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Join the club, BYU — Cougars have four players enter transfer portal, and here is in part why

Jesse Wade, Wyatt Lowell, Kolby Lee, Connor Harding looking to take their games elsewhere

SHARE Join the club, BYU — Cougars have four players enter transfer portal, and here is in part why

Brigham Young Cougars forward Caleb Lohner (33) and guard Connor Harding (44) go for the ball during a game against the Saint Mary’s Gaels in Provo on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021. Lohner transferred to BYU after first committing to Utah, while Harding has entered his name in the transfer portal in search of greener pastures.

Annie Barker, Deseret News

What do Duke, North Carolina, Utah and BYU basketball teams have in common?

The same as most programs around the country, their players are entering their names in the transfer portal — looking for better opportunities to play elsewhere.

It’s a product of the times. Roy Williams at North Carolina had Walker Kessler announce he’s transferring. BYU has had four players announce the same thing. They are guards Jesse Wade and Connor Harding, and big men Wyatt Lowell and Kolby Lee.

The result is part mechanics of the transfer portal since implemented and part anticipation of the NCAA awarding an extra year of eligibility.

Individually, it’s not surprising. That the number grew to four in a week, well, that is kind of a head-turner.

“Kids want to play,” said former BYU player and current KSL radio color commentator Mark Durrant. “No kid is gonna agree with a coach that doesn’t play them. It’s so easy to transfer now, there is little deterrence to seeking a better situation. Coaches now know, too, that they can bring in players, so less need to try and accommodate players that aren’t happy.”

By last Tuesday there were 573 Division I basketball players who made this move. There were 29 in the ACC, an average of two per team in the league.

So, what does this mean for BYU coach Mark Pope’s happy mantra that he’s got the best locker room in the country?

Well, it takes a hit.

Pope tried playing 10 or 11 players early in the season before settling in and investing in the athleticism of freshman Caleb Lohner and junior college transfer Gideon George. But that took a toll on former starters, experienced and much-respected Harding and Lee. Wade never carved out a piece of the action, and Lowell, after fighting off injuries following his transfer from Utah Valley, couldn’t amass minutes.

That doesn’t make for happy Cougars.

It is natural to seek out playing time, and that is what the transfer portal has brought programs around the country — a chance at another look. 

In the case of BYU, regardless of the love fans may have for one or all of those players, it also is part of recruiting. Scholarships are renewable year by year — not promised for the duration. Forever, it has been a part of programs to sit down with players at the end of a year and assess what just happened and project what roles will be in the future — how a player fits in.

In BYU’s case, the Cougars are in need of scholarships for slots promised to incoming recruits. They are short at least two.

BYU has recruited London prep school 6-foot-10 Tanzanian post player Atiki Ally Atiki, Wasatch Academy power forward Fousseyni Traore, American Fork guard Trey Stewart and Timpview High’s Nate Hansen. Reports indicate Pope had a virtual interview with Cincy transfer portal guard Mike Saunders, who played at Wasatch Academy with Lohner.

If Alex Barcello chooses not to return for his free COVID-19 year, Pope will be in dire need of point guard play.

You can shake and bake the transfer thing and get whatever you want. You can label it good for both parties, a shame to lose trained, loyal, hardworking players, a sloughing off of talent for possible better fits, or an embarrassing event to lose anyone.

It depends on who is doing the shaking,

But the bottom line is BYU’s transfer portal record is about the same as everyone else’s. Players leave programs.

Pope benefited from this a year ago when he got Jake Toolson and Brandon Averette to follow him from Utah Valley. He got Barcello from Arizona and Matt Haarms from Purdue.

BYU football looked to benefit from it when it received commitments from Utah receiver Samson Nacua and his brother, Washington receiver Puka Nacua.

What’s happening is what Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski predicted would become “The wild, wild West,” in college sports when the NCAA created the “organized” and “digitized” portal list on Oct. 15, 2018.

If you hover above Pope’s program you see a team that lost seven games and of those teams the Cougars lost to, five ended up in the Elite Eight. 

A key to those losses was turnovers. A second key was scoring slumps where 3-point accuracy abandoned them. A third concern was some defensive inconsistencies or an inability to break through when UCLA, Pepperdine and Gonzaga extended defenses to disrupt Pope’s offense.

Pope needs increased speed, athleticism and shooting acumen to elevate his goals.

One way to get it is with more scholarships. With the transfer portal filling up with carloads of possibilities, that venture is open.

It’s like when Steve Cleveland went after Terrell Lyday, Trent Whiting, Travis Hansen or Rafael Araujo. Or when Dave Rose made a move for Chase Fischer or Matt Carlino to fill a void left by Jimmer Fredette.

Folks feel for players like Harding and Lee, whom they got to see and appreciate.  

But they did not play as much as they or their family members wanted and it hurt. Why not seek out more playing time?

In this regard, BYU is no different than anyplace else.

Transfers and tough feelings happen.