When the Ivy League was officially founded in 1954, one of the conference’s guiding principles was that intercollegiate athletics were a pursuit for undergraduates only.
But it’s safe to say those tenets failed to anticipate the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule, which has altered the landscape of college basketball over the past decade. It’s even safer to say the Ivy League of 66 years ago never anticipated a talent like Columbia guard Mike Smith.
Smith, who leads the Ivy League in scoring with 21 points per game, missed most of what would have been his junior year in 2018-19 with a torn meniscus.
In every other Division I league, Smith would have been granted a medical redshirt, allowing the fifth-year athlete to play a fourth season of basketball as a graduate student at the school where he enrolled as a freshman in 2016.
Those options, however, do not exist in the Ivy League, which neither grants redshirts nor permits graduate students to play athletics. Combine that with the talent of Smith and his importance to Columbia’s roster, and you have a perfect storm of questions — primarily, should this decades-old rule be revisited and revised?
“It’s very strange. It’s different,” said Columbia coach Jim Engles, who has spent most of his season fielding calls from other programs who are openly recruiting Smith because of the player’s guaranteed ineligibility in the Ivy League next season.
“You’re focused on your season and you’ve got guys calling, ‘What’s going on with this kid?’ You’re trying to get your team to focus on the moment and the season. But it’s the way things are now.”
More than a dozen Ivy League basketball players have graduated and transferred to another school since 2015, including several who have played at the high-major level. This spring, however, the trend will hit a new peak. At least seven players — including four who are actively playing this season — will be compelled by Ivy rules to head elsewhere for their final seasons.
Smith joins teammate Jake Killingsworth, Penn’s Ryan Betley and Yale’s Jordan Bruner (who is also expected to pursue professional options) in the group of players who, because of the rule, are actively auditioning for free-agent suitors at this moment. Two others who are sitting out this season because of injury — Harvard’s Seth Towns (the 2018 Ivy Player of the Year) and Dartmouth’s Brendan Barry — will have to leave, too. Another, Columbia’s Patrick Tape, has left the team but will graduate from Columbia and transfer in the spring.
The four Ivy League basketball coaches ESPN spoke with for this story were in favor of examining a rule that seems to show little sympathy for Ivy League players who suffer serious injuries, and little regard for the academic ambitions of the conference’s players. Sure, some Ivy League players might want to transfer and play in the ACC or Big Ten if they have that opportunity, but others might have a desire to finish out their college basketball careers while attending grad school at the only college they’ve known — the same way their peers at Duke, Stanford or Vanderbilt can.
“When someone who clearly values their academics, scheduled to graduate on time or early — they should be able to do what they want,” Brown coach Mike Martin said. “A lot of these guys want to see what it’s like at the highest level. But for someone who wants to stay and play at the school he’s been at for four years, I think [compelling them to leave is] unfortunate.”
Martin has experience with the issue, which arose when former Brown player Rafael Maia was attempting to remain in the program for his final season of eligibility in 2015-16. Maia had been forced by the NCAA to sit out his freshman year at Brown because of a graduation-calendar issue related to his arrival from his native Brazil, but he graduated in four years and had another year of basketball eligibility to use in 2015-16 — just not at Brown. Martin said Maia wanted to stay with the Bears but was forced to leave because of the rule, going on to average 2.0 PPG in 33 games with Pittsburgh in 2015-16.
“I think it’s unfortunate because Maia wanted to stay here, play for us,” Martin said. “He wasn’t looking to go elsewhere until he exhausted every possible situation.”
“I would love it if the kid qualifies for it,” Penn coach Steve Donahue said of the ability to stay for a fifth year in the Ivy, noting Betley would have preferred to stay. “I don’t know why that’s a bad thing. If anything, it would really show the kid’s dedication to both sides of his life. I’d be very much in favor of supporting kids that can get into these grad schools. I think it would really help. It’s the right thing to do for a lot of reasons.”
Coaches like Martin and Donahue have an uphill battle in getting the rule examined, however. First, the change needs to be proposed by a coach or administrator and put into the legislation system. The coaches in the league then vote, with a majority (at least five votes) needed to advance to the next step. It then goes on to a vote among athletic directors before moving to the Policy Committee, a group that includes school vice presidents and deans, faculty and athletic administrators. The final step would be a vote among school presidents, and both the Policy Committee and presidents need to approve the change by a supermajority (six votes).
