While sitting on the bench during a demoralizing first-round NCAA tournament loss to Iowa State, UConn's Alex Oriakhi made a decision in March that triggered the most frenzied four-week period of his life.
Right there, Oriakhi decided he would transfer. In the locker room immediately after the game, Oriakhi sent a text message to Missouri guard Phil Pressey, a close friend and former summer-league teammate, saying he might play with him. It was a message that launched a high-profile national recruitment of a 21-year-old.
Once Oriakhi received his release from his UConn scholarship, well more than 30 college coaches - including Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and North Carolina's Roy Williams - bombarded Oriakhi with phone calls. He could not maintain a conversation with one, he said, without call-waiting beeping with inquiries from others. He finally turned his cell phone off for two days.
Players have long transferred for myriad reasons - coaching changes, homesickness, playing time - but many coaches are increasingly troubled both by the sheer number of transfers and the waivers given so that some transfers don't have to sit out a season.
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Think keeping track of conference realignment is dizzying? Try following player movement: Oriakhi was among the most talented of more than 440 players who transferred in the past year, fueling debate over whether the complex issue hurts the sport and if anything can or should be done to curb the movement.
Not including graduate student transfers, almost exactly 10 percent of the 4,433 scholarships available from NCAA Division 1 men's basketball teams are changing hands via transfers. Although that percentage has held steady for nearly a decade, it is more than double the percentage of college football and more than triple that of college baseball, according to NCAA records. Records also show the transfer rate in men's basketball is 36 percent grater than the rate of the overall student-athlete population.
Think summer is the most important recruiting time? Coaches now often are forced to re-recruit some of their most talented players during the season to keep them, At the same time, coaches stand to greatly benefit if they land a transfer like Oriakhi, who is able to play this season without sitting out because the NCAA upheld UConn's postseason ban. Missouri coach Frank Haith still grins at the memory of landing the big man, calling the mid-April commitment an "early Christmas gift."
Aspects of the transfer trend have gained attention as high-profile athletes have jumped between teams and some of the game's most prominent coaches have spoken out against it. The outcries have even prompted changes by the NCAA. In response to specific concerns among schools about the application of some transfer waivers, the NCAA on Friday announced it is modifying the guidelines used when the association determines which transferring players receive waivers to play right away.
Some coaches, including Krzyzewski, endorse what amounts to player free agency - all transfers allowed to play right away. "From a player's perspective, I think a player should be allowed to move like a coach," Krzyzewski said. "If there was a player's union, players could move, transfers could travel. They would be traveling because they'd be playing. A lot of things are not done in the best interest in the players."
Other coaches, such as UTEP's Tim Floyd, call the rising transfer numbers an "epidemic," reflective of some players seeking instant gratification. And some players, including Oriakhi, call coaches who criticize transfers "hypocritical," saying it's time for players to exercise more power at a time when coaches draw little backlash despite breaking contracts to change jobs.
"Why not us?" Oriakhi told USA TODAY Sports of players nationwide. "Why would a coach want someone there who doesn't want to be there? If a player doesn't feel comfortable or happy with the situation, he has every right in the world to go where he wants to go, especially if he knows it will better him. A coach can go where he wants for more money. They'll be the first to leave when they get a better contract. Why can't a player go somewhere for pure happiness?"
Many coaches don't see it as players solely seeking happiness. Often times, they see highly touted teenage stars who want more playing time - players who expect minutes without necessarily earning them.
"There is just no patience," Marshall coach Tom Herrion said. "Kids are less apt to wait their turn, and some guys who play a lot, they are not happy because they want to play at a proverbial higher level, wherever it may be."
Perhaps causes lie with more than just the players themselves. Some recruiting analysts rank players as young as the fourth grade, and shoe company-sponsored summer-league teams fly pre-adolescents around the country for tournaments, providing a warped sense of reality. Kids as young as seventh-grade have begun receiving college scholarship offers and national media attention.
