Why Michigan State basketball's transfer potential isn't as simple as it seems

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Chris Solari, Detroit Free Press
·5 min read
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The ball for the NCAA tournament hadn’t even been tipped, and reports started swirling that Michigan State basketball already had begun looking to next season.

This is what the transfer portal has done to college sports. Ask any coach in any sport —recruiting never stops. But it now takes on an added urgency, even with championship dreams still alive for a current season, when suitors are lining up for players who’ve already proven their worth at the college level.

So when word leaked this week that Tom Izzo and his staff have reached out to players in the portal — specifically Penn State big man John Harrar, Indiana guard Aljami Durham and Northeastern point guard Tyson Walker — it should not come as a surprise. If the Spartans aren’t exploring, they’re falling behind in the current recruiting landscape. Just look across the street from Breslin Center at what Mel Tucker is doing.

But pump the brakes on what it might mean, especially on the potential for current Spartans to leave.

Michigan State Spartans forward Thomas Kithier passes against Penn State Nittany Lions forward John Harrar during the second half at Breslin Center, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021.
Michigan State Spartans forward Thomas Kithier passes against Penn State Nittany Lions forward John Harrar during the second half at Breslin Center, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021.

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The important caveat is that when players enter the NCAA’s portal — created in 2018 to help manage a growing number of transfers — it does not mean they are leaving their school. (See Connor Heyward’s situation in football.) Harrar and Durham know their current schools will have a new coach, while Walker’s coach, Bill Coen, has been linked to a number of vacancies already.

Penn State had six players enter the portal after the school hired Purdue assistant Micah Shrewsberry on Monday. It is reminiscent of what happened in early 2018, when eight players at Pitt announced they planned to transfer after Kevin Stallings was fired. Pitt hired Jeff Capel to replace him, and he convinced five to stay. (Minnesota star Marcus Carr was one of those who left.)

Of course, Capel is now dealing with his own portal problems, with three players entering in the past few weeks. Which shows the cyclical nature of the transfer epidemic.

And it is one Izzo and his staff have observed mostly from afar, though they dipped their toes into the transfer pool by landing Joey Hauser from Marquette after the Spartans’ 2019 Final Four run. In Izzo's 26 seasons, MSU rarely has gone the Division I transfer route, though the exceptions are mostly notable: Mike Chappell (Duke), Brandon Wood (Valparaiso), Bryn Forbes (Cleveland State), Eron Harris (West Virginia) and Hauser.

Izzo has prepared his program's future in much the same way he did 26 years ago: By seeking out high-end prep talent. He signed three already for 2021 — five-star Max Christie and four-stars Jaden Aiken and Pierre Brooks II. Which brings us to the numbers game.

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Northeastern's Tyson Walker (2) throws a pass around Delaware's Justyn Mutts (top right) in the first half at the Bob Carpenter Center Thursday.
Northeastern's Tyson Walker (2) throws a pass around Delaware's Justyn Mutts (top right) in the first half at the Bob Carpenter Center Thursday.

With 13 available scholarships each year, MSU still needs one freed up to bring in those three as freshman this fall. Joshua Langford’s scholarship will come free, and there is another Izzo gave to walk-on Jack Hoiberg for this season that is available. By all accounts, the third will open up if junior Aaron Henry enters (and remains in) the NBA draft. So the only way Izzo could bring in a transfers for 2021 would be if one or more players on Izzo’s Thursday night roster decide to leave the program — by transfer or ending their college careers.

Even so, an open spot might not go to a transfer. Two words why: Emoni Bates.

The high school phenom is a junior for his father’s Ypsi Prep team, which spent the winter playing high-level national competition before ending their season last week. Bates — who committed to MSU in June — could reclassify and graduate early to join the class of 2021. That also would require the Spartans to finagle another open scholarship spot.

Bates’ mindset remains unknown, especially with the possibility of the NBA or G League changing their eligibility rules and making a move to the pros enticing. There also are NCAA rules in the hopper that could affect Izzo’s current players.

Langford, for instance, could return to MSU for a sixth season without affecting MSU’s scholarship count. That does not apply to current underclassmen.

What does apply, however, is pending NCAA legislation to allow athletes a one-time transfer with immediate eligibility. Harrar and Durham are expected to be graduate transfers next season and would be able to play right away regardless; Walker, however, is a sophomore and would need to sit out 2021-22 under current transfer rules. The NCAA tabled discussion on the one-time transfer rule in January, though there were reports last week that the Division I governing body is expected to approve the proposal for next season when it meets in April, after the Final Four.

That leaves MSU’s underclassmen in the same position as Walker, who would have three years left to play (with this season not counting against his eligibility). They could enter the transfer portal and leave without penalty after the Spartans’ season and carry their extra year to another school.

Or they could remain at MSU and chase that "One Shining Moment" again.

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State basketball's transfer potential isn't simple