Transfer portal forces reflection, changes for Arizona men’s and women’s basketball programs

Arizona’s Kerr Kriisa is among the players the Wildcats are losing to the transfer portal and said on his podcast, “It’s sad to leave Tucson but it is what it is.” (File photo by Wesley Johnson/Cronkite News)

TUCSON – Following a disappointing March Madness campaign for the Arizona men’s and women’s basketball programs, a flurry of players are ready to leave Tucson and enter the transfer portal. For coach Adia Barnes, a roster rebuild is on deck with six women leaving the program, and Tommy Lloyd now needs to plug a major hole in the Arizona lineup come the 2023-24 season.

Tucson is losing Kerr Kriisa and Adama Bal from the men’s side, while the women’s team must find a way to replace Paris Clark, Madi Conner, Lauren Ware, Lemyah Hylton, Lauren Fields and Kailyn Gilbert – all of whom have declared for the transfer portal this offseason.

The Arizona men’s team knew it would have to replace senior guard Cedric Henderson Jr. and Country Ramey, both no longer have eligibility, for the 2023-24 season. Now the Wildcats are saying goodbye to a promising young talent in Bal and the Pac-12 leader in assists, Kriisa.

Kriisa announced his decision to leave Tucson with an Instagram post on March 22.

It was no surprise that Kriisa would not shy away from explaining his reasoning for entering the transfer portal when he spoke on his podcast, “Speaking on A Nameless Podcast,” with co-hosts Josh Kahn and junior guard Pelle Larson shortly after making his decision.

“Honestly I just think it was good for a fresh start for me and obviously for the program,” Kriisa said. “I’m very grateful and thankful for the three years I was here. Looking around nowadays college basketball, there’s not a lot of guys who would be in one place for three years.

“I’m really happy I got into a good situation. Great coaches. So, I just feel really calm inside. I’m really happy, happy meaning I’m happy with my decision. Of course, it’s sad to leave Tucson but it is what it is.”

Later in the episode, Larsson asked Kriisa if was at peace with his decision, to which he responded, “If I’m at peace? Yeah.”

There is no argument about the ambivalence surrounding Kriisa in the college basketball world due to his on-the-court antics and boisterous play style. No matter the stance on him as a player, it is hard to replace the back-to-back Pac-12 leader in assists and the second player in Arizona history with 80 or more 3-pointers in consecutive seasons alongside Damon Stoudamire.

In three seasons with the Wildcats, Kriisa averaged 9.4 points, 2.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists. He also leaves with 177 made 3s (10th all-time in school history) and is one of three players to have multiple triple-doubles.

Kriisa announced just weeks later on Instagram that he will join Bob Huggins at West Virginia. Despite losing Kriisa, the program is still in good hands with one of the youngest players in college basketball.

“It was conceivable that Kriisa was going to come back, however, if he did, what would his role have been,” said college basketball writer Justin Spears. “You have this 17-year-old Kylan Boswell who got significantly better over the course of the season.

“He (Boswell) showed that he is the future of the program and that he’s going to be Arizona’s starting point guard next season.”

Bal had a different story with his time at Arizona. Fans expected the 2022-23 season to be his breakout year following a strong finish to the 2021-22 season that saw Bal come off the bench and make two big 3-pointers against UCLA in the Pac-12 championship win.

He scored a career-high 14 points in the season opener against Nicholls State but only managed to score more than five points in six games the rest of the season. Bal failed to crack the seven-man rotation Tommy Lloyd used toward the end of the season and finishes his Arizona career averaging two points in 6.5 minutes.

“For Adama Bal, it simply came down to playing time,” Spears said. “I think the writing was on the wall that he wasn’t going to quite fit with Tommy Lloyd and the future of the program.

“This year was really his one year to show that he’s made a significant jump from year one to year two and unfortunately for Arizona and Bal, he didn’t do that.”

Incoming 4-star combo guard KJ Lewis, and any other players Arizona brings in from the transfer portal, will likely take over the role Bal was eyeing.

The women’s team is a completely different story with only four players on the roster for the 2023-24 season.

Conner announced she will enter the transfer portal on her Instagram story, with the message,“Thank you Tucson!!! Here’s to new beginning.”