"We set a lot of these young men up for failure by how elevated they are, how lifted up they are, how good they're told they are - because that's not how it works," said Virginia coach Tony Bennett, whose roster slipped to nine scholarship players in Dec. 2011 with the transfers of K.T. Harrell and James Johnson. "It doesn't. It's so hard for them to deal with (not being the best). A lot of them can handle that, but some can't."
Players routinely switch AAU teams if they don't think they're getting enough shots - or free shoes. Many top recruits transfer high schools at least once, including the No. 1 recruit of the class of 2012, Nerlens Noel, who now plays at Kentucky. More famously, former Kansas State one-and-done forward Michael Beasley attended six different high schools. Beasley was drafted second overall in the 2008 NBA draft.
"Look at how many kids change high schools," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. "It's a culture that's been established now and into college. For a lot of reasons, transferring is very, very good. It's helped people. In other cases, it might be someone tampering. It might be a third party influencing a player. There are a lot of different reasons, but I think it starts long before they get to college."
Ryan, who attracted a great deal of criticism for attempting to block redshirt freshman forward Jarrod Uthoff from transferring to certain schools this offseason, said he's not sure how to stop some of the root causes of transferring.
Michigan coach John Beilein said understands the reasons why a coach would block a player. "I don't see anything wrong for, when a young man wants to transfer, you to say, 'Listen, there's 325 schools, but we aren't crazy about you taking our playbook to the next school.' " he said. "If there's an appeal and a compelling reason, that's OK, too."
Michigan forward Jordan Morgan, who saw three teammates transfer in the offseason, offered a general explanation for the transfer phenomenon by saying, "I think sometimes ... it's not a good fit and people need to go. Sometimes, it's people who aren't willing to just work or just earn what they want. They think that it should be given to them.
"There are a lot of different reasons. For some people, it's not about college. It's just about basketball, not about the school."
First-year SMU coach Larry Brown - who last coached in college during a vastly different climate in 1988 --- pointed to the increased number of third-party influences who gravitate toward prospects nowadays, saying "a lot of people who tell kids where to go maybe are the ones who are unhappy" and push for the player to transfer.
The revolving door keeps spinning. And because so many players transfer, it has become more culturally acceptable for more players to transfer. Ohio State forward Deshaun Thomas said players talk about transfers on a daily basis, and it's not in a negative light. He said when his teammates Jordan Sibert and J.D. Weatherspoon chose to transfer, he didn't try to recruit them to stay. Do what's best for you, he told them, before wishing them well.
It hasn't always been that way.
"It was a bad sign [to transfer] when I was in college, like you were a bad guy," said former Michigan State point guard Eric Snow, who played for the Spartans from 1991-95. "That's how it came off. A lot of guys probably wanted to transfer but didn't because of the stigma of how it looked ... Now I don't think that's the case."
When coaches realized this spike in transfers was the norm, not an aberration, they began to adjust. Considering the array of talent available during the offseason, it's wise for some to keep open spots on their rosters.
"I will say this - we will save a scholarship every year," said Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, whose roster currently has five transfers, including ex-Xavier swingman Dez Wells. "At this rate, you've always got a chance to get a really good player."
Which means it's important to make sure you keep what's on your roster. Fears of tampering run rampant. An opposing coach tells a star player he had a nice game. A former AAU coach gets a tip that his player had a bad practice. Should coaches be worried that their players are going to get poached? It's a slippery slope.
"I think coaches genuinely try to keep kids," Baylor coach Scott Drew said, "and it's hard to do."
Beilein said, "You have to make sure you're building a relationship so they never get to that point. It's human nature that you want to be a player right away and you want to be a star for four years. But it's not reality. If you build the relationship and you try to address that - the ones that stay, I don't think they regret it."
Beilein said he believes that all transfers should be required to sit out one year, no matter the reason for the move. Most coaches who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the subject said they worry about programs exploiting waivers that allow players to play immediately.
The NCAA told USA TODAY Sports 15 such waivers were granted for eligibility for the 2011-12 season and 17 were denied. Over the past five years through April 2012, 47 waivers were approved, 47 were denied. But with a 50% success rate, it's made applying for waivers a popular decision.
