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The Verdict: Mizzou Hoops Program Building Series Part III — A Volatile Industry

Part III: A tumultuous three years have changed the College Basketball landscape by drastically altering the rules under every program must operate.

News: Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Name, Image, and Likeness, and the Future of College Sports Jack Gruber-USA TODAY

This is Part III of a four-part series. Part I a 24-Month Check-Up. Part II a History Lesson. This series will build off of each prior installment.


With every strategical decision, one must weigh the positives and negatives of a chosen path, along with the probabilities that they may occur. College basketball in 2024 is no different.

In our first two installments we’ve delved deep into how Mizzou appears to be building their program with a thorough roster construction analysis. We’ve also analyzed the foundation of that method as it was implemented by Florida State. If we were dealing with the pre-COVID years, we might do well to stop. After all, we know the striking similarities between the programs and the success of that template.

However, seismic changes have occurred in not just college basketball, but the college sports landscape in general since the late 2010s. With those changes have come an avalanche of consequences — some intended, some not. Each has a cumulative impact on the way we must look at roster building strategies.

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Florida State Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

In Part II, we stopped short of discussing why the Seminoles program has dropped off considerably from the late 2010s. This isn’t in an effort to deceive, but rather to give full treatment to a broad array of issues that could have impacted their program and certainly have impacted the game as a whole.

Chaos is the Only Rule — A Hypothetical

You’ve decided against your better judgment to enter a casino. Blackjack, or “21,” is your game of choice. The rules as you know them are relatively simple. You play the dealer. Whomever gets closer to 21 without going over is the winner. For those unfamiliar with the game, casino gift shops routinely sell basic strategy cards!

Now, imagine this was the first time you’ve played in several years. After you sit down you realize the rules have changed. No longer must a dealer stop taking cards when they get to 17. Players can swap cards amongst themselves. The Dealer can throw away a card if they go over and draw again. How do you begin to use optimal strategy based on the “old rules,” of the game to maximize your chances of winning in such an environment? Simply put, you can’t. At least not until you study the long-term odds of each and every possible move.

Welcome to college sports in 2024.

Transfer Portal

In April of 2021, the NCAA approved a measure that would allow any player one “free transfer,” between institutions. What we now understand to be common was truly the beginning of a cataclysmic event in collegiate roster management.

Prior to this rule, players could freely transfer from one institution to another but were required to sit out a season of competition at their new school. In basketball, this typically meant players would use their redshirt season preserving their year of eligibility. There were exceptions to be sure — grad transfers could play immediately if their current school didn’t offer a graduate program of their choice and waivers for undergrads could be approved in limited circumstances. Prior to 2021, programs had a pretty firm understanding of who was going to comprise their roster not only this year, but for years into the future. The “sit-out,” rule proved to be a daunting obstacle.

After the one-free-transfer rule was in place, the number of players leaving their institution boomed. In the early 2010s, a typical D-I basketball transfer class would see somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 individuals. During transfer season last spring, there were over 1,500 players in the newly appointed transfer portal. With this development came the inception of a new strategies. Players who had previously transferred were likely locked in for the duration at their new programs. Older transfers and immediate impact freshmen were still prized additions — if you could get them. Things were different, but there was some semblance of strategy that could be employed.

NCAA Basketball: Texas at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

In December of 2023, Raequan Battle — a West Virginia basketball player and former member of the Washington and Montana State teams — sued the NCAA for enforcing their “two-time” transfer sit-out rule. A federal judge in West Virginia granted a restraining order against the NCAA. In the wake of the ruling, the NCAA shelved their multiple transfer rule — pending final outcome of the case — which in effect has allowed EVERY transfer immediate eligibility. Until final ruling is made — or the NCAA adopts another rule — schools and players alike are in limbo.

What we’re left with now is absolute uncertainty from a roster construction point of view. A player is completely free to leave a program as many times as he or she desires and for any reason until further guidance is established. Even if guidance is established, it’s entirely likely that another legal challenge will follow.

For a program that is modeling itself after one that recruits primarily from the high school ranks and prides itself on development and retention, it will be swimming against the strong current of unfettered player movement.

Name, Image & Likeness

A mere three months after the NCAA adopted the free transfer rule in 2021, the double whammy of roster certainty dropped. It was at that point that players were allowed the right to be compensated for their name, image and likeness “NIL,” — and to that I say, amen. In my view, players being compensated — at minimum — for their marketing rights was far too long in the making.

Yet as is often the case with anything NCAA, this new development with zero guardrails or oversight in practice. In the years following the rule change, a patchwork of state legislation cropped up allowing for varying rules regarding payment to players — Missouri’s is one of the most aggressive.

What was initially intended to be a way for players to profit from their likeness being used in advertising quickly became a way for donors — under the guise of NIL “collectives” — to pay players to play for their institution with minimal advertising and/or charitable work in return. In effect, the collectives now pay player salaries. Which isn’t a problem in of itself — it’s merely a roundabout way of doing what most believe is coming eventually.