Despite the bureaucratic red tape, Yale coach James Jones is among those who think it’s fair to ask whether the Ivy should revisit the issue.
“I think that all things are up for review that can help a student-athlete,” said Jones. “If it helps a student-athlete, I think we should look at it and see if it fits for us. It hasn’t been a blip on the radar — it’s more and more prevalent. It may be something our coaches’ group takes a look at. It may be something that gets on the table down the road. It is an issue for a lot of our teams.”
Ivy League executive director Robin Harris said she is unmoved by a call to examine the ethics of the rule, and disputes how it might impact quality of play.
“What’s the problem with it?” she said. “We’re still continuing to thrive as a league. … I think we have to have an issue to fix.
“It’s a philosophical approach that we do what’s right for college athletics and what’s right for student-athletes, as well,” Harris added. “We have other rules that maybe put us at a disadvantage competitively, and yet we continue to have about 100 ranked teams a year, continue to do well in NCAA tournaments, win national championships. … We haven’t really talked about it, because it’s one of the philosophical underpinnings of the league.”
But could it at least be argued that the rule has turned the Ivy League into a developing free-agent market, given the circumstance of players like Smith and Bruner being openly recruited as free agents?
“It’s a testament to what our coaches are doing,” Harris countered. “[The players] are able to transfer and play at some of the bluebloods. … I really think that it showcases the student-athletes.”
The rule does have a silver lining for players confronted with the situation: Because they will not have future Ivy eligibility, players such as Smith and Tape can submit their profiles directly into the transfer portal at any time during the academic year. Smith entered the portal in October and immediately became one of the most sought-after transfers on the market. (Smith declined to be interviewed for this story, with a Columbia spokesman telling ESPN he is not focusing on his recruitment until after the season.) But the fact that he is in the portal means he has likely been on the receiving end of dozens of phone calls from college coaches.
For the people on the other end of those phone calls, it’s an advantage. It’s unusual for a college coach to be able to actively recruit, without tampering, a player currently playing Division I college basketball. Coaches could have watched Smith play high-major competition during nonconference play (Columbia faced Wake Forest, Virginia and St. John’s in November) to get an immediate sense for how his game would translate to a higher level.
Midway through last season, USC coach Andy Enfield thought the Trojans needed backcourt depth and shooting for the 2019-20 season. A name from the transfer portal came up in discussion: Columbia guard Quinton Adlesh. A California native, he was a natural fit. The Trojans’ coaching staff was able to watch film and monitor his development as the season progressed, then they decided to bring him in for an official visit before landing his commitment on April 1, just a few weeks after the season ended.
“It was extremely beneficial to know that a particular player is transferring,” Enfield said. “We were able to evaluate him during the season and get to know him when we were allowed to call. The relationship was already developed, somewhat.”
Adlesh, who missed most of his freshman season (2015-16) at Columbia with an ankle injury, estimated that 15 or 20 schools reached out to him before he settled on USC and said there was a benefit to making his intentions known early.
“I figured I’d just put it out there, so coaches knew, in case they wanted to target me or had a potential spot they wanted to fill,” Adlesh said. “I didn’t engage in any talks with coaches until the season wrapped up. I wanted to get a sense of who’s available. … I was up front. If I had any contact with a coach, I said I would love to get back in touch when the season wrapped up.”
Could we get to the point where college coaches are conducting campus visits with active Ivy League players in the middle of the season? That has been the case for Tape, who is sitting out this season while finishing up his undergraduate degree at Columbia. He tore a ligament in his toe over the summer and then aggravated the injury before the season began. Tape realized he could probably try to return after a few games, but he preferred to play a full season — even if it wasn’t in the Ivy League. Instead, Tape left the team.
It seems to be working out so far: The 6-foot-10 big man has already toured Syracuse and has visits set up with Maryland, Ohio State and USC.
“I think a lot of Ivy League players are looking to get the best of both worlds,” Tape said.
As players like Smith and Tape ponder their next moves, it will be up to Ivy League coaches to decide whether to push for reform, or risk having their talented rosters be potentially undermined by the rule.
“The league certainly loses a lot of talent from it,” Towns said. “It’s more of an ethical thing for the Ivy League; I’m not really sure how I feel about it. But the league objectively loses talent.”