That may change. The NCAA announced Friday afternoon that it will use altered guidelines when determining which players will receive waivers to play immediately after transferring. The changes affect those athletes attempting to use the waiver to play at a school closer to home because of the injury or illness of an immediate family member.
Among the stricter guidelines are requiring medical documentation of the immediate family member's debilitating injury or illness and dictating the school to which the player is transferring be within a 100-mile radius of the immediate family member.
"We're always looking for some type of extenuating circumstances that document the necessity to transfer as opposed to, 'This is just a decision of comfort or a decision of a better fit,' " said Kelly Brooks, the NCAA's Director of Membership and Academic Affairs who oversees the legislative relief waiver process.
The NCAA said the changes came in response to current waiver trends and a belief among its membership that there was inconsistency from one waiver decision to another. Members of the Division I legislative council's subcommittee for legislative relief, formed at the urging of NCAA President Mark Emmert, made the changes.
The subcommittee also will address a variety of other issues related to transfers as they review the current system and make recommendations.
Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings is among those who were critical of the recent waiver trends. "You hear the things, 'My such and such is sick.' Well, then you should have gone to the hometown school to begin with, as far as I'm concerned," Stallings said last month. "Things are being manipulated and taken advantage of. As soon as you allow that, then Pandora's box opens and people are trying to, again, 'My second cousin's aunt's uncle is sick, and I want to play right away.' "
Oriakhi, who told USA TODAY Sports he was intent on transferring even if he had to sit out a season, said Stallings' comments sounded like those of a sore loser. "The coach from Vanderbilt said that?" Oriakhi said. "I'm pretty sure if I wanted to come to his school, he would not have had a problem with it. If it's going to benefit the coach, I'm pretty sure he's not going to complain about it at all. When someone goes to another school (in league), then there's a problem."
Oriakhi said the transfer debate is strewn with hypocrisy. For instance, he said, coaches can move freely from job to job with no penalty, but players cannot. In Krzyzewski, players have a prominent ally in this battle. Purdue's Matt Painter and Memphis' Josh Pastner are among other coaches who, in most instances, defend players' ability to transfer.
"Everybody here has probably changed their job at one time," Painter said. "Why'd you change your job? Got more money, wanted to go back to a certain area. ... I try to talk very few people out of transferring."
Coaches point to the return of April's evaluation period - when coaches can watch high school prospects - and the NCAA rule change that allows for more access with their current players in the summer as ways to better get to know players, which in turn could lead to better fits between players and schools. But beyond that?
"How are you going to legislate morality?" Indiana coach Tom Crean said. "There are always going to be issues."
Few teams this season will benefit from transfers as much as Missouri. Despite returning just 29.7 percent of their scoring, the Tigers are poised to challenge the upper echelon of the SEC because of new faces who, unlike freshmen, for the most part arrive with a proven track record of having succeeded academically, socially and athletically at a college.
Haith said that when he was hired in spring 2011, he did not rely on signing uncommitted high school seniors because he could not find those talented enough. But some established college players on the move were potential difference makers, and as Haith said, "we got lucky."
Earnest Ross, a former double-figure scorer at Auburn, left because of a coaching change. Keion Bell yearned to play at a higher level after scoring 1,365 points at Pepperdine. And Oregon transfer Jabari Brown, a former five-star recruit, will be eligible to play second semester.
Then there is Oriakhi, a former McDonald's All-American who started 96 games at UConn and helped to Huskies win the 2011 national championship. Having initially committed to UConn as a 16-year-old, this past spring served as his first true high-intensity recruitment. And even some coaches who criticize the transfer trend could not resist making a sales pitch to Oriakhi.
In the end, Oriakhi said, much like coaches, he and other players are looking out for themselves first.
"You have to put yourself in the best position to get to the NBA, if that's what you want to do," Oriakhi said. "If transferring is what it takes, that is what it takes. Are coaches leaving to coach somewhere else bad for basketball? It's exactly the same thing."