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Fifth-year transfers threaten low- and mid-majors
Transfer Epidemic Bas Heal WEB
Nebraska's Andrew White III (3) drives past Maryland's Jared Nickens (11) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the quarterfinals at the Big Ten Conference tournament in Indianapolis.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Tennessee Tech is picked to finish second in its division of the Ohio Valley Conference, and coach Steve Payne is hopeful that a fifth-year transfer from Tulane will help put the Golden Eagles over the top.

He still hates the fifth-year transfer rule.

"As a coach, it puts you in a tough situation," he said. "We want to promote academic progress or promote guys to be successful in school and when you do that, sometimes people are recruiting them behind your back."

There are roughly 800 players in Division I basketball who will have transferred when the season begins next week. Many of them took advantage of NCAA rules that allow them to play immediately at another school if they have graduated from their previous institution, rather than redshirting under normal transfer rules.

The rule is designed to reward athletes who have earned their degree and desire to pursue a graduate degree elsewhere. But it has instead become a loophole that allows athletes to go somewhere else for a number of different reasons, from playing time to the chance to play for a more prestigious school.

That has become a source of consternation for coaches at all levels, but particularly those at low- and mid-majors, who rely on developing players over time — only to see them leave as seniors.

"It's somewhere worse than a bad thing," Belmont coach Rick Byrd said. "It's creating a situation where you've got schools recruiting from other schools. You've got majors recruiting from mid-majors, literally. You've got kids thinking about whether they're going to stay with your program or go somewhere else when their senior year is over. It's like they're a senior in high school again."

The results can be crippling. Schools with NCAA Tournament aspirations can be reduced to league bottom-dwellers and their coaches from being hot commodities to being on the hot seat.

"It's a double-edged sword," Tennessee State coach Dana Ford said. "We almost lost our best player (Tahjere McCall) this year to the rule, but fortunately he decided to stay. But then again, last year's best player (Keron DeShields) was a fifth-year senior. Pick and choose, right?

"No one ever reached out for an official communication or contact (with McCall), but I'm sure someone was calling somebody," Ford said. "If not, they were not doing their job at their level, right?"

In interviews with numerous coaches and administrators, that appeared to be the biggest flaw in the rule: Schools are reduced to surreptitiously recruiting players off other campuses.

There is too much money at stake. Wins are too valuable.

If plucking away someone who can put a team over the top, then it makes sense to do it.

"One hundred percent of all coaches would say that's a very, very bad rule," said Kansas coach Bill Self, who has benefited from it in the past. "Recruiting off somebody else's campus, that per se is not legal, but through third parties or whatnot, obviously there can be contact."

It's hard to fault the player, either. Why would they want to play for a nondescript school in front of a thousand fans without any chance of success when they could be playing for a powerhouse on national TV, perhaps even win a national title and gain the exposure necessary to play in the NBA?

The easy solution would be to repeal the rule, forcing fifth-year transfers to sit out like any other transfer. But the NCAA has so far refused to act, leaving coaches and administrators in a difficult situation.

"I don't really blame those guys if the rule is in effect," Austin Peay coach Dave Loos said. "Even the people who are against the rule in the Power Five conferences will tell you, 'Hey, if it's a rule, I'm going to take advantage of it.'"