Eight years before the NCAA introduced the transfer portal amid a growing wave of players flocking to other schools, Fred Hoiberg had a problem.

Hoiberg had just been hired by his alma mater, Iowa State, as head coach, and he didn’t want to wait for a bunch of young freshmen to turn into winners. Iowa State had struggled to attract five-star talent in recent years. When Hoiberg arrived in 2010, the Cyclones had produced just two first-round NBA picks in 10 years. Without a strong recruiting pipeline, his options for rapid improvement were limited.

He called his aides into a meeting and asked how Iowa State — a program that finished 15-17 the previous season and had only made one NCAA Tournament appearance in the past decade — could compete with Kansas, the perennial power of the Big 12. .


“Fred was like, ‘How can we get the talent here fastest?'” said TJ Otzelberger, who was then an assistant on Hoiberg’s staff and is now the head coach of Ames. “And it certainly looked like we didn’t have five-star guys. When Fred came in I was like, ‘Well shoot, if that’s what we’re doing, we’re probably going to have to take transfers. “”

Hoiberg would tap into a pipeline that top programs had largely shunned in favor of top freshmen who might only stay for a year but could give their programs a shot at an immediate national title. But the 2011-12 Iowa State Cyclones, anchored almost entirely by transfers, did something unexpected: They beat defending national champion UConn in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, and faced eventual champion Kentucky before losing to the Wildcats in the second. round. Hoiberg and his 2011-12 Cyclones won national acclaim and created a blueprint other teams would follow a decade later by mixing transfers with returning veterans for an instant surge.

Ten years later, Hoiberg is now the head coach of Nebraska, where he’s 24-67, in a college basketball climate that’s producing more transfers every year and more competition for that talent as well. His struggles to turn Lincoln, Nebraska into the popular elite transfer destination that Ames, Iowa became during his five-year tenure at Iowa State, highlighted the intense battle for the talents within the transfer portal. Once considered a pioneer in the transfer market, Hoiberg, like all Division I coaches today, is trying to lure top players from other schools in an era when players can compete immediately and attract contracts. names, image and likeness (NIL). that influence their decisions.

“There was not [1,600] kids in the portal when I took over at Iowa State,” he said. “It was a very small number. And some of them left and it was the right decision. And some leave and it doesn’t end up being what they think.”

Hoiberg’s transfers, however, flourished at their new school during the 2011–12 season.

Royce White (Minnesota), Chris Babb (Penn State) and Chris Allen (Michigan State) all arrived at Ames after the 2009-10 season and sat out the following season under NCAA transfer rules. White (13.4 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 5.0 APG, 1.2 SPG in 2011-12 and first-team Big 12), a 6-foot-8 point guard in the body of a power forward, could pass and lead his team’s attack while also having the strength to post any opposing player, making this a tough game for any team in the country. Babb averaged 7.8 PPG. Allen made 37% of his 3-point attempts that year. Scott Christopherson, who transferred from Marquette two years before Hoiberg arrived, averaged 12.6 PPG and shot 46 percent from beyond the arc. Melvin Ejim was the only starter in Hoiberg’s rotation that season who was not a Division I transfer.

It was a different era of college basketball. Just over 400 players – compared to 1,600 today – transferred to other schools after the 2011–12 season. White and Christopherson were the only two Division I transfers to the Big 12 first, second or third teams that year.

Hoiberg’s decision to recruit and begin transfers – seen as a risky move by everyone at the time – was influenced by his 10-year NBA career, during which he played for teams that improved through free agency and trades. He believed the same approach could work at the college level. His fluid, professional-style system attracted players who hoped to make their way into the NBA, just as their coach had in the 1990s.

“At the beginning of my [playing] career, I played on an Indiana Pacers team for four seasons that pretty much had the core intact,” Hoiberg said. “And then I go to the Chicago Bulls and it’s a new roster, not just every year, but at every all-star break. It’s almost like they flipped the list twice in a year. Then in Minnesota, I spent two years [playing] and then when I was in the front office, I was part of some high-level trades and a lot of different draft picks. I think it probably affected the way I looked [transfers].”

Hoiberg’s transfer team also discovered an advantage that would help them and Iowa State transfer teams: with NCAA rules at the time requiring transfers to be absent for a year before being allowed to compete for their new schools, transfer students had an additional year to build and strengthen their chemistry, and by extension their game. (As of the 2021-22 season, the NCAA decided that each college athlete would be allowed to transfer and play immediately, assuming the athlete had not previously transferred.)

“I was thrilled to see the team we started building,” said Babb, who now plays professionally in Israel. “I had played against Chris Allen in the Big Ten. I remember [White] of the AAU circuit. Once I saw the team come together and once we got acquainted – we spent so much time together that [2010-11] season – it sort of fell into place.”

Transfer rules also prohibited transfers from traveling with the team. So throughout the 2010-11 campaign, Babb, Allen, White and Anthony Booker (southern Illinois) practiced at team facilities on game days and then watched their team compete on the big screen. . They were cheering on their teammates and then, days later, playing with them in grueling, competitive practices.

“There were certainly days [in practice] when they brought it to those of us who were eligible to play,” Christopherson said.

Once White, Babb, Allen and Booker were eligible to play a year later, the Cyclones reached milestones the program hadn’t seen in nearly a decade. They reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005. They also beat Kansas for the first time in seven years.

Hoiberg’s experiment had worked. Iowa State began attracting talent that helped it to four consecutive NCAA tournaments, including a run to the Sweet 16 in 2014. Key transfers, such as Korie Lucious, Will Clyburn, Bryce Dejean-Jones and DeAndre Kane, arrived after the 2011-12 season and continued to change the perception of the program under Hoiberg. This later helped the Cyclones attract future NBA players Georges Niang and Monte Morris, who joined the program as freshmen in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Starting with the 2011-12 team, Iowa State has won at least 22 games in eight of the last 11 seasons.

But Hoiberg also knows it would be harder to build that 2011-12 team today.

“You just have to sell your situation as best you can and there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “At the time, a [transfer] would have two schools they were considering. Now in the first round they have 20 [schools]then they reduced it to 15, then they reduced it to 10, then they reduced it to five.

“So it’s different from the past where, right away, it’s, ‘OK, it’s going to be us or that other school.’ And you knew who you were competing against. Now it’s just different because so many schools are involved.

Otzelberger agrees. He too has witnessed the potential and challenges of the transfer portal as a head coach. Izaiah Brockington, who arrived at Ames via St. Bonaventure and Penn State, averaged 16.9 PPG last season and helped the Cyclones qualify for the Sweet 16 in Otzelberger’s first year as a as head coach – a year after the team won just two games. . But this offseason, Tyrese Hunter (11.0 PPG, 4.9 APG), a stalwart of the program after earning freshman Big 12 honors, has entered the transfer portal. He could get six-figure NIL contracts at his new school.

“I think it would be really difficult now to do that because of the magnitude of the quality of these guys as players. You would expect NIL to be a factor in their decision-making process,” said he declared. “It would probably be very difficult to get all these guys unless you were one of the programs that had a lot of NIL money and were just shelling it out.”

But the members of that 2011-12 Iowa State team now look back knowing they had a formula that other teams would soon use. They were the first team to rack up high profile transfers that proved programs could be successful with this approach.

The Cyclones started a trend.

“It doesn’t surprise me now that other teams are doing it because it has worked, especially for teams that are trying to quickly change their schedule,” said Ejim, who now plays professional basketball in Israel. “And with the college basketball landscape now where everyone can transfer immediately and there’s no penalty: why can’t you?”

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