Yet, when you combine the complete lack of oversight on the operation of collectives, a feeble governing body, the incredible temptation for coaches to “tamper,” with talented players on other rosters AND no limits on transfer rules, you’re left with what is in effect a free agency period each offseason for every player.

The NIL and transfer portal developments are nothing short of a jab to the body and uppercut to the jaw for programs trying to develop players over the long haul.

Fifth-Year Players

As if two major changes weren’t enough, a third flew under the radar in changing the landscape of college athletics. Due to the COVID pandemic, the 2020-2021 season was played under less-than-ideal circumstances. The non-conference season was abbreviated. Arenas were typically less than half occupied — if at all. Players and coaching staffs were subjected to routine testing for the illness, and any positive test would bring down a suspension of all team activities including games. The NCAA Tournament was played in a “bubble,” in and around Indianapolis. It was truly a wild scene.

NCAA Basketball: Alabama at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Due to these complications and the desire to go forward with the season, the NCAA struck a bargain with the players. Should a player compete in this very unusual season, the 20-21 season would not count against their eligibility clock. In other words, anyone who participated in the unwieldy season would receive a fifth year of eligibility.

And what an effect it did have. Over the subsequent seasons, the age of college basketball players steadily rose to the point it replicated the bar scene at a 10-year high school reunion. Mizzou itself exploited this rule. In the 23-24 season, the Tigers have seven players partaking in their fifth year of college basketball — two of which redshirted a year previously making them sixth year attendees.

This rule appears set to phase out in short order. The freshmen during that odd, COVID season are now seniors. The 2024-2025 season should be the last one that should see any demonstrable effect from fifth-year players. That is, unless another rule change occurs.

Practical Effects on Roster Construction

What affect has this had on college basketball? Let’s take a look at several graphics. This first chart shows the median roster experience among D-I programs. This metric is taken from Ken Pomeroy and an explanation of the methodology can be found here. In semi-simple terms, “experience,” is measuring how many years of experience a roster has, weighted by minutes played. The more minutes the more experienced players play, the higher the rating.

Data via www.kenpom.com

For the better part of a decade, college basketball was cruising along at a consistent level. Once the fifth-year provision was ratified, the experience rate exploded. Teams of all levels smartly realized that a 23-year-old was likely going to be a more effective basketball player than a 19-year-old, all else being equal. When given the opportunity, teams would use their capabilities through NIL and the transfer portal to grab experienced players to supplement their rosters. The result was an abundance of upperclassmen driving the average experience level skyward.

NCAA Basketball: Jackson State at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Whether or not this was good for the sport is debatable, its impact is not. The minutes allocated to the development of freshmen and sophomores were swiftly scooped up by players who were good enough to succeed in the college game, but perhaps not enough to make the jump professionally — or those that were simply getting paid more to play in college.

On the other side of the coin, teams exhibited less continuity from year to year for these same reasons. Once again referencing the esteemed Mr. Pomeroy, there’s a metric to track this! At its purest form, the continuity measurement simply seeks to quantify how much of a roster’s minutes are played by players who were contributing to that same team a year ago. Ergo, roster continuity. A more in-depth explanation can be found here. On to the graphs...

Data via www.kenpom.com

Where experience has risen dramatically, continuity has fallen off a cliff. The same explanations for the experience changes are valid here. With newfound freedom to transfer at will — and NIL inducements for added incentive — players have moved from team to team seeking the highest bidder and their best immediate role. There were subtle signs of change coming as early as 2020 when graduate transfers were at the height of popularity, but the true change came post-COVID.

What we’re left with is something of an internal contradiction. Teams are more experienced than ever. Yet teams are less experienced together than ever. A true conundrum for a program attempting to build from within.

Scholarship Limits

The final “change,” I want to address is not so much a change in rule but a change in practice. By way of background, NCAA Division-I men’s hoops has a 13-scholarship limit. It is considered a “headcount,” scholarship. This simply means that a program may give no more than 13 individual full-ride scholarships to student athletes. Five years ago, this was cut and dried as a scholarship was the only — ahem, only legal — inducement that a school could offer.

Well, that is no more. While teams still certainly have those same scholarships, NIL is a major consideration for the individuals receiving those scholarships. And an even bigger one for those not. In other words, there is no current restriction from schools — read: NIL collectives — from paying a player the cost of a full-ride scholarship, and more. In effect, this lengthens the scholarship limit as far as the collectives — and players — are willing to stretch it. If a program wants 20 scholarship-level athletes and has receptive audiences with those pulling the purse strings and the athletes who will participate under such a bulky roster, there’s no stopping them.

Summation

The only constant is change.

No truer words have been spoken. They ring especially true in roster construction in modern college basketball. The college sports industry has had multiple “once-a-century” changes dropped in its lap in short order. While these changes don’t necessarily make a model right or wrong, they need to be understood to fully analyze the path chosen. In the next installment of this series, we’re going to come full circle and use this information we’ve covered to analyze Mizzou’s apparent strategy.

Can it work?