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Final Four coaches: NCAA transfer portal ‘way, way, way, way out of hand’

Still, even the nation’s top programs have successfully exploited the NCAA’s relaxed transfer rules

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Kianna Smith, center, and the Louisville Cardinals warm up during an NCAA Women's Final Four practice session at Target Center in Minneapolis on Thursday. Smith played at California before becoming a starter for the Cardinals but had to sit out a season under the NCAA's old transfer rules.
John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press
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With only four teams still standing in the 2021-22 NCAA women’s basketball season, the vast majority of players and programs were looking ahead on Thursday, and because the NCAA has relaxed its Division I transfer rules, nearly a thousand players were looking for new teams.

“Is it out of hand?” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “It absolutely is. I don’t know how you control it.”

One of the players looking for greener pastures is Minnesota guard Sara Scalia, the Gophers’ leading scorer last season and one of the top 3-point shooters in the nation as a junior. She was one of 843 players in the portal on Thursday, 163 of them from Power 5 schools.

“I always like to say the grass is greener on the other side because it’s fertilized with a bunch of bull—-,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said.

Walz, however, has done well by the NCAA’s new transfer rules, which changed after the 2019 season to allow Division I players to transfer to another Division I school, for any reason, once without sitting out a year. Walz’s Cardinals will meet Staley’s top-ranked Gamecocks in the first of two national semifinals on Friday at Target Center, and three of his starters will be players who began their careers at other schools.

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This year’s Final Four features two of the most successful programs in NCAA history — Stanford and Connecticut — and relatively new powers South Carolina and Louisville. Between them, they have 15 national titles and 43 Final Four appearances. Their rosters are filled with high school all-Americans, many of whom graduate into the U.S. national program . Yet between them, the teams in Minneapolis have 10 transfers on their rosters.

Even UConn, which has won 11 national championships and been to 22 Final Fours under coach Geno Auriemma, has a major contributor who played elsewhere last season. Forward Dorka Juhász, a 6-foot-5 graduate student who starred for Ohio State, started 15 games and averaged 7.3 points and 5.7 rebounds before dislocating a wrist in the regional final. She had surgery to repair the injury and won’t play this weekend.

The Huskies (29-5) will play Stanford (32-3) on Friday approximately 20 minutes after the 6:30 p.m. tip between Louisville (29-4) and South Carolina (33-2).

But just because these coaches have used the transfer portal doesn’t mean they particularly like its new popularity.

“Sometimes you have to leave. Sometimes it’s the right thing to do; no question about that,” Auriemma said Thursday. “But eight hundred, one thousand of them? There’s only 365 Division I schools.”

Under NCAA rules, women’s basketball teams get 15 full-ride scholarships a year. Men’s programs get 13.

Players have always changed schools, but not in these numbers — and because the NCAA has given an extra year of eligibility to student-athletes who played during the abridged 2020-21 season, graduate transfers are through the roof. Minnesota had three this season — Deja Winters, Laura Bagwell Katalinich and Bailey Helgren — and three of coach Lindsay Whalen’s five seniors will finish the year with five master’s degrees between them.

“I think the portal is much like social media; it’s the fad. It’s a big ol’ fad that just keeps continuing,” Staley said Thursday. “There are more people in the portal than there are scholarships, and the effect on (high school) freshmen, sophomore, juniors and seniors, they’re going to feel it, because most teams will look for just a little bit more experience of having played on this level.”

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It’s so ubiquitous that Louisville’s team web site has a column for “previous school” on its roster page. The Cardinals have five transfers on the roster, including starters Emily Engstler (Syracuse), Kianna Smith (Cal) and Chelsie Hall (Vanderbilt).

When Engstler, an all-ACC player at Syracuse, entered the portal, Walz said, he didn’t recruit her until talking to senior guard Mykasa Robinson, whose playing time would be affected the most by the addition of their conference rival. Robinson started 17 of 30 games as a junior but has come off the bench this season.

“Playing time is great,” she said. “But I want to win.”

Robinson’s playing time, in fact, hasn’t really changed — going from 20.9 minutes a game last season to 20.3 this season — but every good program has good players not playing.

“A third of our team sits on the bench and doesn’t really play a whole lot,” Staley acknowledged. “Is that really fair to them? … You have to allow them that space, but surely it’s way, way, way, way out of hand.”

“Three hundred of them are not going to find a school to go to because they’re going to realize it’s not the school they just left, it’s them,” Auriemma said. “Just like last year, right? A thousand kids in the portal, 250 of them had no place to go, and the guys that they left don’t want them back. Whatever happened to go (to a school) and figure it the hell out?”

Portal prizes

Even the NCAA’s best programs are dipping into the NCAA transfer portal. There are eight total on the Final Four teams this weekend in Minneapolis. Here are the ones making the biggest impact:

  • EMILY ENGSTLER, 6-5, F, Louisville: Forward was all-ACC at Syracuse. She’s a starter for the top seed in the Wichita Region, averaging 11.8 points and 9.4 rebounds in 33 games.
  • DORKA JUHÁSZ, 6-5, F, Connecticut. Graduate transfer was a burgeoning star at Ohio State. She started 15 of her 32 games this season and averaged 7.3 points and 5.7 rebounds before dislocating a wrist in the regional final.
  • KAMILLA CARDOSO, 6-7, C, South Carolina. Sophomore post transferred from  Syracuse, where she was ACC co-defensive player of the year. She has averaged 5.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in 30 games off the bench.
  • KIANNA SMITH, 6-0, G, Louisville. Sat out a season after transferring from Cal. She has averaged 11.9 points, 2.9 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 33 starts.
  • CHELSIE HALL, 5-7, G, Louisville. A starter at Vanderbilt with more than 1,000 career points, she has started all 33 games for the Cardinals, averaging 7.0 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists.
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