PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas -- North Carolina State coach Kevin Keatts knows he needs to work fast to bring along a team that added four transfers this season in key roles.
For coaches across college basketball in the transfer-portal era, playing in an early season tournament offers a boost in finding the right rotations, establishing roles and forging a team’s identity. Those chances come this week with holiday events like the Maui Invitational and the Phil Knight tournaments in Oregon.
For Keatts, it's the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas opening Wednesday with No. 3 Kansas, No. 22 Tennessee, Wisconsin, Southern California, Dayton, BYU and Butler.
“For us, it’s trying to figure out, ‘All right, where do we go from here? What steps?’" Keatts said Tuesday. "Obviously with transfers, you’re trying to get as much chemistry as you can. And it’s really hard to do it in practice situations. So you’re kind of thrown into the fire of the game.”
It’s a challenge facing coaches across the sport, first in the offseason with issues of roster management as players come and go while putting their names in the portal.
From there, it's about fully integrating those players and building cohesion.
“That's the world of transfers,” Massachusetts coach Frank Martin said last week before winning the Myrtle Beach Invitational. “That's the hardest thing we as coaches deal with. Everyone's brand new. The beginning of the season, it's a get-to-know ceremony for lack of a better word.”
Kansas coach Bill Self sees it, too. His reigning national champions brought in 6-foot-6 wing Kevin McCullar from Texas Tech, and McCullar has started all four games for the Jayhawks entering Wednesday's Atlantis opener against N.C. State.
“Whether it be transfers or incoming freshmen, I think that a lot of people get a false sense that you can actually become a team a heck of a lot earlier in the season than you actually can,” said Self, who will make his season debut on the bench after serving a four-game suspension tied to an NCAA infractions case.
“There's not one team here yet. Everybody will become a team at some point in time this season, but it usually doesn't happen in early November. We didn't become a team last year until February."
That’s why Dayton coach Anthony Grant, who brought in forward Tyrone Baker from Georgia, says teams are “still in that discovery stage.”
These tournaments have long been part of the early stages of forging a team’s identity, though it was typically with new recruits joining returning veterans. Now, though, there's far more roster turnover and upheaval with players able to move freely from school to school. And that means even experienced players are still learning their way at new programs.
It takes months of pickup games for new players to understand how their teammates play, down to precisely where they want the ball thrown for a catch-and-shoot call. Or a long series of practice reps to better understand new systems and terminologies.
But ultimately, nothing pushes that forward more than playing in full arenas with national TV broadcasts. And at the Atlantis resort, that means three games in three potentially revealing days.
“They’re necessary because there’s a really important set of data points that you need,” BYU coach Mark Pope said. “So many more programs are dealing with new rosters and new kinds of fits. So kind of this race towards understanding your team is even bigger.”
Rudi Williams played last season at Coastal Carolina and also had stops at Kansas State and Northeastern Oklahoma A&M dating to the 2018-19 season. Now he's starting for Pope's Cougars.
“It takes time, and you have to understand that,” he said. “So far, I’ve been understanding that really well because I’m an older guy and this is not my first time moving around. So I understand there's going to be some rough patches with a new team, new setting, new style, new pace — all that stuff.”
Eric Hunter Jr. has seen those challenges now that he's moved to Butler, which is in the first season of a second stint under veteran coach Thad Matta. The Purdue graduate transfer joins former N.C. State big man Manny Bates and Georgia State transfer Jalen Thomas — who has yet to play while being treated for a pulmonary embolism — as new additions.
“I think a big part of this move, this transfer for me, was being able to have patience,” Hunter said. “Because you kind of make a decision like that to go get results. It’s just the natural human aspect of that. Just know it’s just like everything else — you’ve got to have patience.”
That applies for coaches and fans alike.
“I would say this tournament is a big deal because it helps you grow as a team with the transfers," Williams said, adding: “When we come back from this trip, we'll know if we got better or we'll know what we have to work on.”
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