December 15, 2023 

‘A third level of recruiting’: How transfers are impacting the Ivy League

Most transfers into the Ivy League since 2012-13 have come from power conferences

Before this season, eighth-year Columbia head coach Megan Griffith had never promised a player a starting spot — not even senior Abbey Hsu, the Ivy League’s all-time leader in career 3-pointers. That changed with the arrival of junior guard Cecelia Collins, a transfer from Bucknell.

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“I knew the moment when she committed to our program that she would start,” Griffith told reporters in November. So, not wanting to “play any games,” Griffith told Collins during the first week of classes that she’d start from Day 1.

Collins hit the ground running, recording 11 points, five assists and four rebounds in her Lions debut. Overall, she has scored in double figures in nine of 11 games and ranks third on the team with 11.4 points per game.

“We’re getting everything that I thought we would get and more from that kid,” Griffith said days after the season opener. “She is smart, she is competitive, she is even keeled, her teammates love her, and she likes big moments.”

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Across the Ivy League, there are six women’s basketball players who started their careers elsewhere but transferred to their current school. Three are in their first season in the conference.

PlayerTransferred FromTransferred ToCurrent ClassSeasons at Current School*
Mekkena BoydPenn StateDartmouthSenior3
Leiya StuartVermontDartmouthJunior2
Floor ToondersFloridaPennSenior2
Ava SciollaMarylandColumbiaSophomore1
Cecelia CollinsBucknellColumbiaJunior1
Mona ZarićIndianaHarvardJunior1
*Including 2023-24.

And since 2012-13 — a span of 12 seasons — at least 18 players have transferred into the Ivy League, based on information available on teams’ websites. Eleven of those players have come from Power Six schools.

Transferring into Ivy League women’s basketball isn’t entirely new: For example, Melissa Johnson transferred from UNC to Harvard in 1998, and Judie Lomax won Ivy League Player of the Year at Columbia after transferring from Oregon State in 2007. But, though the number of transfers will likely always be small, there does seem to be an uptick in recent seasons.

A graph showing the number of players on Ivy League rosters who are transfers by season and the number of new transfers by season. There is a slight increase over the past four seasons.
A graph showing the number of transfers into Ivy League women’s basketball in recent seasons. *Ivy League schools did not compete in 2020-21 due to COVID-19. (Data collected from schools’ websites; graph by Jenn Hatfield)

In part, that increase may reflect NCAA rules changes that have streamlined the transfer process. The transfer portal, a centralized database for players to make themselves available as transfers, debuted in 2018. (Previously, players had to ask their school for permission to leave if they wanted to remain on scholarship elsewhere.) In 2021, the rules changed to allow players to transfer once without having to sit out a year at their new school. Since then, the NCAA has also established transfer windows, or dates when players can enter the portal. In basketball, that window begins the day after the NCAA Tournament field is announced and lasts 45 days.

Since 2012-13, Penn has welcomed five transfers, the most in the Ivy League, and Columbia and Cornell have had four each. Five of the eight Ivy League programs have had at least one transfer in that span.

A graph showing the number of transfers into Ivy League women's basketball programs since 2012-13. Penn has had the most, with five, followed by Columbia and Cornell with four each.
A graph showing the number of transfers into Ivy League women’s basketball programs since 2012-13. (Data collected from schools’ websites; graph by Jenn Hatfield)

Players’ reasons for transferring into the Ivy League vary: Some want more playing time, some want to be closer to family, others are prioritizing academics more than they did out of high school, and often it’s a combination of reasons.

Harvard junior Mona Zarić, who transferred from Indiana this offseason, told The Next, “I was obviously looking for a better academic school. I mean, the Ivy League was never ever even — I was never even thinking about it [out of high school]. So when I got the opportunity to talk to them, I was like on cloud nine. … And I got in and I was like, I have to come here.”

For Sydnei Caldwell, who transferred from Arizona State to Penn as a junior in 2021-22, her family being on the East Coast was a driving factor along with academics. “I got really homesick,” she told The Next in February. “… [Penn] was a family away from family and putting emphasis on my academics. Not that I didn’t the first time, but you’re two years older, you mature, [and] you realize what you wanted when you were 18 isn’t what you want when you’re 20 and 21.”

Ivy League coaches have different philosophies on taking transfers, but one thing they generally agree on is that transfers should only be a small part of the overall recruiting strategy, alongside recruiting domestic players and recruiting internationally.

