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LSU transfer Alex Fudge commits to Florida; Kowacie Reeves considers transfer

Florida’s Wednesday evening provided a fine lesson in growing player power.

NCAA Basketball: Georgia at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

When LSU transfer Alex Fudge announced his commitment to Florida’s men’s basketball program on Wednesday, it was received as a coup for Todd Golden’s program.

Then, less than 15 minutes later, promising freshman Kowacie Reeves was reportedly entering the transfer portal.

Turns out the roller-coaster that is recruiting in college basketball had reason to go both up and down with Gator Nation strapped in last night.

Fudge’s tweet — expected, after a weekend visit to Florida that got celebrated by Chandler Parsons, whose AAU team Fudge played for as a Jacksonville high schooler, and Wednesday reporting from Gene Frenette of the Jacksonville Times-Union, who also reported the expected commitment of Orlando-area recruit Riley Kugel, a teammate of Florida signee Denzel Aberdeen of Dr. Phillips High School — came at 5:04 p.m. on Wednesday, with 247Sports’s Travis Branham reporting at 5:13 p.m. that Reeves would enter the transfer portal, but also that “Florida will still be an option.”

Since then, Reeves has reportedly not formally entered the transfer portal — meaning that the fretting and self-pity that fans did on Wednesday may have been for naught. And one of the most important developments since the report that Reeves would enter the portal may be the feat that former Florida coach Mike White was able to accomplish with Georgia standout Kario Oquendo, who also withdrew his name from the transfer portal on Wednesday, both eliminating one possible addition to Florida’s roster and bolstering Georgia’s in one action.

Oquendo, who hails from Titusville on Florida’s Space Coast, was thought of as a primary target for Florida’s recruiting efforts under Todd Golden partly because of that proximity; Reeves, on the other hand, has been thought of as a possible target for Georgia’s recruiting efforts under White because he hails from Macon and has plenty of love for White.

But with Reeves participating in workouts with Florida’s new staff last week and attending the Florida athletic program’s annual scholarship dinner since then, the feelings about his likely return have been good in Gainesville — making a report of a portal entry especially shocking.

Except, well: No transfer portal entry should be shocking in 2022.

College athletics has shifted significantly in many ways the last decade — consider that, on this same day 10 years ago, Missouri and Texas A&M had not yet formally joined the SEC — but perhaps not more significantly than when it comes to player agency in men’s college basketball. The introduction of the so-called transfer portal — which, it should be pointed out, is a) still just a digital tool that centralizes a list of potential transfers and b) is likely helping programs looking for transfers more than it is players who are now on an automatically-compiled and easily-accessed list but are competing with ever-growing pools of competitors — has been so successful that the phrase itself is engrained in the discourse to stay, but the more recent relaxation of transfer restrictions and implementation of a “COVID year” of extra eligibility have done far more to create something akin to free agency in the sport.

With players now being able to both make themselves available for a second recruitment and scan the landscape for a best fit after experiencing college basketball, the numbers of transfers (and fruitless transfer portal entries) have risen sharply in the last couple of years.

And the growing but still nascent industry of college athletes getting compensated for their name, image, and likeness rights is further complicating the picture. For a player like Reeves, with considerable NBA potential that he is probably best-equipped to realize by continuing to improve as a collegian rather than immediately entering this 2022 NBA Draft, a sophomore season in college basketball is no longer just a second year of waiting for a professional paycheck, but an opportunity to capitalize on his considerable fame through NIL contracts.

Florida — and every other school — can’t directly offer players NIL deals to provide their labor for athletic programs, and NIL contracts technically aren’t for performance, as even this means of compensating college athletes for being college athletes has been rendered a shell game by the shameful sham that is the principle of amateurism through which the NCAA continues to extract its outsized share of the revenue generated by college sports. But the winks and nods provide only a gossamer cover for athletes — if they are being paid to provide deliverables that are only desired because of their name, image, and likeness being tied to fame derived from athletic performance, the argument that they aren’t being paid for performance itself sure seems flimsy to me! — and the athletes themselves know it.

This isn’t to say that Reeves, widely regarded as a tireless worker less interested in banking thousands than balling out, would be entering the portal with an eye on a cash prize, or that any other player in Division I men’s — or women’s — college basketball is doing so. The men, though, play to be included in a billion-dollar tournament, and the stigma around them changing colleges has been diminished tremendously; the women play in an increasingly popular and lucrative tournament of their own, and while the sport lacking the level of parity in the men’s game and being more beholden to a handful of dynastic programs reduces the ability of a lauded mid-major standout to find a program where she can improve her game and burnish her brand, there are hundreds of women’s hoopers who have entered the transfer portal, too.

And though plenty of focus was on Reeves last night, it’s fair to also note that Fudge is fleeing an LSU program expected to be pummeled by the NCAA for Will Wade’s historically clumsy flouting of its rules and coming to one in his home state that should be able to position him to make significant money through NIL endorsements. The factors working for Florida with Fudge are not precisely the same as the ones working against Florida in regards to Reeves, but they are certainly similar.

All of these athletes now have far more ability to essentially renegotiate terms of employment or approach college basketball as a series of one-year contracts than even older siblings in their families might have had — and that’s without considering NIL ramifications. And it presents new complications for the sport and its power brokers.

Does Ja Morant, maybe the most prominent small-school star of the last five years, spend a second season at Murray State if his first one ends with something like the flourish that he provided in the 2019 NCAA Tournament? Can the UConn women or Gonzaga and Villanova men continue to stash potential stars on rosters comprised of four-year players developed into program standard-bearers without sustaining significant portal losses? Will the next athletes like Hanna and Haley Cavinder or Zion Williamson, who come into college athletics with outsized followings, be able to dictate the terms of their existence in the system?

These questions, and ones like them, have been asked a lot about college athletics in the last couple of years — but they have mostly been asked in regards to the top tier of the sport. What that ignores is that every college athlete now has significant power to shape a career, and that programs cannot assume anything about their players’ futures; instead of “de-recruiting” talented high school players to fit them into a program, coaches are going to have to “re-recruit” players every offseason, and very likely within seasons as well.

Florida, despite being able to provide incredible amenities to Gators and having a robust NIL apparatus in place that will enrich many of them, will not be immune to this rising tide. And the sooner all involved — from athletic directors to fans — recognize that this is a sea change, not a temporary shift, the better we’ll all be able to adjust to a new reality.