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How South Alabama is creating a new identity through the transfer portal

Will South Alabama’s Richie Riley be able to use the transfer portal to create a Sun Belt super team?

NCAA Basketball: Nicholls State at Villanova Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hardly breaking news, but the transfer portal is revolutionizing the college basketball landscape.

Love it or hate it, the transfer portal has created quite the spectacle for this offseason. Players are changing programs at a rate that we’ve never witnessed before. Unsurprisingly, the lion’s share of the headlines is being dominated by the major programs. Teams in major conferences are using the transfer portal to bolster their rosters, and some of the nation’s most powerful programs are dipping into the mid-major ranks to accomplish this.

However, there is the opposite, which isn’t being covered quite as much. Players from schools in major conferences that are unhappy with their current playing situations are also looking for new homes. One program in particular, the South Alabama Jaguars, has set itself up to be an interesting case study to follow this year. Head coach Richie Riley seems to be looking at the portal as a slot machine of sorts, gambling that this will be the mechanism to elevate his program out of Sun Belt mediocrity.

The Jaguars have completely overhauled their roster via the portal by adding seven new players — tied for the most incoming transfers in Division I. South Alabama was a respectable team last year, finishing 17-11 with a 10-7 mark in conference play. This begs the question: Was such a roster overhaul even needed?

The Jaguars have been both the beneficiaries and victims of the nature of the transfer portal. South Alabama was led by one of the most dynamic guards in all of college hoops last year in Michael Flowers, who averaged 21 points per game. Flowers recently announced he would be transferring to Washington State, and other contributors such as KK Curry and John Pettway have also transferred from the program.

Out of South Alabama’s seven new players from the portal, six of them are coming in from major conferences. The Jaguars have added Javon Franklin and Tyrell Jones from Auburn, Charles Manning from LSU, Jay Jay Chandler out of Texas A&M, Diante Smith from TCU, and Lance Thomas out of Memphis. The seventh player is VMI standout Greg Parham.

Convincing Flowers to stay one more year and keeping him as the focal point could have been successful, but it’s also hard to blame Riley for his radical course of action. Just two years ago, Jones was a top 120 recruit, per 247 Sports.

The likes of Jones, Franklin, and Manning are all talents that a program like South Alabama couldn’t have dreamed of landing when they were choosing their college out of high school. These three players still have multiple years of college eligibility remaining, so it’s understandable that Riley believes they all have the potential to emerge as Sun Belt superstars.

Interestingly enough, Riley has strategically balanced out this crop of young players with a handful of seasoned veterans. Chandler averaged over 20 minutes per game over his last three years in College Station and over eight points per game in his senior season.

Parham exploded onto the scene in his last year at VMI, averaging 18.4 points per game while shooting 43.5 percent from beyond the arc. Parham played an integral role in guiding the Keydets to the semifinals of the SoCon Tournament. Most analysts would agree that the SoCon is a stronger conference than the Sun Belt, so there is no reason to believe Parham won’t be one of the Sun Belt’s most lethal scorers next year.

On paper, it’s a well-rounded cast of players that features a strong blend of youth and veterans. Will this roll of the dice be looked back on as the decision that gets South Alabama back into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008?

Any time a team experiences such drastic roster upheaval there will be a lot of questions to be answered, especially relating to team chemistry. Just because players have talent doesn’t always mean they will figure out how to play with each other. The talent headed to Mobile is undeniable, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will turn into an instant Sun Belt contender.

The Sun Belt isn’t exactly a basketball gauntlet, but there is some interesting talent set to return in the conference. Appalachian State basically returns its entire team that won the conference tournament in 2021. Sun Belt mainstay Georgia State is also slated to return the core of its squad that went 16-6 last year and came up one game short of another NCAA Tournament appearance.

The transfer portal has opened up a world of new possibilities for building college basketball rosters, and South Alabama is conducting an entirely new experiment. The Jaguars are choosing raw talent over continuity. It’s not a crazy idea, but it’s also understandable as to why some skeptics claim this could be a fragile approach. With a respectable aggregate record of 89-67 through five years of head coaching experience, Riley probably deserves the benefit of the doubt heading into the season.

Tearing a productive roster down and replacing it with an entirely new cast of players is a daring path forward, but the ceiling of this squad is enormous. In an era where mid-major programs are always looking for a way to alter the competitive balance of the sport, South Alabama is forging its path right before our eyes.