Commentary: With the grad transfer rule, the rich get richer

GRAND FORKS -- One of University of North Dakota's major athletic accomplishments came in March of 2017 when the Fighting Hawks won the Big Sky Conference men's basketball tournament, thereby qualifying for the NCAA Tournament.
University of North Dakota guard Geno Crandall looks for an open teammate against Idaho State in January. Nick Nelson / Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS - One of University of North Dakota's major athletic accomplishments came in March of 2017 when the Fighting Hawks won the Big Sky Conference men's basketball tournament, thereby qualifying for the NCAA Tournament.

That's a big deal.

It's probably one of the most significant athletic accomplishments in school history, given the scope and enormity of the Big Dance. And for a low mid-major program to play on that stage is even more impressive.

But that success, it appears, came with a price.

Three players from that championship team took advantage of the NCAA graduate transfer rule, which allows a student-athlete who has earned a bachelor's degree to participate as a graduate student at another Division I athletic program without any restrictions or delays.

Geno Crandall, one of UND's highest profile players in the Division I era, is the latest to use the grad transfer. He's on course to graduate this summer and told UND last week he will transfer and use his final year of eligibility elsewhere - either Xavier, Gonzaga, Colorado State or New Mexico State. But there could be other programs talking to him as well.

UND did a lot for Crandall, a Minneapolis native. UND recruited him, developed him, then rode his talent to winning the Big Sky title in 2017.

And Crandall acknowledges that. But the chance to play on a bigger stage appeals to Crandall, just as it probably did in the cases of previous grad transfers Drick Bernstine and Carson Shanks - both of whom played on the 2017 UND title team.

The reality of men's college basketball is different today than it was even a decade ago, especially at the mid-major level.

In UND's case, reaching the NCAA Tournament was the pinnacle for the program. Earning successive NCAA Tournament appearances for a low mid-major program isn't impossible but the chances of that happening rank up there with the Vikings winning the Super Bowl.

Today's players realize the landscape that exists. And the NCAA grad transfer rule opened the door for mid-major players to experience the NCAA Tournament again at a Power 5 program.

Shanks transferred to Loyola Chicago and the 7-footer got the basketball experience of a lifetime when the Ramblers reached the Final Four last season.

Bernstine, who scored 20 points and grabbed 15 rebounds against Arizona in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, impressed a lot of Power 5 coaches. He wound up as a starter at Washington State last season.

And, let's face it, Power 5 coaches gladly will take a grad transfer from a mid-major to help bolster their rosters.

UND isn't the only mid-major stung by the rule; South Dakota recently lost Matt Mooney - one of the best players in Summit League - to the rule.

And the mid-majors face another dilemma in this scenario. When a mid-major program plays a money game against a team from a Power 5 conference, big-time coaches get to scout players that may look to take the grad transfer route.

Last season, Crandall had an explosive game at national power Gonzaga, a program the former UND guard is considering.

Crandall understands the situation. He has aspirations of playing professionally. A move to a bigger program, which means more exposure, may enhance that probability.

"I was talking to someone about all of this the other day," he said. "It's good on one hand; a lot of guys are graduating. That's good. On the other hand, it's chaotic. It's been stressful."

Loyalty to a program is a good thing but it simply may not be the No. 1 driving force of today's college basketball player. That's just the way it is as, again, we look back at how the college game has changed in the past decade.

The grad transfer rule hasn't been kind to mid-majors. The NCAA, as usual, has made the rich a little richer.