ALBANY, N.Y. — A year ago Will Brown had his Albany Great Danes in heady territory, ranked fifth in a mid-major poll with the America East Conference's best backcourt and gunning for a berth somewhere in the postseason for a seventh straight year.
Today, the coach is trying to recover from a double whammy — the departure of that backcourt, Joe Cremo and David Nichols, the team's top two scorers. On the verge of completing their undergraduate degrees, both decided after last season to use their final year of eligibility to play at a higher level and as graduate transfers wouldn't have to wait a year to play.
"I never experienced anything like that in my career," said Brown, who also lost two forwards to graduation and two other players who also transferred. "You're shocked. You're surprised, but you want kids to be happy and you want them to chase their dreams. I think every kid growing up wants to play at Carolina, Duke, Kansas, Villanova. That's the reality of it."
Cremo and Nichols are now living those dreams. A native of the Albany area, Cremo is the first graduate transfer ever in men's basketball at No. 18 Villanova, averaging 20 minutes for the reigning national champion Wildcats. The 22-year-old Nichols, who was born in Chicago, became just the second graduate transfer at Florida State and has carved a niche in the lineup of the Seminoles, who were ranked No. 11 before falling out of the poll this week after three straight losses.
Both now play regularly on national television in packed arenas against top-flight opponents, gaining exposure they hope might lead to bigger things after college. They also likely will play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time with a chance to make a deep run.
Back in Albany, Brown starts four freshmen, three of them redshirts from Australia, on a team that's 5-14 and searching for the consistency it had with its two former stars.
"That's always a crushing thing for a smaller school," said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who welcomed graduate transfers Andrew White (Nebraska) and John Gillon (Colorado State) when his roster was depleted three years ago by the loss of four players, including one transfer. "It's something that everybody does, but it really crushes a smaller school."
According to the NCAA , about 40 percent of all men's basketball players who enter Division I directly out of high school depart their initial school by the end of their sophomore year. Of the transfers who remain in Division I, nearly a third are graduate transfers, and that percentage has remained consistent over the past four years. Graduate transfers are more likely to go to better programs and often leave the lesser programs in the lurch because mid-majors don't get the one-and-done talent and playing together for four years and knowing the team system is often the key to success.
Point guard Aaron Calixte is playing his final college season as a graduate transfer in the Big 12 at Oklahoma instead of in the America East at Maine, where he was a star for three years. Sooners coach Lon Kruger needed some experience at the position after Trae Young left for the NBA and Jordan Shepherd transferred. Calixte's departure left a big void for the Black Bears, who have never played in the NCAA Tournament.
"I've seen it decimate programs, and I think it makes it very, very difficult for coaches that are trying to build programs," said Kent State head coach Rob Senderoff, who was surprised when 7-foot center Adonis De La Rosa transferred to Illinois as a graduate student after last season. The Golden Flashes (14-4) are still in contention in the Mid-American Conference.
"Even if you know it's happening or there's the potential for that to happen, it's still very difficult for a coach to be able to take that blow," Senderoff said.
So what's the secret for continued success at the mid-major level? From the oh-so-likable Tom Brennan to current coach John Becker, the Vermont Catamounts have been pressing the right buttons for 15 years. The Cats have been to the NCAA Tournament six times and have the marketing tool of an overtime victory over Boeheim's Orange in 2005 , just two years after Syracuse won the national championship.
"It's something that we're constantly trying to figure out, and it's obviously really difficult to do," said Becker, in his 13th year with the program, eighth as head coach. "It's creating a pitch, great academic school, sell the tradition of winning.
"Once you start winning, that's our biggest sales point. That gets guys interested, having a chance to go to the NCAA Tournament," said Becker, who counts Vermont's fan support as a major asset. "We've played in 11 of the last 16 (America East Conference) championship games. All of those things play into the ability to get the right kind of kid."
For Brown, who has established a solid program that has made five NCAA Tournament appearances and also has one victory in the big dance , this season has been a struggle despite the spirited play of junior guard Ahmad Clark, who leads the team in scoring (17.6), and the leadership of senior forward Devonte Campbell, the lone returning starter who accepted a new role as the first player off the bench in an effort to help the team grow. The Great Danes are in last place in the America East, at 0-4 the only team without a conference win.
"You probably have two teams in the country — Duke and Albany — that are starting four freshmen," said Brown, in his 18th season at Albany. "When you have two graduate transfers in the springtime, you don't prepare for that through the recruiting cycle. When that happens in late March, early April, you're not replacing two all-conference-caliber players."
"Maybe a Duke or a Kansas can, but at our level you can't," Brown said.