There's a free agent trend quietly developing around college basketball and coaches are trying to figure out how to get a handle on it.
Graduate transfers can market their skills as ball handlers, secondary scorers and bodies to bolster depleted front lines — and coaches and players are taking advantage of the rule. These players have graduated but still have eligibility remaining, so they transfer and play immediately by enrolling in a graduate program unavailable at their former school.
Fifteen players have played right away as graduate transfers this year, according to STATS LLC. The schools they play at range from BCS members Illinois and North Carolina State to smaller programs like Houston Baptist and Texas Southern.
It has Michigan State coach Tom Izzo concerned.
"I'm worried it could become a national problem," Izzo said. "If your team doesn't make the NCAA tournament this year or next, why not graduate that summer and go to the best team you can?"
Izzo worries it could lead to attempts to recruit players already on campuses. But that didn't prevent him from bringing in Brandon Wood, an all-conference guard who graduated from Valparaiso and is now starting for Michigan State.
Izzo — who said he had the blessing of former Valparaiso coach Homer Drew — knew Wood might've played for another Big Ten team against the Spartans if he didn't take him on.
"I don't think it's a good precedent for us to set and I don't think it's good for what we're looking to do," Izzo said. "I think the negatives could far outweigh the positives. I really, really do believe that."
Most of this year's group redshirted a season due to injury and completed undergraduate degrees as they closed their junior athletic year. They represent a different type of tweener: not talented enough to be stars or bolt for the NBA, yet good or experienced enough that a coach wants them even for just a season.
Some — including Wood, Chicago State's Lee Fisher, Fairleigh Dickinson's George Goode and Louisiana Tech's Trevor Gaskins — average around 10 to 12 points. Guys like Oregon's Olu Ashaolu and San Diego State's Garrett Green provide scoring and rebounding up front in about 20 minutes per game. Others offer little more than spot duty.
While transfers typically sit a year, the NCAA offers a one-time exception allowing graduate transfers to play right away if the former school doesn't renew the scholarships. NCAA spokeswoman Emily Potter said requiring graduation and graduate-school enrollment provide "an appropriate threshold" for a rule that fits a limited number of players.
Nonetheless, players are shopping their services.
Players are on year-to-year contracts as schools renew their athletic scholarships on an annual basis. In professional sports, players are often waived before they can become free agents; in college, the first school must not renew the player's scholarship for the player to be granted a waiver.
It hasn't worked out for the player in every case.
Todd O'Brien, a 7-footer, graduated from St. Joseph's and transferred to UAB to enroll in the public administration graduate program. He's practicing with the Blazers but hasn't played in his final year of eligibility because St. Joseph's wouldn't support his request, while his appeals to the NCAA have been denied.
At independent Cal State Bakersfield, Alex Johnson had redshirted a year with a knee injury, wanted to play in a conference and wasn't particularly interested in the school's graduate programs. He chose N.C. State, which needed a backup point guard after the transfer of freshman Ryan Harrow to Kentucky. Johnson studies family life and youth development with plans of mentoring troubled youth.
"It's got to be a 50-50 balance," Johnson said of academics and athletics. "I felt like I didn't want to go somewhere where the basketball is good but they don't have what I want to do for the master's degree. ... Making my decision for academics, I made sure that I wanted to do something I really wanted to do, something that was interesting to me."
But Johnson admits the playing opportunity was key in choosing the Wolfpack instead of Florida State, which had a similar graduate program but also several returning guards. He's averaging about five points in 20 minutes as N.C. State has its best start in Atlantic Coast Conference play in six years.
"I feel as though if basketball doesn't work out," Johnson said, "I have something to show for it: a master's program ... where I can actually help people."
Johnson could've looked down the road in Chapel Hill for a successful example.
After sophomore Ed Davis entered the NBA draft followed by the surprise transfers of freshmen David and Travis Wear in May 2010, North Carolina had two big men left and it was too late to find a recruit capable of immediate help. Around that time, Alabama's Justin Knox planned to finish undergraduate work and transfer after three years.
The 6-9 forward wanted to pursue playing professionally, setting up a perfect marriage with the short-handed and high-profile Tar Heels. He played every game as a reserve for a team that won the ACC regular season and nearly reached the Final Four. Knox finished his academic work, though he postponed the internship required to complete the two-year program in sports administration because he's playing professionally in Belarus.
Coach Roy Williams would be open to doing it again, though he's not adding graduate transfers to recruiting lists.
"For me, it would have to be a specific need," Williams said. "We don't always sit around, having a little meeting, put our hands together and have a séance and try to figure out who's going to leave and have a year's eligibility left."
It's not always easy for a player to find that fit.
Sam Maniscalco missed most of last season at Bradley with an ankle injury and decided to leave after a coaching change. He graduated and drew recruiting interest from several schools before choosing Illinois, which lost Demetri McCamey to graduation and had only freshman Tracy Abrams at the point. Maniscalco is enrolled in a recreation, sport and tourism program, and hopes to play professionally before possibly coaching.
"It definitely was not an easy thing to do and I did not take the decision lightly at all," said Maniscalco, who averages nine points in 27 minutes. "It was something I put a lot of thought into. And then you have to go through the whole adjustment of a new coaching staff, new teammates, a new city, new fans.
"For just one year. Almost like a free agent type of thing."
Illini coach Bruce Weber is glad to have Maniscalco, but he shares some of Izzo's concerns.
"I'm not sure if I like the rule," Weber said. "I know if I was at a mid-major or a low major, I wouldn't like it at all."
Yet it isn't always about big programs poaching smaller ones.
Anthony Breeze transferred from Appalachian State to Bethune-Cookman for a "change of scenery and a different environment." The 6-5 guard leads a balanced offense by averaging about 11 points per game.
Last weekend, he hit a late jumper to beat Delaware State, then followed with 20 points against Maryland-Eastern Shore for the Wildcats' fourth straight win. Breeze — the first college graduate in his family — hopes to complete the master's program in transformative leadership in December and work with children.
"He's been good for the program, really," acting coach Gravelle Craig said. "I don't think we'd be where we are without him."
That's one thing about the rule most coaches seem to agree on.
"If you have something weird and all of a sudden you've got a gaping hole, you've got to look into every area you can to see if you can plug that hole," UNC's Williams said. "I think it's a really good rule.
"I think you should reward kids and allow them to do (it) if they graduated in that time."
AP Sports Writers Larry Lage in Detroit and Fred Goodall in Daytona Beach, Fla., and Associated Press Writer David Mercer in Champaign, Ill., contributed to this report.