eight years ago the NCAA introduced the transfer portal amid a growing wave of players migrating to other schools, Fred Hoiberg had a problem.
Hoiberg had just been hired by his alma mater, Iowa State, as head coach, and he didn’t want to wait for a crop of young rookies to turn into winners. Iowa State has struggled to attract five-star talent in recent years. When Hoiberg arrived in 2010, the Cyclones had produced just two NBA first-round picks in 10 years. Without a strong recruiting pipeline, your options for quick upgrades were limited.
He called his assistants to a meeting and asked how Iowa State — a show that had finished 15-17 the previous season and had only made one NCAA tournament appearance in the past decade — could compete with Kansas, the perennial powerhouse. from the Big 12. .
“Fred was like, ‘How can we get the talent here the fastest?'” said TJ Otzelberger, who was then an assistant on the Hoiberg team and is now the head coach at Ames. “And it certainly felt like we weren’t getting five-star guys. When Fred came in, I was like, ‘Well, if that’s what we’re doing, we’re probably going to have to do some transfers.'”
Hoiberg would take advantage of a pipeline that top shows had largely avoided in favor of top rookies who might only stay for a year but could give their shows the chance to immediately run for the national title. But the 2011-12 Iowa State Cyclones, anchored almost entirely by transfers, did something unexpected: They beat UConn, the defending national champions, in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and faced eventual champion Kentucky before losing to the Wildcats in the second round. Hoiberg and his 2011-12 Cyclones won national acclaim and created a plan that other teams would follow a decade later, mixing transfers with returning veterans for an instant boost and just adding water.
Ten years later, Hoiberg is now the head coach of Nebraska, where he is 24-67, in a college basketball climate that is producing more transfers every year and more competition for that talent as well. His struggles to turn Lincoln, Nebraska into the popular destination for elite transfers that Ames, Iowa became during his five-year tenure at Iowa State, showcased the intense battle for talent within the transfer portal. Once seen as a pioneer of the transfer market, Hoiberg is, like all top division coaches today, trying to attract top-notch players from other schools at a time when players can immediately compete and attract lucrative business in name, image, and similarity (NIL). that influence his decisions.
“There was not [1,600] kids on the portal when I took over Iowa State,” he said. “It was a very select group. And some of them went away and it was the right move. And some go away and it doesn’t turn out to be what they think.”
Hoiberg’s transfers, however, flourished at his new school during the 2011-12 season.
Royce White (Minnesota), Chris Babb (Penn State) and Chris Allen (Michigan State) arrived at Ames after the 2009-10 season and sat out the following season under NCAA transfer rules. Branco (13.4 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 5.0 APG, 1.2 SPG in 2011-12 and the entire Big 12 team), a 6-foot point guard in the body of a powerful winger, could pass and execute your team’s offense while also having the strength to position any opposing player, making it a challenging matchup for any team in the country. Babb averaged 7.8 PPG. Allen made 37% of his 3-point attempts that year. Scott Christopherson, who had transferred from Marquette two years before Hoiberg arrived, averaged 12.6 PPG and shot 46% beyond the arc. Melvin Ejim was the only starter in Hoiberg’s rotation that season that was not a First Division transfer.
It was a different time in college basketball. Just over 400 players – compared to 1,600 today – were transferred to other schools after the 2011-12 season. White and Christopherson were the only two Division I transfers to the Big 12’s first, second, or third teams that year.
Hoiberg’s decision to recruit and initiate transfers – considered a risky move by everyone at the time – was influenced by his 10-year NBA career, during which he played for teams that improved through free agency and trades. He believed that the same approach could work at the university level. Its free-flowing, pro-style system attracted players hoping to break into the NBA, just as their coach had done in the 1990s.
“At the beginning of my [playing] career, I played on an Indiana Pacers team for four seasons that pretty much had the core intact,” Hoiberg said. [playing] and then when I was in the front office, I was part of some high-profile negotiations and a lot of different draft picks. I think it probably affected the way I looked [transfers].”
Hoiberg’s transfer squad also discovered an advantage that would help them, and subsequent Iowa State heavy transfer teams: with NCAA rules at the time requiring transfers to sit out for a year before they could compete for their new schools, transfer students had an extra year to build and strengthen their chemistry and, by extension, their game. (As of the 2021-22 season, the NCAA ruled that all college athletes could transfer and play immediately, assuming the athlete had not previously transferred.)
“I was excited to see the team we started to put together,” said Babb, who now plays professionally in Israel. “I had played Chris Allen in the Big Ten. I remember [White] of the AAU circuit. I once saw the team sort of getting together and when we got acquainted – we spent so much time together that [2010-11] season – it kind of fell into place.”
Transfer rules also prohibited transfers from traveling with the team. And so, throughout the 2010-11 campaign, Babb, Allen, White and Anthony Booker (Southern Illinois) would train at the team’s facilities on game days and then watch their team compete on the big screen. They cheered for their teammates and, days later, fought them in grueling, competitive workouts.
“There were definitely days [in practice] when they took it to those of us who were eligible to play,” Christopherson said.
Once White, Babb, Allen and Booker were eligible to play a year later, the Cyclones reached milestones the show hadn’t experienced in nearly a decade. They reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005. They also beat Kansas for the first time in seven years.
Hoiberg’s experiment had worked. Iowa State began attracting talent that helped lead him to four consecutive NCAA tournament appearances – including a run to the Sweet 16 in 2014. Key transfers such as Korie Lucious, Will Clyburn, Bryce Dejean-Jones and DeAndre Kane , arrived after the 2011–12 season and continued to change the show’s perception under Hoiberg. This, in turn, helped the Cyclones attract future NBA players Georges Niang and Monte Morris, who joined the program as rookies in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Starting with the 2011-12 team, Iowa State has won at least 22 games in eight of the last 11 seasons.
But Hoiberg also knows it would be more challenging to create that 2011-12 team today.
“You just have to sell your situation as best you can and there’s no question about that,” he said. “In the past, a [transfer] would have two schools that they were looking at. Now in the first round they have 20 [schools]so they cut it to 15, then they cut it to 10, then they cut it to five.
“So it’s different than in the past, where immediately it’s, ‘OK, it’s going to be us or this other school.’ And you knew who you were competing with. Now, it’s different because so many schools are involved.”
Otzelberger agrees. He also witnessed the potential and challenges of the transfer portal as a head coach. Izaiah Brockington, who arrived in Ames via St. Bonaventure and Penn State averaged 16.9 PPG last season and helped the Cyclones reach the Sweet 16 in Otzelberger’s first year as head coach – a year after the team won just two games. But this offseason, Tyrese Hunter (11.0 PPG, 4.9 APG), a mainstay of the show after winning the Big 12 rookie of the year award, entered the transfer portal. He could secure six-figure NIL deals at his new school.
“I think it would be really challenging to do that now because of the magnitude of how good these guys were as players. It would be anticipated that NIL would be a factor in their decision-making process,” he said. “It would probably be really hard to get all these guys unless you were one of the shows that had a lot of NIL money and was just spending it.”
But the members of that 2011-12 Iowa State team now look back knowing they had a formula that other teams would soon employ. They were the first team stacked with top-notch transfers that proved that programs could succeed with this approach.
Cyclones started a trend.
“It doesn’t surprise me now that other teams are doing this because it worked, especially for teams that are trying to change their program quickly,” said Ejim, who now plays professional basketball in Israel. “And with the college basketball landscape now where everyone can transfer right away and there’s no penalty: why wouldn’t you do that?”