A quick look around the Kentucky athletics landscape reveals a common theme: From men’s basketball to women’s soccer, players who arrived at UK via the NCAA transfer portal are playing a prominent role in the success of UK’s varsity sports programs.
But is this current transfer portal model something that can be sustained long term?
Kentucky coaches John Calipari and Mark Stoops are among those who have made their thoughts on the transfer portal known in the past. And this month, UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart also weighed in on the subject.
During an early September speaking engagement at the Lexington Forum, Barnhart stressed his desire to find a balance between allowing player movement and having athletes benefit from going through adversity during their college playing careers.
“When I think about the transfer portal, certainly freedom of movement was the goal. If coaches have the ability to move and (are) free to move around, then student-athletes should as well,” Barnhart said. “But we’ve probably gone to the spot where freedom of movement has turned into ‘I’m really not committed to hanging in there and trying.’”
Barnhart also touched on the difficulties of building a consistently successful college sports program given the increase in roster turnover as a result of the transfer portal.
“Society, culture tells us to get mine as quick as I can, as fast as I can, wherever I can. There’s not a lot of patience anymore,” Barnhart said, adding that coaches who have an ability to connect quickly with players are more likely to have success with the transfer portal.
“So to build a locker room with the transfer portal is really difficult.”
Within UK’s own locker rooms, evidence exists for both the potential successes that the transfer portal can offer, and the difficulties that come with the process.
Some successful ongoing examples include:
▪ UK football running back Ray Davis: Formerly of Temple and Vanderbilt, Davis has five rushing touchdowns in four games this season and figures to be a key player in UK’s showcase Saturday home game against No. 22 Florida.
▪ UK men’s basketball guard Antonio Reeves: Formerly of Illinois State, Reeves was Kentucky’s second-leading scorer in points per game last season, and securing his return was an essential part of the Wildcats’ offseason, which also featured the addition of forward Tre Mitchell (formerly of UMass, Texas and West Virginia) from the transfer portal.
▪ UK women’s soccer goalkeeper Marz Josephson: Formerly of North Carolina, Josephson is among the NCAA leaders in shutouts this season for a still undefeated UK women’s soccer team.
These represent only a handful of UK athletes who have taken advantage of the NCAA transfer portal to come to Lexington and make a positive on-field impact.
Of course, this can go in the opposite direction as well.
Despite the offseason additions of top transfer options like Aboubacar Camara (Louisville) and Finn Ballard McBride (UC Santa Barbara), the UK men’s soccer team has gone from preseason No. 3 in the country to unranked, with more losses this season (five) than in the last two seasons combined (three).
Barnhart also pointed out the on-field and off-field acclimation process that every transfer must go through, and how that looks different for every athlete who joins the Wildcats.
But something that was crystal clear through Barnhart’s comments on the subject was the fact he still values the choice to stay at one school in an effort to make it work there, rather than leaving for another school.
“I’d say the transfer portal has really been good in some respects for young people to be able to make choices,” Barnhart said. “My encouragement would be to find and strike the balance between that and fighting through some things to make sure that you have an opportunity to learn.”