Kent: Does the Pac-12 have a Basketball Portal Problem?

So far this offseason, 50 players have entered the transfer portal with only eight committing

Posted on April 20, 2023

  By Rowan Kent, SuperWest Sports

Attempting to spot and make sense of trends in the transfer portal is one of the more difficult aspects of the college basketball scene these days.

Pac-12Sure, you can follow insiders and sources who scoop the locations of transfers days before they happen, but understanding the “Why?” is often an exercise in futility.

The heart of the difficulty comes from a simple premise: Each student-athlete is making a decision for the betterment of their own career, a commendable objective.

Some choose a college closer to home, others head to another team that promises more playing time, and others are given a NIL offer they can’t refuse.

Even with so many merging reasons behind each transfer portal decision, there does appear to be an eerie trend involving the Pac-12: Players are leaving the conference in droves without many coming back to fill those spots.

So far in the 2022-2023 offseason, 50 Pac-12 players have entered the transfer portal to leave, while only eight players have committed to play in the Conference of Champions.

That’s not including Lazar Stefanovic’s intra-conference transfer from the Utah Utes to the UCLA Bruins, which ultimately speaks further to the exodus from the Pac-12 to a soon-to-be Big Ten program.

Just like any broader trend in the portal, there isn’t an easy answer, but there may be some notable reasons behind the startling trend for the Conference.

NIL Collectives in Big Ten, SEC, Big East
It’s nigh-impossible to get a clear number of how much any one college is willing and able to spend when it comes to Name, Image, and Likeness deals.

The presence of outside figures and donors muddies the waters of where the money is coming from and schools are rarely transparent or predictable about which players they will work harder for compared to others.

What is clear is that a few other conferences as a whole at least appear to be more prepared to attract transfer players.

Of 247sports’ Top 25 transfer commits, six have committed to Big Ten schools, six are bound for the SEC, four are headed to the ACC, four to the Big 12, and three to the Big East.

Of the other two top players, only Texas Tech center Fardaws Aimaq is heading to the Pac-12 to join Cal’s Mark Madsen—who coached him at Utah Valley—while Reese Dixon-Waters is leaving USC to play at San Diego State.

Reese Dixon-Waters | Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

While the real meat of the portal comes from the hundreds of players who aren’t ranked at the tippy top of the charts, it is notable that teams like Arkansas, Florida, Houston, Indiana, and West Virginia, amongst others, have the means to spend and the arguments to convince players to flock to their rosters.

Keyon Mayfield and Kerr Kriisa, former starting point guards for Pac-12 teams, left their spots to compete in crowded backcourts for the Razorbacks and Mountaineers respectively.

The only Pac-12 team that’s signed more than one impact player is Cal with Jalen Cone and Aimaq, but they had eight players leave due to a coaching change.

As hard as it is to diagnose patterns in the portal, it does appear that the Pac-12 is limping behind many of the other power conferences in their ability to negotiate and close new players heading to their teams.

If that trend continues, it will be hard to keep considering the Pac-12 as a Power conference.

UCLA and USC’s Imminent Exit
Another pair of looming dominoes that may be affecting the portal trends in Pac-12 hoops is the imminent departure of both USC and UCLA.

The schools are playing in their last season in the Conference before they add a new time zone to the Big Ten and shift the balance of college sports forever.

It should be noted that neither team is having quite the same recruiting or transfer woes that most of the rest of the Pac-12 is experiencing at the moment.

USC signed the No. 1 high school recruit of the 2023 Class in Isaiah Collier, convinced Boogie Ellis to come back, and is in play for Bronny James.

The Trojans are looking like a preseason Top 25 team that can survive the loss of the Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year to SDSU.

While UCLA will potentially lose all of Jaime Jaquez Jr., Jaylen Clark, and Amari Bailey in one offseason, the team hasn’t rested on its returning laurels.

The Bruins brought in Stefanovic to start on the wing, while also targeting one of the most enticing European players in the 2024 draft class, such as 7-foot-3 Aday Mara.

If Bailey comes back to campus, they could land in the Top 10 again.

Lazar Stefanovic | Utah Athletics

Both L.A. schools have been historical powerhouses in football and basketball at times, but not consistently of late.

USC football mostly struggled under Clay Helton, going 22-21 from 2018 to 2021, while UCLA went 18-25 during the same period before turning things around under Chip Kelly.

Still, the departure of those two schools is going to leave a more yawning hole than would the loss of any other two Conference members.

Some Pac-12 basketball or football powers, such as Arizona and Washington, have had one sport perform much better than the other for much of their recent history.

By contrast, perennial football power Oregon has won four of the last eight regular-season Conference basketball titles and is the only Pac-12 team other than UCLA to make the Final Four since 2017.

The Ducks have struggled mightily in the past two years, however, and must reaffirm their elite status next season.

Like UCLA and USC, Oregon has a strong recruiting class coming in for 2023-24, with two five-star players—Kwame Evans Jr. and Mookie Cook—in the nation’s No. 10 class as ranked by 247Sports.

Nonetheless, some players and certain top TV networks think they smell blood in the Pac-12 waters.

With a TV deal dragging its feet to completion and both of the most recognizable schools leaving on a money-motivated mission, players may simply feel that the Conference may soon be comparable to the Mountain West.

While that is incorrect, schools and coaching staffs in the Pac-12 will need their actions to speak louder than their words with transfer commitments and NIL deals, lest the naysayers be proven right.

How can the Pac-12 Solve its Portal Woes?
On the surface, there may or may not even be a Pac-12-wide portal problem.

Just this week, guards Adam Miller and Jared Bynum headed to ASU and Stanford respectively to shore up the floor general spot for each team.

Although it’s moving slower than other conferences, each Pac-12 team may just be biding its time.

If that’s not the case, however, the Conference is at risk of undergoing a major talent drain without a widespread influx of talented players.

The Pac-12 is already a media punching bag as a Power conference, with many major voices unfairly decrying the quality of hoops played on the west coast.

The last thing the Conference needs from an optics perspective is another piece of ammunition in critics’ chambers.

LSU transfer Adam Miller | Adam Miller Twitter

If the Pac-12 expects to turn the tides that may be bombarding its rosters, the Conference will need to compensate for UCLA and USC leaving by filling those holes with the next-best teams to stay relevant.

Adding SDSU, fresh off of a Final Four run, and Gonzaga, for example, would give the Pac-12 two perennial tourney teams that are respected nationally.

The schools in the Conference could also start to mirror the NIL spending habits of other colleges, which would make it less enticing for players like Harrison Ingram and DJ Horne to leave.

Moreover, the Pac-12 needs to make more hometown pushes, scouring the mid-major portal candidates for underrated players who would love the chance to suit up for their hometown schools.

For the time being, it’s hard to know for sure whether the Pac-12 is starting to lag behind in the new era of the transfer portal.

If they are, however, the Conference and its member schools may be facing one of the most pressing decision points in its entire history.

With a continued failure to recoup talent and other schools becoming destinations, the Conference could suffer a knockout blow to its basketball reputation.

Such a setback might prove difficult for the Pac-12’s wallet to recover from in the future.

—More from Rowan Kent—