Despite four straight MAC Championship appearances, fans have become antsy. As fans often do, they are spewing hyperbole and unfounded insults. But the root of their frustration is legitimate. They fear that this is as good as it gets. I share that concern.
Keith Dambrot has prided himself on building a program by using almost exclusively high school players. Often, he has talked about avoiding a "quick fix." But I think it's time to seriously examine whether that is the best strategy.
Looking around the MAC, it's easy to find successful transfers.
-- Xavier Silas came from Colorado, and his impact was immediate. He averaged 19.7 points per game in his first season at Northern Illinois.
-- Armon Bassett played extensive minutes two years at Indiana. After a slow start, Bassett quickly showed he is among the best in the league. He put the Bobcats on his back and earned MAC Tournament MVP.
-- Nick Dials received playing time as a freshman at Ohio State. Uncharacteristically, Dambrot brought him in, and Dials was an important part of the program.
The fact of the matter is, your average mid-major recruit has a weakness -- whether it is academics, athleticism, size, shooting or basketball IQ. There are exceptions, of course, such as Zeke Marshall. But it's hard for any coach to pull off more than one coup per year.
A team like Ohio State will pull in three or four "flawless" recruits per year, but they can't all play big minutes. These high-major players, having been "the man" since they could dribble, want to play. It's natural. Other times a player wants to leave the program because of a coaching change. Not every transfer has the attitude of Allen Iverson.
The reality is, most players seeking to transfer cannot make a lateral move. If the guy isn't good enough to get minutes at Wake Forest, why would Clemson want him? They move to the mid-majors.
Other times, you have a junior college player who either blossomed too late to be noticed by college scouts out of high school or did not achieve proper grades to meet NCAA guidelines. These players often possess the complete package of skills but just had to get their grades in order.
Coaches often talk about "wanting to make their players into good citizens." It's an easy task when you're only taking guys from good families, like the McKnights. The more difficult task is discerning which young men deserve a second chance to fulfill their potential and which ones will blow it. So it's an added stress, but it can pay off.
Kent State has done a great job of this. Tyree Evans did not have the career that Flashes fans hoped for, but by all accounts, he got his life on track. Haminn Quaintance was another Division I transfer. His attitude was difficult for many to handle, but every Kent State fan would agree that the risk on him paid off. The list of successful Kent State transfers is endless.
Dambrot has been a great recruiter of high school players. There can be no faulting him there. But his roster has lacked a marquee player since Jeremiah Wood left.
Let's consider the problems this year:
1) The guards on this team were incapable of stopping a marquee scorer. That requires quickness, height and toughness. Mid-majors can get a player like this, but it probably won't be someone who can also score.
2) The Zips did not have a go-to player. I don't have statistics for this, but I would venture that Brett McKnight was no better than 1-for-10 on tying or go-ahead attempts in the last possession of the game. It's not a knock on Brett; it's an indication that the team does not have a player with the killer instinct that marquee scorers possess.
Not every transfer will work. It is up to the coaching staff to identify which high-major transfers are leaving for the right reasons (not getting enough playing time, coach gets fired) and which ones were pushed out for the wrong reasons (refusal to play defense, attitude that clashed with most players/coaches).
But when you find one that can take leadership position on the team, you have the capacity to compete with other high majors because you're combining the best aspects of a mid-major (teamwork, defense) with a complete skill set that high-majors generally monopolize.
In a way, I see why Dambrot is reluctant to schedule a lot of big road games. He knows the Zips will only win one out of 10 times. But if you add a Bassett, Silas or Quaintance to an already-effective team, the mid-major becomes a threat to win. That is how you take the program to a higher level.
And that's what Zips fans ultimately want.