How transfer portal boom impacted UConn, women’s college basketball: ‘Flood gates opened’

Photo of Maggie Vanoni
UConn coach Geno Auriemma talks to some players during a practice session during the Final Four on April 2 in Minneapolis.

UConn coach Geno Auriemma talks to some players during a practice session during the Final Four on April 2 in Minneapolis.

Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press

Like so many of her peers across the county, UConn women’s basketball assistant coach Morgan Valley begins each day in the office manually scanning through the 1,000-plus names of players in the transfer portal.

Valley sifts through names in search of just the right player to fit with a program that’s a perennial national title contender. And sure enough, the Huskies added a transfer last month: Lou Lopez Senechal from Fairfield.

That same process occurs for most teams across the sport, from top-ranked programs like the Huskies to the mid-majors that play just down the road from UConn.

The NCAA’s transfer policies have changed and overhauled the way programs operate. Athletes can now play immediately after transferring — players were previously required to sit for a year — and those enrolled full-time during the 2020-21 school year were given an extra year of eligibility because of pandemic disruption.

The result is thousands of players entering the portal hoping to find a better fit at different programs. Most do find new homes, but a few hundred may not.

Meanwhile, coaches are tasked with not only sorting through the long list of names but also trying to manage rosters for next season and beyond.

The college women’s basketball landscape has changed. But is it for the better?

“Everybody thinks these things are great until they’re not,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “When you have a thousand kids in the portal and there’s only 350 division one schools, I mean, did that many coaches get it wrong when they first recruited these kids? Or did that many kids make mistakes when they went to school? … And then the 200-300 kids that have no place to go at the end of the summer, I don’t think anybody factored that in.”

Portal Boom

Over 1,100 women’s basketball players have entered the transfer portal each of the past two seasons.

Reasons for entering vary for each athlete. Some want more playing time, others want a better fit in terms of team chemistry. Some are utilizing their extra year of eligibility brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, while others move from one school to another following coaching changes.

The transfer boom came after the NCAA changed it policy a year ago, allowing athletes to transfer one time without sitting out a year.

“It was full effect this year,” Quinnipiac women’s basketball head coach Tricia Fabbri said. “The numbers in the last three years were a significant percentage. They were eye-opening, right? But, this past year, especially with the no-sit rule going into effect, the flood gates opened.”

Quinnipiac coach Tricia Fabbri talks to her team during a game against Siena in 2020.

Quinnipiac coach Tricia Fabbri talks to her team during a game against Siena in 2020.

James Franco / Times Union

Before the NCAA changed its transfer rule in April 2021, athletes were forced to sit out a year before competing for their new schools. In some cases, athletes and their new school would petition for a hardship waiver in an attempt to get the athlete to play immediately, but the NCAA often denied such attempts — UConn’s waiver to get Evina Westbrook to compete immediately after she transferred in 2019 was rejected.

In addition to the no-sit rule, the NCAA granted all athletes who were enrolled full-time at their university during the 2020-21 season an extra year of eligibility because so many programs were forced to shut down during the pandemic or miss games. As of May 2022, these athletes with the remaining extra eligibility are current juniors and seniors.

To aid with the possibility of expanded roster sizes, the NCAA also allowed basketball programs to carry more than the 15-scholarship limit.

“Right now it’s kind of a perfect storm of the transfer portal in a sense that because of COVID, everybody got that extra year,” Fairfield coach Carly Thibault-DuDonis said. “That extra year really did play into the transfer portal in addition to the fact schools could have more than their 15-scholarship limit because of COVID so now you’re looking at some rosters that exceed 15 and that’s really hard to keep more than 15, I mean it’s hard to keep 15 happy, let alone 16, 17.”

‘It’s free agency now’

Instead of feeling confident knowing which players were returning, coaches have struggled with roster management as they plan for the next season.

“When the season the ended, like March 21, for us, I could tell you that there was a true sense of urgency to have your season-ending player meetings,” Fabbri said. “I was like, ‘I need to know what everybody’s thinking.’ You have pretty good rapport with your team and with your players, been with them all year, but for this year it was like, ‘Oh my gosh. … Are people that I don’t know thinking about going in the portal?’ That was just super strange this year.”

UConn had three players leave the program mid-year during the 2021-22 season. Following the season, the Huskies picked up one transfer out of the portal in Fairfield grad Lopez Senechal. In addition, former Ohio State grad transfer Dorka Juhász was able to utilize her extra year of eligibility and return to Storrs next season.

UConn’s Dorka Juhasz, right, dribbles around Mercer’s Nigeria Harkless, left, during the second half of a first-round NCAA tournament game on March 19 in Storrs.

UConn’s Dorka Juhasz, right, dribbles around Mercer’s Nigeria Harkless, left, during the second half of a first-round NCAA tournament game on March 19 in Storrs.

Jessica Hill / Associated Press

“It’s created an atmosphere of, you don’t get a chance to build a team and I always thought that was one of the great appeals of women’s basketball,” Auriemma said. “That fans were fans of the team, but they got to follow the kids through their entire career and the kids got better and better, for the most part, they grew, and the fans had a great relationship with the players on your team. And the players were part of the community.”

Longtime Fairfield women’s basketball coach Joe Frager retired following this past season. While the program waited to find his replacement, four of its five starters entered the portal, including Lopez Senechal. After Thibault-DuDonis was hired, she sat down with those in the portal to introduce herself and articulate her vision for the team.

As a result, two of the four withdrew from the portal and remained at Fairfield. The program most recently went into the portal to add Florida State senior transfer Izabela Nicoletti Leite.

