There’s no good way to spin losing six of your top eight players to transfers, but the approach Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen took was especially ill-conceived.
In a letter addressed to Tigers fans on Tuesday morning, Bowen blamed the culture of modern college basketball for the exodus that has occurred after Tubby Smith’s debut season as Memphis coach.
“While student-athletes deciding to leave our university has been difficult to watch, it has not surprised us,” Bowen wrote. “Across the country, more than 700 Division I men’s basketball student-athletes transferred last year. That record number of transfers is expected to be eclipsed again this year as this trend continues to grow.”
To try to sell fans that what has transpired at Memphis is the new normal in college basketball is wrong at best and disingenuous at worst. Transfers are rampant these days, but most leave either because of playing time concerns or because they have a chance to go from a low-major to a marquee program.
Memphis lost its three leading scorers and a trio of other players who projected to play a significant role next season. Dedric Lawson transferred even though it will delay his potential NBA payday at least two full years. K.J. Lawson transferred even though it will cost him a year of eligibility since he has already burnt his redshirt year. Markel Crawford left even though he’d have been the Tigers’ senior leader next season, while Keon Clergeot bolted even though he was Smith’s first recruit.
When Bowen insisted in his letter that this hasn’t surprised him, he directly contradicted his head coach. In his statement on the departure of the Lawsons last week, Smith said, “I am surprised and disappointed.” Only a couple weeks earlier, Smith said he didn’t anticipate any defections, telling reporters in Memphis, “We expect everybody to be back unless we hear something different.”
Rather than hope that Memphis fans are naive enough to believe that defections like this are happening everywhere, Bowen would have been far better off taking a more honest approach. Why not acknowledge that this is a major short-term setback for Memphis basketball while also noting that Smith and his staff are working hard to overcome it?
One big problem is that Smith so far has no major recruiting successes to point to as a sign of hope.
There’s not a Rivals 150 player among the three freshmen Smith landed as part of his 2017 class. Lately, he has attempted to stock up on junior college prospects in an effort to make up for the talent he has lost via transfer, a fact that Bowen tried valiantly in his letter to spin as a positive
“Coach Smith and I are extremely optimistic about the future of our program,” Bowen wrote. “Coach and his staff have been actively recruiting experienced student-athletes to play at the University of Memphis in the 2017-18 season and beyond.”
Of course, the real “experienced student-athletes” are Dedric Lawson, K.J. Lawson and Crawford, starters on last season’s 19-win Memphis team. They’re not whichever junior college prospects Smith can scramble to find during the late spring when most of the best players are already off the market.
With seven of last year’s top nine players gone, nobody returning who averaged more than 6.4 points per game and no elite prospects joining the fold, Memphis’ short-term future looks dismal.
The least its athletic director could do is be honest with his fan base rather than filling them with false hope.
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