Sam Cunliffe, Evansville Legend

Much has been made of Bill Self’s record with transfers. There are a lot of them, something that’s consistent with general trends in college basketball. The term “Transfer Portal” is now a household term, and honestly, it’s a great one, so whoever came up with the Portal piece of the phrase should really be proud of that.

With the high-pitched nature of Kansas basketball recruiting, any transfer out of the program instantly scans as a systematic failure. That’s the way the KU fanbase has reacted, at least. Kansas fell all over themselves in order to doggedly recruit this player for a year or more, only to let them slide out unceremoniously. But isn’t mutual success for both parties the end goal? Or am I an idiot?

Chicago deserves Moore. 🔵👿 #PlayingPossessed
October 4, 2019

Here’s Charlie Moore. Charlie made little impact as a junior transfer from Cal, and never solidly broke into Bill Self’s rotation. His freshman season at Cal suggested that Moore could be a solid scoring guard in a major conference. Now, Moore is at DePaul—he’s a Chicago native and received a waiver from the NCAA to play instantly—and scored 27 in DePaul’s 11/8 game against Farleigh Dickinson. On a roster that could certainly use a few more guards, did KU mess this up?

For better or worse, Self’s playing style rewards a certain type of player, and penalizes one with a more lopsided game. Typically, Self covets a two-way player who can guard his position and hold his own switching onto other ones. Offensive skills are discounted; a more disciplined and active defender will always get more burn on a team that Bill Self coaches. I always like to fantasize about what the career trajectory of Trae Young would have looked like if he had chosen Kansas over OU; I’m not sure we would have seen Trae until February, if then As Self’s outstanding W-L record suggests, it’s a formula that’s held in the context of college basketball, which should not be confused with basketball at large.

Moore filled a roster need when he signed, but when it comes to college basketball, this type of roster management feels like an increasingly fluid situation. Just like Sam Cunliffe seemed to fill a void, on paper, when he came to Kansas, Self never quite trusted him enough defensively, at least to the point where he shoot his way back in. In the modern game, this feels unfortunate; shooting is the most valuable skill right now. But that’s how Self’s machine works, and in the end I’m not surprised to see him hold a big role at Evansville (who I should say just pulled off a huge, if somewhat-exaggerated-but-still-hilarious early-season upset against #1 Kentucky at Rupp.)

November 4, 2019

Going through that list kicks up the nostalgia—Micah Downs! Alex Galindo!—but to me, no one transaction is more emblematic of the current state of recruiting/transferring/roster fluidity than Quentin Grimes. Signing Grimes felt like a major coup at the time. Grimes starred on the high school All-Star circuit, outshining bigger names like Williamson and Barrett regularly, and felt like the kind of combo guard that could thrive in Self’s offense. We all know what happened after that—he couldn’t make a shot, despite getting tons of quality looks in the off guard position. His transfer request felt like less of a surprise and more of an inevitability; in order to resurrect his draft stock, a change of scenery became necessary.

Typically, when it comes to player waivers to skip the mandated year of eligiblity in the transfer portal, the outbound team raises a stink. In the case of the five-star prospect Grimes, the fact that KU helped Grimes was a pleasant surprise—it’s this newsletter’s business to see things through crimson-colored glasses, but the support indicates a more player-friendly sea change within college basketball. In a game that’s struggling to maintain widescale attention, transfer lenience from schools feels like a unexpected healthy development that improves the quality of the product. Good players should get a few chances, right?

Setting up a player for success is a two-way street; it’s disappointing to think that Kansas isn’t going to be a destination for virtuoso offensive players, the way things seem to be going. That’s just going to be part of it, and I think that’s a fair enough concession for Bill Self’s basketball ideology. In the meantime, we can root for guys like Cunliffe, Moore and Grimes—in so many other cases, we’ve seen college hoops players become victims of the system. These dudes are in new spaces and thriving, and there’s not really any fault or rancor in the transition. That’s one of the best parts of basketball.