PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — North Carolina State coach Kevin Keatts knows he needs to work fast to bring back a team that has added four transfers this season in key roles.
For college basketball coaches in the transfer portal era, playing in an early-season tournament offers a boost in finding the right rotations, establishing roles, and forging a team’s identity. Those possibilities arrive this week with holiday events like the Maui Invitational and the Phil Knight tournaments in Oregon.
For Keatts, it’s Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas that opens Wednesday with No. 3 Kansas, No. 22 Tennessee, Wisconsin, Southern California, Dayton, BYU and Butler.
“For us, it’s trying to figure out, ‘Okay, where do we go from here? What steps?’” Keatts said Tuesday. “Obviously with transfers, you’re trying to get as much chemistry as possible. And it’s very difficult to do that in practice situations. So you’re kind of thrown into the fire of the game.”
It’s a challenge facing coaches throughout the sport, first in the offseason with roster management issues. as players come and go while putting their names on the portal.
From there, it is about fully integrating those players and generating cohesion.
“That’s the transfer world,” Massachusetts coach Frank Martin said last week before winning the Myrtle Beach Invitational. “That’s the hardest thing we face as coaches. Everyone is new. The beginning of the season, it is a ceremony to meet for lack of a better word.
Kansas coach Bill Self sees it, too. Their reigning national champions brought in 6-foot-6 wing Kevin McCullar from Texas Tech, and McCullar has started all four games for the Jayhawks before Atlantis’ Wednesday opener against NC State.
“Whether it’s transfers or incoming freshmen, I think a lot of people have the false feeling that you can actually build yourself into a team much earlier in the season than you really can,” said Self, who will his season. He made his bench debut after serving a four-game suspension tied to an NCAA infraction case..
“There is no team here yet. Everyone will become a team at some point this season, but it usually doesn’t happen in early November. We didn’t become a team last year until February.”
That’s why Dayton coach Anthony Grant, who brought in forward Tyrone Baker from Georgia, says teams are “still in that discovery stage.”
These tournaments have long been part of the early stages of forging a team’s identity, though typically new recruits were joined by returning veterans. Now, however, there is a lot more roster switching and upheaval with players being able to move freely from one school to another. And that means that even seasoned gamers are still learning on new programs.
It takes months of impromptu games for new players to understand how their teammates play, to exactly where they want the ball to be thrown for a catch-and-shoot call. Or a long series of practice reps to better understand new systems and terminologies.
But ultimately, nothing drives him more than playing in full stadiums with national television broadcasts. And at the Atlantis resort, that means three games in three potentially revealing days.
“They are necessary because there is a very important set of data points that you need,” BYU coach Mark Pope said. “Many more programs are dealing with new lists and new types of adjustments. So this race to understanding your team is even bigger.”
Rudi Williams played last season at Coastal Carolina and has also made stops at Kansas State and Northeastern Oklahoma A&M since the 2018-19 season. He is now a starter for the Pope’s Cougars.
“It takes time, and you have to understand that,” he said. “So far, I have understood it very well because I am an older man and this is not the first time that I have moved. So I understand that there will be some difficult moments with a new team, a new environment, a new style, a new rhythm, all of that.”
Eric Hunter Jr. has faced those challenges now that he has moved to Butler, which is in the first season of a second stint under veteran coach Thad Matta. The Purdue graduate transfer joins former NC State big man Manny Bates and Georgia State transfer Jalen Thomas, who has yet to play while undergoing treatment for a pulmonary embolism, as new additions.
“I think a big part of this move, this transfer for me, was being able to be patient,” Hunter said. “Because you make a decision like that to get results. It’s just the natural human aspect of it. I just know it’s like everything else: you have to be patient.”
That goes for both the coaches and the fans.
“I would say this tournament is a big deal because it helps you grow as a team with the transfers,” Williams said, adding: “When we come back from this trip, we’ll know if we improve or we’ll know what we have to work on.
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