Transfer portal changes equation for women's coaches, who used to build dynasties on prep recruits

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Louisville coach Jeff Walz succinctly summed up how quickly the college basketball world has evolved over the last few years while his team was playing at the Seattle Regional last spring.

“You’ve got Selection Sunday and Portal Monday,” he said.

Walz was referring to how the college transfer portal opens up the day after the NCAA Tournament field is announced in mid-March. After it opened up last year, Cardinals guard Hailey Van Lith entered the portal and ended up at defending champion LSU.

For decades, most women’s college dynasties were built by getting the top high school players. Women's basketball players, unlike their male counterparts, usually stay for four years in college so landing a top recruiting class often meant it was easier to stay atop the sport for longer runs.

LSU coach Kim Mulkey played on one of the first dominant teams when she starred at Louisiana Tech in the early 1980s. USC, Tennessee and UConn were all built by recruiting talented high school players.

But over the past few seasons, the transfer portal has changed the way teams are built with coaches like Dawn Staley at South Carolina and Mulkey adding established college players to their programs. Just in the past few years, Mulkey added Angel Reese, Van Lith and Aneesah Morrow. All three earned All-America honors last year and all will suit up for her this season.

“The portal’s changed everybody,” Mulkey said, “It’s something that you have to embrace, just like NIL’s changed everybody.”

Van Lith was already one of the highest earners for name, image and likeness compensation last season at Louisville. She said her decision to transfer came down to her happiness.

“I had to put myself first,” Van Lith said. “I had done my part, and I had sacrificed myself and given my all to that program. But at the end of the day, I just I wasn’t enjoying everyday life. It was a situation there where I chose that I deserve happiness.”

She wasn't alone. Over 1,200 women’s basketball players entered the portal last year for various reasons and just over 1,000 found new schools to play for, according to the NCAA. Four years ago, there were just under 500 players in the portal.

With so many talented players available, it's changed how quickly coaches can turn around an underperforming program. In some cases, like LSU, it can mean a coach can build a super team.

“It’s much easier to build a team today for sure,” said UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who has won a record 11 national championships. “I think it’s going to knock out a lot of programs that maybe can’t afford to do it the new way. You’ll have even bigger discrepancies between the haves and have nots for those who can buy a team. That’s the trend.”

All coaches are in favor of players being able to earn NIL money off their celebrity status. But it is clear that NIL money can influence recruiting.

“You can recruit a 17-year-old coming out of high school or a 20-year old kid from another school," Auriemma said. "It’s going to ruin some programs on some level. It’s going to benefit those that can afford to pay. The nonsense that you can’t use money as a recruiting tool was so far-fetched. The fact is it’s happening in programs that are being raided by this.”

Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer would like better enforcement of the tampering rules that exist. She says players on her team have been approached to transfer, including preseason All-America center Cameron Brink.

Sometimes, it's just about wanting a change of scenery.

Morrow, who left DePaul after a record-setting first two seasons, said she didn't really get to go through the recruiting process in high school because it was during the height of the pandemic.

“I wanted to see how the recruiting process would actually feel,” she said.

Ole Miss coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin has been a huge proponent of the transfer portal. Fresh off a trip to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 16 years, McPhee-McCuin welcomed another stellar transfer group to complement a great freshmen class. The Rebels added former North Carolina guard Kennedy Todd-Williams, former Florida guard K.K. Deans and former Auburn forward Kharyssa Richardson. The year before, she had six transfers.

“I kind of look at the portal as a way to fill in the holes,” she said. “You balance it with getting good freshmen.”

Coaches agreed that the portal is here to stay and will be vital to success.

“The ones that don’t want to adapt to it are going to have hard times ahead of them,” McPhee-McCuin said.

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AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball