3. In theory, you are right, John — no one wants to ride the bench. But I really have yet to see any of those benchwarmers from higher-level D-I programs transfer ‘down’ and really light it up at DU (or anywhere else in the Summit League).

    The closest thing we’ve had to that at DU recently was Ronnie Harrell – a top 100 HS recruit who turned out to be mostly a benchwarmer at Creighton. In his one year here at DU, he averaged 13 PPG in 2018-19 – solid, but not spectacular. He never really jelled with the rest of the Pios, though, and that was just one of many factors that led to Rodney Billups getting fired. That fact that Harrell was a cousin of Billups did not help…

    DU Center Lukas Kisunas also had a solid year last year for DU with 10 PPG after riding the pine at Stanford for four years. Mikey Henn came in from Portland and had 8.8 PPG with DU two years ago. Both were solid players, but no accolades.

    My theory is that most top recruits would rather stay with the big program (their egos are just too big) even if they aren’t playing. And and of those few big program guys who do transfer down, they don’t make much impact at DU’s level either, because they were washout players who just could not produce at the college level. The bottom 3-4 players on most any schools’ rosters are guys who get hurt, or scout-team guys who just don’t make the jump to become effective D-I players who merit actual playing time.

  4. All fair comments. Ultimately, basketball players want to play. Plenty of power five players are dropping down for playing time. One example is ORU’s 7’0” Connor Vanover who left Arkansas to ORU and resurrected his career. As long as there are auto bids for mid-major conferences, there is a lure. The big question over time will be Denver’s ability to appeal to them (recruit) with playing time, academics and environment. I think it is still too early to draw firm conclusions on how DU will fare over time versus their peers.

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