‘Everything went away’: Transfer portal steals coaches’ attention from prep players

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One offer.

That's all Alonzo Dodd hoped to receive from any Division I basketball program.

As the 18-year-old guard from South St. Paul dribbled up the floor at an AAU tournament in Indianapolis this spring, he could see D-I coaches lining the sidelines taking notes.

Even though he started for one of the top high schools and AAU teams in Minnesota, Dodd's phone stopped buzzing as often. He joined thousands of boys and girls nationally, wondering if the ever-growing NCAA transfer portal meant fewer scholarship openings for high school prospects.

Since the NCAA passed the one-time transfer rule in April 2021 — allowing Division I athletes leaving for the first time to avoid sitting out a year — the rush of players entering the portal has skyrocketed.

From basketball to football to volleyball and other sports, the portal has taken over as the preferred recruiting route for many college programs. According to the NCAA, in 2022 alone, the portal has 1,777 Division I men's basketball players, 1,342 for women's basketball and 5,230 for football.

One program eventually thought Dodd was good enough. He signed with Texas A&M-Commerce, a Division II program transitioning to Division I this year.

"It was kind of a surreal moment," said the Star Tribune All-Metro first-team guard. "Just finally having a school to look at. Over the years, I had schools, but everything kind of went away once the transfer portal got bigger and bigger."

Like Dodd, Como Park's Ronnie Porter could feel the door closing on her Division I dreams this spring. She nearly finished her high school career with no offers from a D-I college program before Wisconsin swooped in and grabbed her.

With fewer college recruiters paying attention, it helped Porter that fellow Badgers recruit Savannah White played on the same AAU team.

"Since I was 8 years old, I always dreamed of playing at the next level," Porter said to Badgers coaches after committing. "Thank you for believing in me."

Youth vs. experience

When Gophers coaches P.J. Fleck, Ben Johnson, Hugh McCutcheon and Lindsay Whalen hit the road for their spring caravan, fans often asked about the transfer portal and how it is changing their programs.

It's different for each sport.

Fleck has seen 19 of his players enter the portal since the end of the 2021 regular season, but he has added eight transfers.

"It's part of the deal. Get used to it," Fleck said. "Transfer doesn't mean bad. We've benefited from it, but we've also had to give some to do that."

Coaches can't afford for their teams to be too young and inexperienced after losing players to the portal. So cherished roster spots are going to transfers, meaning several high school recruits each year will miss a chance to play for the Gophers.

For the first time in his tenure heading Gophers volleyball, McCutcheon signed more transfers than high school seniors this offseason, by a 4-3 count, including three graduate students.

"The transfer portal has dramatically changed recruiting, especially at the top levels," Northern Lights AAU volleyball co-director Adam Beamer said. "You need a [middle blocker]? Just recruit out of the portal. You get someone with experience. You can get someone where you know what you're getting right away."

Whalen welcomed four high school recruits and five transfers this summer to the Gophers women's basketball team.

"I think it's going to depend on year to year what your program needs," Whalen said. "I'd rather not recruit the portal, but at the same time, some schools who didn't need to now do. Some years you might have to keep two or three scholarships available because you just don't know."

After replacing Richard Pitino last year, Johnson lost 10 players to the portal compared with just one this spring. His Gophers men's basketball team added four high school recruits and three transfers this offseason.

The plan now is to keep two scholarship spots open for 2022-23 because adding more transfers might "hinder any young guys that we really like and stunt their growth," Johnson said.

"It's hard, and every coach wants to have depth," Johnson said. "There are a lot of people that talk about all these transfers that are out there, but it has to be the right ones that work."

Quest for offers

The final AAU season for most basketball players happens the spring and summer before their senior year. Unsigned high school seniors are the exception, typically playing the spring just before graduation.

Nick Brock had a starting lineup full of exceptions this spring, coaching his Real Phenom 17U team. All five starters were still waiting for college offers. Some of them had D-I schools interested early on, but nothing progressed.

"The scholarships have been taken away because of the transfer portal is basically free agency now," Brock said. "That's what you're seeing a lot in college basketball now, and it's hurting the high school kids."

Brock encouraged players to accept Division II or junior college offers if those are their best options. More D-II programs are now getting access to players whom they possibly wouldn't have been able to recruit previously.

Stillwater's Max Shikenjanski, who averaged 28 points per game last season as a junior, is a top-10 player in the state's 2023 class. He picked up a slew of D-II offers in June after those schools realized D-I programs were still hesitant. Shikenjanksi was offered his first D-I scholarship last week by The Citadel, coached by former Gophers assistant Ed Conroy.

Former Columbia Heights guard Terrence Brown wasn't as fortunate. He saw no change in his recruitment playing with D1 Minnesota's 17U team this spring, so he reclassified to 2023. This year, he'll play a fifth season of high school at Golden State Prep in Napa, Calif.

Other borderline D-I prospects from Minnesota are deciding the prep school route might give them more exposure.

"You have the same amount of talent as some players in the portal," Brown said. "But they're going to go to the portal anyway, so you just have to put the work in and keep grinding. Showing that you can compete at that level."

Major D-I dreams

Hundreds of college basketball coaches flocked to the Twin Cities in June to see the top boys and girls players from Minnesota and nearby states compete in different events.

The Summer Jam featured several top AAU girls teams in the region such as North Tartan and Metro Stars. Aalayah Wilson's FBC North team quietly finished 3-1 in pool play.

After averaging 27 points for Osseo last season, Wilson felt she could hold her own with anyone in her 2023 class, but she had just one Division I offer. She decided to take advantage of that by committing to Lindenwood, a D-II program in Missouri moving to D-I next season.

"I definitely think it has been a lot tougher for players out of high school to get offers now," the 5-8 guard said. "It just makes you have to work that much harder. If you're that good, you'll get noticed regardless."

Teams from the Big Ten and five other major conferences have combined to offer scholarships to four girls and three boys from Minnesota in the class of 2023. More players might prove worthy in the July evaluation period, but many programs are likely to save scholarships for transfers.

In a time when athletes are promoting themselves on Twitter, posting news of every scholarship offer they receive, it's also noticeable when they're not getting much attention from college teams. The stress builds.

"I lose some sleep over it, I'm not going to lie," White Bear Lake senior guard Jack Janicki said. "At the end of the day, that's just the way the sport works. I tell my parents I'm just going to work harder."

To end the spring AAU season, Totino-Grace's Tommy Humphries nailed a game-winning three-pointer for D1 Minnesota. The video picked up thousands of views on social media.

The 6-5 Humphries, who won a Minnesota Class 3A state title in March with Totino-Grace, suddenly saw his first D-I offers show up in June, but he still feels overlooked for one big reason: the portal.

"They're already recruiting a lot of top kids, so you've got to put yourself in that area or you will fall down," Humphries said. "You've got to survive right now. That's how I'm looking at it."