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Verlin: Transfer exodus a scary sign for Big 5 men's hoops

04/03/2024, 2:45pm EDT
By Josh Verlin

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

It was a rough season for the men’s side of the Big 5. So far, the offseason has been even worse. 

None of the six local men’s Division I programs made it to the NCAA Tournament, something which hadn’t happened since 1977 but has now happened two years in a row. That came at the end of a decade which saw Villanova dominate the city while the rest of the programs struggled to find consistency or success. 

Thanks to the annual opening of the transfer portal, the future looks even bleaker.

Drexel, La Salle and Temple’s rosters have already been decimated by departures. Penn’s best freshman is also in the portal, as is one of St. Joe’s starting guards. Only Villanova hasn’t seen a player enter the portal this offseason; the Wildcats’ rotation is decimated by graduation, instead.

Yes, turnover happens. But what’s going on right now is more than that. It’s the city’s collective inability to retain its talent amidst a changing basketball landscape. And that’s not a problem that seems likely to solve itself anytime soon.

Temple junior guard and Neumann-Goretti product Hysier Miller has entered the transfer portal. (Photo:Gavin Bethell/CoBL)

Of the 12 players on the to-be-announced CoBL All-Big 5 teams, seven are in the transfer portal. One of them, Penn’s Clark Slajchert, is there because Ivy League regulations prevent him from playing as a graduate student; the other six are departing with anywhere from one to three years of eligibility remaining. 

They’re not the only city standouts who will be playing elsewhere next season. It’s a list that includes the La Salle backcourt of Jhamir Brickus and Khalil Brantley plus wing Daeshon Shepherd, Drexel’s star forward Amari Williams and sophomore guard Justin Moore, St. Joe’s starting junior guard Lynn Greer III and forward Kacper Klaczek, and more. All of them hit the portal in the first few days that it opened, after announcing their intentions to do so after the end of their seasons. 

But the one who declared Monday was the biggest blow yet to the city: Temple junior Hysier Miller, whose departure could be symbolic of a discouraging future.

To Temple, it’s clearly a major loss — he’s the Owls’ leading scorer and locker room leader, their most important returning projected player prior to his departure.

But it’s what he means to the city, too: a South Philly kid and Neumann-Goretti product who stayed with the Temple program through a coaching change, Miller is the exact type of kid every local program purportedly wants to build around. It’s why he stayed local to begin with.

“I feel like just being from Philadelphia, local kid, Temple gave me an opportunity to come here to get an education and come here and play at this stage, it’s important,” Miller said last October. “Talking to other schools, then meeting coach [Adam] Fisher, it was like a no-brainer because of what his vision is for myself, what his vision is for this program and what he thought I could do.”

As much of a “no-brainer” and as “important” as it was for Miller to stay in Philly — even through a coaching change last year — the current nature of college hoops made that promise untenable in the long term. Factors like locality and loyalty have all but vanished in favor of playing time and NIL money, the logical route of the increasingly professional nature of what used to be an amateur landscape.

Even a run to the AAC championship game and a brighter outlook next year wasn’t enough to convince Miller to stay. After Miller, the Owls’ rotation took another blow Tuesday when Jahlil White put his name into the portal, joining Emmanuel Okpomo, Taj Thweatt and Deuce Roberts, who had declared earlier. 

There’s still talent on the Temple roster, depending on which of his seniors utilize their COVID year of eligibility, but suddenly Fisher has five open scholarships to work with and a big gap of leadership and experience to fill. And that’s if nobody else leaves as well, always a danger when a couple dominoes start to fall. 

If the Big 5 can’t keep the Hysier Millers of the world around, if the sixth-winning program in Division I history can’t keep those types of kids around, the city's Division I squads are in serious trouble.

The programs themselves might not go anywhere. It’s just that they won’t go anywhere. 

Temple — despite its rich history, facilities, etc. — is competing more with mid-majors than high-majors for talent. Fisher might be a great coach, but if the Owls’ boosters don’t have the money to match the likes of Big Ten and ACC programs, all of which are well ahead in the NIL race, then they’ll continue to see a revolving door of players anytime someone finds success, or isn’t getting enough of it.

The Owls aren’t the only ones with much to worry about. The Ivy League had previously been somewhat immune from the transfer wars, the Ancient Eight’s coaches able to use their schools’ prestige to leverage a lack of athletics scholarships, most of their students there for the specific diploma as well as the competition. 

But the departure of Perkins, one of the brightest young talents in the Ivy League and the Quakers’ second-leading scorer, is a major blow for Steve Donahue’s program. Malik Mack, Harvard’s Ivy League Rookie of the Year, is in the portal as well, as is 7-foot Yale sophomore Danny Wolf.

La Salle — which faces a major gap in facilities, NIL and other areas from the rest of the Atlantic 10, as well as its local competition — is seeing mass departures on both the men’s and women’s side.

And those revolving doors impact more than just a coach’s ability to sustain a winning culture.

Fewer wins and unfamiliar faces mean fewer fans at games, fewer students in attendance. A decrease in interest and attention makes it even more difficult to generate NIL revenue and commitments from high school players and college transfers, which makes it even tougher to win. 

It’s a bad spiral, and it’s one these city’s teams seem to be riding in the wrong direction. It’s a decline that’s been generally affecting the non-Villanova schools for several decades, but that slope could be even steeper in this modern age of hoops. 

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