Here's why mid-major schools fear having their star players poached after NCAA tournament

Pete Thamel

NASHVILLE – Georgia State point guard D’Marcus Simonds scored 16 points against Cincinnati in the first eight minutes of the NCAA tournament on Friday afternoon. He drove in traffic and finished at the rim, stepped back into 3-pointers and showed a rare dynamism that hinted at vast professional potential.

Simonds finished Georgia State’s first-round loss with 24 points on 10-for-20 shooting, carrying an upset quest that saw the Panthers leading the game with less than 10 minutes remaining. Cincinnati pulled away in the final nine minutes to win, 68-53, paving the way for an even bigger upset in the modern college basketball environment.

In the past decade, talented players like Simonds at a Sun Belt school like Georgia State have emerged as commodities. Transferring up from mid-majors to higher-profile programs has gone from an anomaly to an expectation, with the national transfer rate nearly 50 percent and mid-majors constantly worried about their rosters getting plundered.

“I feel like we’re the farm system for the high majors,” said Georgia State associate head coach Ray McCallum, the former head coach at Detroit, Ball State and Houston. “And with the grad transfers, it’s a different time and different climate.”

Georgia State guard D’Marcus Simonds (R) laughs with Cincinnati guard Jacob Evans (1) in the second half of a first-round game of the NCAA college basketball tournament in Nashville, Tenn., Friday, March 16, 2018. Cincinnati won 68-53. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Georgia State guard D’Marcus Simonds (R) laughs with Cincinnati guard Jacob Evans (1) in the second half of a first-round game of the NCAA college basketball tournament in Nashville, Tenn., Friday, March 16, 2018. Cincinnati won 68-53. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

As we enter the throes of a season defined by coaching changes and roster turnover, the best news for Georgia State is that Simonds only wants to play at one school. He’s from the Atlanta area and grew up near teammates Isaiah Williams and Devin Mitchell. And he told Yahoo Sports he has no desire to transfer to a blue blood to finish his career, an upset as rare these days as a No. 15 over a No. 2.

“I’m not going to leave Georgia State,” he said. “I love Georgia State. It’s my home, obviously. I haven’t, temptation-wise [heard anything]. I’m sure there were schools that would take me, but I’m not even looking. I’ll never leave.”

The Georgia State staff is just as bullish on Simonds as he is on the Panthers. Coach Ron Hunter says that Simonds can be picked in the NBA draft lottery if he keeps developing. McCallum didn’t hesitate when he said the 6-foot-4 Simonds is “a Westbrook.” Fellow GSU assistant Claude Pardue, who recruited Simonds, says he can play anywhere.

That doesn’t mean that the officials at Georgia State won’t have their antennas up in the offseason. Georgia State athletic director Charlie Cobb said he hopes the federal investigation into basketball that’s resulted in the FBI arresting 10 men and three upcoming federal trials will slow down the poaching and tampering that’s become prevalent in the college game. He said that he and his staff always stay alert when they have players who are “program makers.”

“When it gets a little bit quieter, that’s when coaches leave and kids change [schools],” Cobb said. “The underground market starts. I’d like to think the times we are in in college basketball right now, that coaches are a little more cautious, not as aggressive as they were before.”

In recent history, there’s plenty of examples of kids having huge tournaments for mid-major programs and transferring up.

The highest-profile example was George Mason’s Luke Hancock, who went from a NCAA tournament star at George Mason to the MOP of the NCAA tournament for Louisville in 2013. There are plenty of other examples of starring in NCAA games becoming an audition, including Robert Morris’ Marcquise Reed scoring 22 points against Duke in 2015. (He scored 15.9 points per game at Clemson this season.) Rodney Pryor, also on that Robert Morris team, went on to average 18.0 ppg for Georgetown during the 2016-17 season as a graduate transfer.

Makai Mason lit up Baylor playing for Yale in the NCAA tournament in 2016 with a career-high 31 points. He’ll play for the Bears next season. Two starters from UNC Asheville’s 2016 NCAA tournament team transferred up, Dwayne Sutton (Louisville) and Dylan Smith (Arizona).

“The reality is anytime a player gets onto a national state and plays at a high level for all to see, the percentage increases dramatically that he will have people in his ear talking to him about transferring up,” Robert Morris coach Andy Toole told Yahoo Sports on Friday.

An extreme example came last year when Mount St. Mary’s earned a No. 16 seed, won a play-in game and lost players to Texas, Miami and Kansas State.

“There’s fewer and fewer people who want to dig their boots in and build something in a unique image,” said Mount St. Mary’s coach Jamion Christian. “It’s just what it is. That’s just kind of the mindset of folks now. It’s not wrong or right. It’s something we all have to be ready to adjust to.”

For Georgia State, Simonds’ loyalty to the school makes it apparent he’ll stick around. The coaching staff there believes that with one more year of development, he could end up a first-round pick. They’re happy to avoid the fate of others, but recognize that this has become the new normal in college basketball.

“It’s sad that’s where college basketball is,” Pardue said. “At the same time, we’re not worried about all the other programs. What we have at Georgia State is a foundation that’s been built and it’s so solid there’s plenty of people who want to come here.”

And that means that bigger programs should worry about seeing Simonds and the Panthers across from them in their bracket next year. One upset in the transfer market may well lead to one on the floor.

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