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Gonzaga coaches strike ‘really hard balance’ of monitoring transfer portal while competing in NCAA Tournament

Gonzaga Bulldogs coach Mark Few and assistant coach Brian Michaelson watch practice last month at Chase Center in San Francisco.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Within 12 hours of an Elite Eight loss to UConn last Saturday, Gonzaga’s coaching staff had already turned the page from one important phase of the college basketball calendar to the next.

The emergence of the NCAA transfer portal has added another layer to offseason recruiting and teams that make deep runs in the NCAA Tournament have to strike a delicate balance, preparing for high-pressure postseason games while simultaneously monitoring a constantly-moving transfer portal.

“Obviously you always want to be playing and we’ll take where we are right now every single year, but it does put you behind the 8-ball on that,” Gonzaga assistant Brian Michaelson said prior to the team’s Elite Eight game in Las Vegas. “There’s schools already doing home visits, already doing campus visits and obviously that’s impossible for us.”

By the time the Bulldogs returned home to Spokane, they were approximately 2-3 weeks behind much of the country, and a week ahead of the four teams still competing for a berth in the national championship game: UConn, Miami, San Diego State and Florida Atlantic.

“If you’re fortunate to play all the way until that last Monday, which is what you really want, you wake up that Tuesday morning and you’re weeks and weeks behind,” Michaelson said. “There’s going to be a lot of kids that have already made decisions.”

Since its inception in September of 2018, the portal has simplified the transfer process for athletes and coaches, and encouraged more movement, particularly in revenue-generating sports like football and men’s basketball.

In men’s and women’s basketball, the transfer portal opens on March 13 and closes on May 11, approximately one month after the national championship game. By 12:45 p.m. on March 13, 235 men’s basketball players had already entered according to and portal traffic hasn’t ceased, with more than 1,100 entries as of March 30.

Before the existence of the portal, Gonzaga’s staff still relied on transfer recruiting to build out rosters, and specifically build for the future at a time when NCAA rules mandated that transfers sit out one year before being eligible.

Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington), Kyle Wiltjer (Kentucky), Brandon Clarke (San Jose State), Johnathan Williams (Missouri) and Jordan Mathews (Cal) all made moves to Gonzaga, honing their game during a redshirt season before taking on key roles within Few’s rotation the next season.

The landscape has changed, with significantly more transfers available and new eligibility rules allowing coaches to fill immediate needs.

“It was in the summer, there was so few transfers and you could really hone in on the ones you wanted or you needed and they had to sit out so it was less urgent,” Michaelson said. “It was so much different in terms of the less sense of urgency.”

Gonzaga’s staff contacted a variety of transfers throughout the NCAA Tournament run, including Wyoming big man Graham Ike and Butler guard Jayden Taylor, but communication and recruiting efforts escalated as soon as the season ended.

“Unfortunately one team ends with a win, but we’ve played really, really deep and yeah whether it’s the national championship Monday or Sweet 16 like it’s been some years, it’s literally like the next morning is full blast,” Michaelson said. “There’s not a single second off.”

That wasn’t the case even five years ago, let alone when Michaelson was elevated to a full-time assistant coach in 2013-14.

“Even when I first got into this, definitely when I first got into this 15 years ago, you could take a significant breath,” he said. “… I think back and there’d be a handful of guys on the transfer list and that would be way later and you always thought of recruiting being kind of AAU in July and it’s not anymore.

“Now the spring is by far the busiest time of year for recruiting and when you’re fortunate enough as we’ve been for the last eight years and you’re still playing, it makes it a really hard balance and we have to be selective.”

In the four NCAA Tournaments that have been held since the transfer portal opened in 2018, the Zags have made two Elite Eight appearances and one trip to the national championship game.

GU’s coaches have to be attentive when it comes to monitoring activity in the portal, and contacting certain prospects to get a foot in the door, but they’re also careful to ensure it doesn’t conflict with day-to-day duties during the tournament.

“We owe it to ourselves, to this program, to the guys in that room for that to be our sole focus on winning games and I think that’s something we’ve done a really nice job as a staff,” Michaelson said. “You can’t completely ignore the recruiting side, but the basketball is first, this group is first, preparation is first.”

The recruiting side often takes care of itself when you’re winning games in March.

Senior guard Rasir Bolton was in the portal on two occasions – once after leaving Penn Sate following his freshman season and again in 2021 after spending two years at Iowa State – and said GU’s run to the ‘21 national championship game was a major selling point in his decision to move to Spokane.

“I definitely watched Gonzaga play those last couple years while I was in the portal,” Rasir Bolton said. “They were all over TV, I’m sure I watched them. I loved the way they played and I ended up coming here and being a part of this great system.

“… It felt like the right place for me and they had just only lost one game, so it would be crazy to say no.”

Gonzaga’s 2022-23 roster featured three players who came to Spokane via the portal – all for different reasons.

Bolton initially left Penn State after a racially charged comment from former Nittany Lions coach Pat Chambers, then transferred from Iowa State when new coach TJ Otzelberger indicated he didn’t fit into the team’s plans, despite leading the Cyclones in scoring a year earlier.

Guard Malachi Smith transferred from the mid-major level and left Chattanooga to play on a bigger stage in Spokane.

Previously at LSU, sophomore center Efton Reid sought out a new situation when Tigers coach Will Wade was terminated for alleged recruited violations.

“I know a lot of people who are in the portal right now,” Reid said. “It’s kind of crazy, they’re not happy with their situation so that’s what they do and they transfer. They’re hoping for a better outcome that they can find a better home for them to stay at.”

The portal allowed Bolton to find a home in Spokane after turbulent situations at his previous stops. The Virginia native started in all 69 games in his two years at Gonzaga and received an award from Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward earlier this season for his extensive work in the community.

“Coaches bounce around from school to school and kind of switch jobs, I don’t think it’ll hurt the player switching around,” Bolton said. “I think the portal situation is crazy, just the number they keep tweeting out as far as kids just going in and out. I think that’s what it was made for and I think guys are looking for their right situation and their new homes.”