Arizona women’s basketball coach Adia Barnes must contend with six of her players entering the transfer portal, suggesting the Wildcats will have a new look in 2023-24. (File photo by Nathan Hiatt/Cronkite News)

Arizona women’s basketball coach Adia Barnes must contend with six of her players entering the transfer portal, suggesting the Wildcats will have a new look in 2023-24. (File photo by Nathan Hiatt/Cronkite News)

The former Arizona women’s basketball guard joined Arizona during the 2020-21 season as an early entrant and witnessed firsthand the road to the national championship game. During that two-and-a-half-year period, she averaged 5.1 points, 1.1 rebounds, and 0.7 assists while playing 12.6 minutes.

In each season, Conner’s improvements were on display on the stat sheet and on the court, filling in at the two, three and four positions this season due to lack of depth.

The strongest part of Conner’s game is undoubtedly at the charity stripe, where she made 45 of 48 free throws this season (93.8%).

Clark, a freshman guard, is the first McDonald’s All-American to leave the program after averaging 3.8 points in 13.3 minutes this season. Despite early season struggles, Clark came up with seven rebounds in their first-round win against West Virginia in the NCAA women’s tournament and 11 points in the season-ending loss to Maryland.

Ware dislocated her patella in the right knee minutes into a game against North Dakota State in December of 2021. Ware only missed four games due to COVID-19 protocol postponing a California road trip against USC and UCLA. She returned to the hardwood on Jan. 13, 2022, against Oregon State, playing 24 minutes.

During preseason training in preparation for the 2022-23 season, Ware bumped knees with a teammate and reinjured the same knee. She was expected to be available for conference play until it was decided surgery is the best course of action during the rehab process. This ended the 6-foot-5-inch junior’s season, a presence coach Barnes noted was a big blow inside for the undersized Wildcats.

Hylton was a top-rated international player in last year’s recruiting class but was unable to find a spot in the rotation during Arizona’s 2022-23 campaign. The freshman guard from Canada averaged 1.5 points, 1.1 rebounds and 8.1 minutes in the 15 games played.

Arizona is losing senior Lauren Fields and freshman guard Kailyn Gilbert, leaving a total of six Arizona women’s basketball players in the transfer portal. Both played in 32 games during the 2022-23 season, averaging just under five points a game.

This leaves one player from last year’s recruiting class still on the roster for UA.

“For Arizona, yes, it looks bad that a lot of players are leaving the program, but you have to look at the players coming in,” Spears said. “They have two McDonald’s All-Americans and the transfer portal they can use to get other players to come in. Arizona has a great freshman group that can be coupled with a bunch of high-end transfers.”

Those two McDonald’s All-Americans joining the Wildcats, Jada Williams and Breya Cunningham, will be ready to step in and make an immediate impact.

This is not an unprecedented scenario for Arizona, either, as Aari McDonald, Trinity Baptiste, and Bendu Yeaney, all who played a key role in the 2020-21 national runner-up run campaign, joined the program as transfers.

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Both the men’s and women’s programs have recruits incoming but with a talent-loaded transfer portal class, keep an eye out on who comes to join the Wildcats for the 2023-24 season.

An unintended consequence of the new transfer portal has been new players and completely new rosters for some programs, forcing coaches to tweak how their programs are run.

“I don’t think coaches will go from we slow it down, play zone, and try to score 50 points to we‘re going to press every second and score 100 points,” said former Arizona guard Matt Muehlebach. “I do think you’re going to see some subtle and more significant changes in how teams play because of player personal.”

“I’ve always said college coaches must be good at so many different things. Obviously, they have to be able to communicate with players but what I’ve seen as a side effect of this is coaches not only have to change their style, but they have to create a culture in just a matter of weeks or potentially months that coaches sometimes work on for years to put in place.”

The crazy part about the new transfer portal and the constant change revolving around the college basketball landscape, nobody knows what the future holds.

“Usually, we see these great changes happen over time, but we are able to see these significant changes in real-time,” Muehlebach said. “We are going to look back in five years and say, we probably could have predicted that, and maybe there are one or two things we didn’t predict of how this shakes out.”

Bennett Silvyn BEH-nit SIL-vin
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Bennett Silvyn expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in business, marketing and sports management. Silvyn has interned in marketing and social media for the Arizona Sports and Entertainment Commission, as a reporter for Arizona Foothills Magazine, in sponsorships for the Arizona Rattlers and in social and digital media for FC Tucson. Silvyn has also reported for the Walter Cronkite Sports Network and The State Press.