MISSOULA — Montana men's basketball coach Travis DeCuire addressed the media on Wednesday morning ahead of UM's scheduled rivalry contests with Eastern Washington in Cheney on Thursday and in Missoula on Saturday.
Ahead of discussing the upcoming games with the Eagles for the Grizzlies, DeCuire addressed the transfers the Montana men's program has dealt with this season, including three players who have suited up at one point this season who are now gone. On Monday, senior Michael Steadman announced that he'd entered the transfer portal after starting in 18 of Montana's 19 games. Grad transfer Cameron Satterwhite and freshman Hunter Clarke left earlier in the year. After having 17 players on the roster back in the early summer, Montana is down to just 11 players on the roster.
DeCuire declined to speak about individuals specifically, and added that for those who left there was no ill will and that he wished all of his ex-players the best whether on the court elsewhere or in life in general. But DeCuire took the time on Wednesday to explain how transferring has changed in college basketball and how it affects teams going forward.
"There's 171 players in the Division I portal right now, and it's February," DeCuire began. "There are a number of kids in the portal that are still playing on the team that they're leaving. That 171 represents almost half of the Division I basketball teams in the country. So there's two things that jump out that I think play a role in the state of college basketball and transferring. One is it's basically open free agency with the portal and now the automatic eligibility with a waiver. When you see the transfers at the NBA level, when you see the transfers at the high-major level that have allowed guys to make decisions mid-season that they don't want to be a part of something anymore, and obviously in the NBA can be playing for another team 24 hours later and at the college level be playing for another team the next season, and there's no sense of accountability, it's easy to quit. In my opinion, with the way things go, they're almost encouraged to move on when things aren't going the way they want."
DeCuire added that expectations and perceptions of success at a school like Montana can also make things difficult for incoming players, especially those who transfer into the program.
"I think the University of Montana falls into a category that a small percentage of college basketball programs fall into, that's expected to compete for championships, high-level support emotionally, financially," DeCuire continued with his opening statement. "And then there's a level of individual expectation that comes with being here. When you have those types of expectations, there's a standard that you're waking up to every day, it's hard if you haven't experienced that early in your life before you get here and you have to learn how to become that person. You have to learn how to train and motivate yourself and handle adversity in the face of a program that is on the front page of the newspaper and often the opening statement to the news, whether that's TV, whether that's radio, Twitter or any other social media, and it's something that most of these young men have never experienced before coming here. The few that have, Donaven Dorsey, Ahmaad Rorie, came from Pac-12 programs that have won championships. The rest transfer laterally or up.
He continued: "This is very difficult for a lot of people and we tell every kid we recruit this isn't for everyone and it's probably harder for a kid transferring in than a high school kid to have success here and be OK with the process because a lot of times when guys are transferring they're running from something, something didn't work out and they're looking for immediate gratification and that's not necessarily going to happen when you come to a program that recruits high school kids at a high level like we do. And I think it's very difficult for juniors and seniors to transfer in and compete with freshmen and sophomores and sometimes find themselves sharing roles that they want. Therefore you see some guys come here and not be successful, and you see the same thing nationally. And I wouldn't say not be successful from my regard. I think that if you're playing a large role on a good basketball team that is success, if you're graduating from college, staying out of trouble and moving forward as someone that will contribute to society and be a positive example to people from your community and your family, that is success.
"But it's unfortunate that the exposure, the following, the expectation that comes with college basketball these days has made it very difficult for young men to see success as anything other than being an all-conference player and playing professional for money. And when the light at the end of the tunnel is a little dimmer than they may have expected, some bail out, and it's just unfortunate that we've had a couple of those here in our time. But we've won championships with that happening and we expect to continue doing the same."
DeCuire, as other coaches around the country have reiterated, said college athletics has changed drastically to where transferring is easier, and in some cases more welcomed, than in seasons past where players would stick out their time at one school. Montana isn't the only school to recently deal with this either. On a more national scale, Duke saw projected lottery pick Jalen Johnson announce on Monday that he was leaving the Blue Devils for the remainder of the season to prepare for the NBA.
DeCuire added that change is seen in the coaching ranks as well, as coaches are let go before getting the chance to develop programs or leaving for another job abruptly. In the past, DeCuire said transfers would usually happen only when coaching staffs would leave or get fired, but now it's more frequent.
"Now, it's gotten to a point where it's very difficult to find a transcript that has the same high school and it's very difficult to find a transfer that hasn't changed in high school and in college," DeCuire said. "It's just becoming the norm to move on when things aren't going your way and it's very difficult to manage because if you say you're not going to take those kids, you're going to have a hard time fielding a talented team because they're hard to find even at the high school level, so you just have to research and dig in and hope that this is the last change.
"All of the kids that we brought in are good people, and I think that they had the right intent when they came. I just think that this is a very difficult place when you want to be an all-conference player and want to be somewhere where they expect to win. The pressure to succeed here is higher than most mid-major programs and most high-major programs in the country. They think they want this. They think want to be where there is no professional sport and you're the only show in town but until you get here, it's difficult. Same thing with football, same thing with women's basketball. When they say they want to go play in front of thousands of fans, it's one thing to want it, it's another thing to be expected to perform in front of those groups."
DeCuire highlighted junior Mack Anderson as an example as someone who has seen his minutes fluctuate throughout his career but has kept the same "committed" attitude and work ethic toward the program and his game in his time at UM. Anderson's minutes have recently seen an uptick this season, including a career-high 27 at Sac State on Jan. 23.
DeCuire said he believed that Weber State coach Randy Rahe and Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak recruited and put teams together "the right way," with high school recruits and the occasional transfer addition, and players still wind up leaving the program, showing an example of how times have changed. Throw in the current COVID-19 pandemic, and DeCuire said teams aren't getting the usual camaraderie and chemistry opportunities that also play a factor, with the pandemic's effects hitting athletics from all aspects due to the hoops the athletes must jump through.
Going forward, DeCuire said they don't plan to attack their recruiting differently despite the transfers. DeCuire's philosophy is to recruit high school talent with the occasional transfer, and that's how they'll go about it moving forward.
Ahead of the games with Eastern Washington (10-6, 9-2 Big Sky Conference), a team that sits atop the Big Sky, DeCuire said he doesn't believe the outgoing transfers are a distraction to his team. The day Satterwhite's departure was announced, Montana (9-10, 5-7) wound up beating Washington of the Pac-12.
"Our guys have been prepared for opportunities and have understood that this has been a very difficult year for everyone and we're going to make the most of every opportunity that we have and we know that the adversity is going to continue to come and we're prepared to fight through it," DeCuire said. "I haven't seen anyone look back. No one has walked in the office with questions. We had a short meeting, no one had any questions and we had a really good practice that day so I think the team has moved on."