“You just try to navigate your current roster before you even think about who else you need to bring in,” Thibault-DuDonis said. “There is an urgency, but you also have to be patient to get the right fit as well because we have a great group of women, they’re really close-knit and you don’t want to bring in just anybody. You want to be selective about who you bring into the family.”

The constant carousel of players coming and going prevents coaches from planning future rosters the way they have done in the past. Auriemma has been running his program a certain way since 1985 but the portal makes it difficult for him to predict lineups.

“You’re not trying to build a program,” Auriemma said. “You’re not trying for long-term success. You’re just trying to build a team for that year. You’re not thinking about four years down the road, three years down the road, like you used to. …

“It’s free agency now. You have to have a coach on your staff who only manages the portal. Because you know you’re gonna lose two or three players so you’re out there actively recruiting two or three players. It’s the (NBA) G-League.”

With so much roster movement, it can be hard to create strong team chemistry.

“There’s a lot of value on teams that can stick together because you have a developed chemistry and that in itself will become a competitive advantage,” Thibault-DuDonis said. “A lot of times you talk about having a young team that’s gonna grow up together and that’s not always a given now. So, you might constantly kinda be back to square one as far as teaching your fundamentals and teaching your basics of your program and your system and you should always reteach it, but it’s a lot easier when you can build on that versus kinda starting from square one each year.”

‘Like Dating’

When a team realizes it needs to fill a gap on its roster, finding the right player in the portal isn’t always an easy task.

Unlike recruiting an incoming freshman out of high school, most coaches have just a few weeks to sell their program to a transfer and get to know them. With high school recruits, coaches often build long-term relationships with players before they commit and then stay in contact with them until they arrive on campus a year or so later.

“A lot of time you get the chance to get to know them (in high school) whereas in a transfer situation you got a really accelerated process but the benefit of that is you do get a little bit more honest feedback from the previous coaches and you get also a student-athlete who has had experience of college basketball and now maybe has a clearer vision of what they want and what they’re looking for,” said Thibault-DuDonis, who previously coached at Power Five schools Minnesota and Mississippi State.

Carly Thibault-DuDonis was introduced as Fairfield women’s basketball coach on April 19.

Carly Thibault-DuDonis was introduced as Fairfield women’s basketball coach on April 19.

Mike Anthony / Hearst Connecticut Media

With transfer recruits, coaches call as many references as possible to get to know the player. They call former coaches from their old school, from high school and even AAU teams to see if that player will be a good fit for their program.

“It’s kinda like dating, that’s how I explain recruiting to people who have never done it,” Valley said. “It’s like you like somebody’s talent and then you try to get to know them and if it doesn’t work out then you kinda break up. It can be fast but typically most people at most places know there’s a need and so you’re recruiting people who try to kinda fit your need so that part makes it a little bit easier ... not just recruiting every player in the portal.”

What was UConn searching for in the portal this offseason?

“A certain type of person and player, a certain type of human, a certain type of academic person, a certain type of hard worker on the floor,” Valley said. “Someone who’s willing to be selfless and cares about other people, kinda just the way coach is. Just a good person and wants to be part of a really special team.”

Valley was introduced to Lopez Senechal after one of her friends, a coach in the MAAC Conference, told her about the forward. With Auriemma’s friendship with Frager, the Huskies were able to gain quick feedback on Lopez Senechal before inviting her to visit campus and meet the rest of the team.

Meanwhile for mid-majors like Quinnipiac, this process is often centered around a player’s academic path.

Fabbri said because her upperclassmen have the extra year of eligibility, many have considered or have left the program to pursue post-grad academic programs that aren’t offered at Quinnipiac.

“We had a few kids that are graduating in three years because they have the opportunity to come up during summer and do summer school ... and then they had the COVID year and certain individuals were able to say, ‘I was recruited here, and you don’t have the grad program where I want to study and now I can get this paid for with a two-year grad program somewhere else and now I don’t have to sit,’ ” Fabbri said. “It’s a real adult conversation for, again, not coming out with loans to start their career once they’re done (with basketball) because that’s what basketball can help them do and I get it.”

Fabbri said in recent years the players she’s brought in from the portal have all been players she previously recruited in high school — including Makenzie Helms from East Haven who started her career at Nebraska.

Makenzie Helms of East Haven in 2019.

Makenzie Helms of East Haven in 2019.

Arnold Gold / Hearst Connecticut Media

“It’s literally not that long ago there would be kids that would have called second time around and I would have said, ‘Look you had one opportunity to say yes, the first time around and you didn’t,’ and I would never look at a transfer really ... very rare,” Fabbri said. “But now it’s a whole new ballgame and like everything else you need to be nimble and play by the rules that are given otherwise you won’t have the success that you’re capable of having or be as good as a program that you can become.”

While players with the extra eligibility will phase out after the next two years, being allowed to transfer and play immediately at a new school will forever change roster management in women’s basketball.

“There’s been incredible change that has led to this moment, and I think the volatility is at its height, and I do feel like with everything else in the market, what goes up does come down,” Fabbri said. “I think you can get better sooner with the portal and the players who aren’t getting what they want out of their experience can make that change so they’re happier.”

State coaches believe the transfer boom will die down in the next few years but won’t fully recede. And as Auriemma points out, while transferring is a chance for new beginnings it remains to be seen how the NCAA will combat the hundreds who enter the portal and don’t find new programs.

“That is what I think is the ultimate defeat in this portal,” Fabbri said.

maggie.vanoni@hearstmediact.com