By Jonah Bronstein
Niagara Gazette — There is a transfer of power going on in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, from which all of the top contenders are benefiting.
First-place Niagara hasn't lost a league game since center Devon White, a graduate student who transferred in from LaSalle, joined the lineup following offseason ankle surgery.
Second-place Iona has three transfers in its starting lineup, including the league's leading scorer, Momo Jones (Iona), the Gaels' leading rebounder David Laury (committed to Western Kentucky and UMass before playing last season at Lamar State) and the team's top assist-man Tavon Sledge (Iowa State). There's also Curtis Dennis (Toledo), who hasn't played much of late but made five 3-pointers in a November win over Niagara.
Third-place Loyola features Erik Etherly (Northeastern), the preseason player of the year who led the Greyhounds to the NCAA tournament last year, and Jordan Latham (Xavier), a highly-rated recruit coming out of high school now starting at center.
Fourth-place Canisius, one of the most improved team's in the country, has five transfers in its playing rotation, most notably all-conference candidate Billy Baron (Rhode Island), as well as starters Issac Sosa (Central Florida), Jordan Heath (Roberts Wesleyan), Harold Washington (Cecil College) and reserve big man Freddy Asprilla (Kansas State).
"It definitely is becoming a league of transfers," Siena coach Mitch Buonaguro said on a recent league-wide conference call.
According to Steve Amedio's Keeping Track of the MAAC blog, there were just two transfers from other four-year schools in the MAAC 12 years ago. Now there are 15. The three MAAC teams that don't have any transfers on their current roster (Siena, Marist and Manhattan) are a combined 9-21 in conference games so far.
Transfers are hardly a new trend in college basketball. Larry Bird started at Indiana before completing his career at Indiana State. But the transfer rate is rising every year. More than 440 players changed schools last offseason, according to a USA Today report, and men's basketball players are 36 percent more likely to transfer than athletes in other sports.
"People go places where they really think they can play but it doesn't work out," White said. "Sometimes you have to transfer and go somewhere else before you feel comfortable and fit in with the guys you play with and the coaches."
"We like transfers," Mihalich said. "But you have to be careful how many you take. You don't want to have a team full of transfers."
Coaches also have to deal with players deciding to transfer if they don't receive enough playing time.
"It starts at an early age," Mihalich said. "Kids don't like their high school, transfer and go play somewhere else. Kids don't like their AAU team, go play somewhere else. People don't work through their problems as much any more."
There are also cases when underachieving players are buried on the bench by coaches hoping they will choose to transfer and free up a scholarship. And in an emerging trend that has yet to hit the MAAC, high-achieving underclassmen are "up-transferring" from mid- to high-major programs.
"It's become acceptable," Mihalich said. "You know going in it could happen. You don't want it to happen, but as a coach, your hands are tied a little bit. You don't want to burn bridges. You can't deny a kid from transferring. It gets a little delicate sometimes."
It could become even more acceptable as the NCAA considers new legislation that would allow players carrying a grade-point average of 2.6 or higher to transfer without having to spent a redshirt year in residence. Currently, transfers can play right away if they have already earned their bachelor's degree, like White did, or if granted a hardship waiver because of a family situation, which is how Baron became eligible to play for his father at Canisius this season.
"I think if you're an undergrad you should still sit," White said.
White wasn't healthy yet when Niagara took its only league loss at Iona in November. He believes his presence could make an impact when the two teams meet again with first-place on the line tonight at the Gallagher Center.
"That was a hard loss because I'm there on the bench but I can't sub in. I'm in a sweat suit and I'm still hurting," White said. "But from watching that game I think I can make a big difference in this game."
Junior guard Skylar Jones will not rejoin the Purple Eagles this season due to a "personal issue." Mihalich said it was a mutual decision. Jones played just three minutes in 12 games before leaving the team.
Senior center Scooter Gillette is unlikely to see the floor again this season. He has a torn ligament in his hand and the Purple Eagles are hoping he can obtain a medical hardship waiver after appearing in just six games earlier this season.