“I see it as a third level of recruiting now that we have to at least explore,” Penn head coach Mike McLaughlin told The Next. “And then everyone philosophically can make their own decision if that’s the way you want to go.”

He added, “I think the transfer portal is good for our league. We’re not recruiting out of the transfer portal only. We are trying to better our programs with a specific kid, and that’s different than having six [transfers] per year.”

For Ivy League coaches who pursue transfers, bringing in players with some college experience can help them address holes in their roster more quickly than bringing in and developing a freshman. Sometimes, that hole is a specific skillset, but it can also be less tangible. For example, one reason McLaughlin brought in Florida transfer Floor Toonders as a junior in 2022-23 was to add experience on a relatively young roster. And facing several injuries this offseason, Harvard head coach Carrie Moore needed more depth and added Zarić.

Taking transfers can also give coaches second chances in recruiting. Both of Columbia’s transfers — Collins and sophomore Ava Sciolla — were players Griffith targeted out of high school. And transfers can also help coaches fill open roster spots if their high school recruiting targets commit elsewhere.

“I think the best thing about it is if your [recruits] early don’t work out, you could potentially have room later” to add a transfer, Griffith said. “So it just gives you a little security.”

However, other Ivy coaches have largely eschewed transfers. Griffith and Moore, both former Princeton assistants, said that Princeton didn’t consider transfers under Courtney Banghart, who led the program from 2007 to 2019. Banghart’s successor, Carla Berube, hasn’t taken one, either.

“I don’t even know how to get in [the portal],” Berube told The Next, though she added that one of her assistant coaches looks at it occasionally.

“We don’t have any room for anybody. And I really love to bring in freshmen and develop them and keep them for four years, [rather] than to be fishing in that transfer portal,” Berube said. “… That’s not to say that it never would happen, but it’s not on the top of my list of things to do.”

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Recruiting transfers into the Ivy League is extremely challenging — even harder than finding the right freshmen, McLaughlin said. According to The Next’s analysis of Ivy schools’ transfer policies, the eight schools generally require about half or more of the credits needed for graduation to be completed at their institution, so transfers can only enter as sophomores or juniors.

In addition, making sure players’ credits will transfer into the Ivy League can be a challenge, and there’s also the financial piece. The Ivy League doesn’t offer athletic scholarships, so transfers may have to pay for college for the first time if they don’t receive need-based financial aid.

“it’s our job as a coach to educate them,” McLaughlin said. “… You kind of paint a picture, not much different than you do with a high school [recruit]. We have to walk through their academics with them and the financial aid responsibilities.”

If all that wasn’t challenging enough, recruiting transfers moves much faster than recruiting high school players. In some cases, relationships with high school players are developed over years; with transfers, it’s often a matter of weeks. That’s one reason why re-recruiting players a coaching staff targeted out of high school can be a good strategy.

“You’re in this sprint, almost, like, All right, can we do it?” Griffith said. “You just have to get to know people really quickly.”

Fourth-year Brown head coach Monique LeBlanc hasn’t taken a transfer in her current job, but she did as the head coach at Merrimack and plans to consider them at Brown. “My understanding from my other Division I head coaching friends is that these kids, like, fly off the shelf in the portal,” she told The Next. “And in the Ivy League, sometimes it’s like, ‘Yeah, so we need your high school transcript. We need your college transcripts.’ So I think the recruiting process moves even faster with the transfer portal sometimes, and the Ivy League is still going to move at our pace, which is just going to be a little bit more pragmatic.”

Transferring can be a whirlwind for players, too. Application deadlines come up quickly, so players have to be on top of things. Sometimes, they have to finish their application while they’re still deciding whether the school is right for them.

“It was a little bit stressful, but the coaches [at Columbia] were really helpful,” Collins told The Next. “They didn’t rush me at all. They kind of just said, ‘You’ll have to get [the application] in by this time, but we don’t need you to commit at any time. We’ll wait.’ And … I think that kind of built my relationship even more with them.”

McKenzie Forbes decided she wanted to transfer to Harvard after playing her freshman year at Cal in 2018-19. But Harvard’s application deadline had already passed, so she waited a year to apply, despite knowing that Harvard accepts less than 1% of transfer applicants. (Coaches can generally support transfer student-athletes’ applications, similar to the admissions process for freshmen recruits.) Forbes was finally accepted as a sophomore for 2020-21 — but she would have to wait another year to play for the Crimson after the Ivy League canceled the 2020-21 season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In some cases, transfers have to interview with admissions as part of their application. Zarić unknowingly channeled former Harvard coach Kathy Delaney-Smith’s mantra, “Act as if,” for her interview:

“I was really confident and I acted like I belonged in Harvard, and that’s what really got me in, I think. So I also had a lot of people who supported me, obviously — the staff and my team and my family. So I was really confident I was going to get in, so that’s what I projected and that’s what I got. So I manifested it, in a way.”

Five Penn players huddle with head coach Mike McLaughlin during a game. They all look toward him as he speaks.
Penn players, including transfers Sydnei Caldwell (22) and Floor Toonders (third from left), huddle with head coach Mike McLaughlin (second from left) during a game against Columbia at the Palestra in Philadelphia, Pa., on Jan. 7, 2023. (Photo credit: Mike Nance)

After transfer student-athletes are accepted and join their Ivy League teams, the time it takes for them to adjust to their new team and style of play varies, just like with freshmen.

Toonders was an immediate starter at Penn, averaging 30.6 minutes per game last season. “I think the transition went quite smoothly,” she told reporters this fall. “The team helped me greatly on and off the court, and I think as we rolled into practices, I think I felt like I just fit in here.”

On the other hand, Jaida Patrick, who transferred from Duke to Columbia as a junior in 2021-22, saw her minutes fluctuate for much of her first season with the Lions. She went scoreless for three straight games in Ivy League play that January. But she became a starter in mid-February, and the following season, she was named Second Team All-Ivy League.

Overall, transfers into the Ivy League since 2012-13 have been relatively impactful. They have been evenly split between sophomores and juniors, and the vast majority (83%) have been guards. On average, they played 15.7 minutes and scored 4.5 points per game at their initial schools, and they upped that to 24.4 minutes and 8.0 points per game in the Ivy League.*

Four transfers since 2012-13 have averaged 10 or more points per game in at least one season in the Ivy League: Forbes; Patrick; Harvard’s Taylor Rooks; and Cornell’s Laura Bagwell Katalinich, who transferred from Penn and is the only intra-conference transfer since 2012. Those four all earned All-Ivy recognition, and two transfers — Patrick and Penn’s Kasey Chambers — have won Ivy League regular-season championships.

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Among the transfers competing in the Ivy League this season, Collins has stood out. She is averaging 11.4 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.2 assists in 24.4 minutes per game, while shooting 47.8% from the field and 43.5% from 3-point range.

“I have never seen a kid so quickly acclimate themselves to a new team’s culture,” Griffith said.

“Going into a new environment is an adjustment,” Collins said. “… It’s weird coming in: You have two years under your belt and all these people already know each other. But … [my teammates have] made it so easy to just come in and be a part of the family. So yeah, it’s been a good transition.”

Toonders, meanwhile, is working her way back into form after sustaining a foot injury in the preseason. Through five games played, she’s averaging 4.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 0.8 blocks in 19.2 minutes per game.

Dartmouth senior Mekkena Boyd and junior Leiya Stuart have each played in nine games off the bench. Boyd was a starter in the previous two seasons but now provides an offensive boost as a reserve, averaging 4.7 points on 47.1% 3-point shooting in 15.3 minutes per game. Stuart is primarily used as a defensive specialist late in quarters.

Neither Zarić nor Sciolla has played a lot yet, but their coaches both expect them to be difference-makers at some point this season. Griffith recently told Sciolla about Patrick’s acclimation period and reminded her to stay the course.

Columbia guard Ava Sciolla has her eyes up as she holds the ball on the left side of her body. A Wagner player is in front of her in a defensive stance.
Columbia guard Ava Sciolla (2) surveys the court during a game against Wagner at Levien Gymnasium in New York, N.Y., on Dec. 10, 2023. (Photo credit: Columbia University Athletics / Josh Wang)

However, even with the success transfers have had in the Ivy League, there is still much less emphasis on recruiting them than in virtually any other Division I conference. That is unlikely to change, coaches say. Four-year players will continue to be the foundation of the league, and transfers can occasionally be the missing piece.

“I think the Ivy League is going to continue to be the league that has the most four-year players,” LeBlanc said, “and I think that’s really cool.”

* These before-and-after statistics were calculated using Her Hoop Stats data for the 2011-12 through 2022-23 seasons and only include Division I competition. Caitlyn Smith, who transferred from Palm Beach State College, a junior college, to Cornell ahead of the 2018-19 season, is excluded from these statistics but not from the other data in this article.

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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