HARRISONBURG — By Friday, Ithiel Horton plans to announce his new school.
The 6-3 guard, who averaged more than 13 points per game and shot 40.9 percent from 3-point range as a freshman at Delaware last season, announced near the end of June he was leaving the Blue Hens and will choose between Arkansas and Pittsburgh after hearing from a long list of major-conference schools including Virginia Tech, Miami, Marquette and UCLA.
It was a late, and potentially devestating, blow to Delaware, which had figured to have one of the strongest backcourts in what might be a wide-open Colonial Athletic Association race in the upcoming season.
Horton is also just the latest in a long list of standout CAA players transferring out of the conference this offseason, and it’s an issue — including the perception the league is being raided by major conferences — that is near the top of the list of concerns for CAA coaches.
“We had a long conversation among the coaches at the CAA coaches meeting,” James Madison head man Louis Rowe said. “The CAA in general has lost some really good players, and I don’t know if any of those players wound up in better situations.”
Not every situation involving a player leaving the CAA has been the same. At William & Mary, for instance, several players put their name in the NCAA transfer portal after coach Tony Shaver was fired. Three of them wound up transferring to bigger-conference programs.
But the late departure of Horton at Delaware signals a tougher issue for the league, which is major-conference teams poaching players who had otherwise indicated they were happy at their current school.
“We had a kid get through two and a half weeks of summer school, then all of the sudden another school or two didn’t get a guy they wanted and they go out recruiting," said Delaware coach Martin Inglesby. "That’s a hard pill to swallow.”
JMU had a similar situation come up in the spring. According to sources close to the program, rising junior guard Matt Lewis, who was third-team All-CAA as a sophomore, met with Madison coaches to discuss his options after hearing of interest from major conference schools, including some in the Big Ten and ACC.
Lewis eventually decided to stay at JMU and never even put his name in the transfer portal, but situations such as Horton’s and Lewis’ suggest the portal hasn’t eliminated the back-channel recruiting of signed players as was intended.
The transfer portal is essentially a master list of players who have expressed an interest in transferring available to employees of NCAA schools. Making the list available was supposed to lessen instances of recruiting players already on scholarship at other schools.
But punishment for poaching rosters is rare and for mid major leagues such as the CAA the Horton and Lewis cases indicate it’s still significant issue.
“It’s a new world we’re operating in and some schools are handling it a little differently as far as recruiting” Inglesby said. “It’s something we have to handle, but we’ve had some really good young freshmen come into our program who have left after a year or two.”
In recent weeks, the NCAA has adjusted its policy on waivers to make players immediately eligible upon transfer, making such a waiver more difficult to get. That could affect the CAA in multiple ways as the league also welcomes many transfers from major conferences who may be looking for more playing time.
Delaware will add 6-10 Villanova transfer Dylan Painter at mid-season while Wisconsin transfer Andy Van Vliet will be eligible at William & Mary this year.
“I think the goal of the transfer portal was to provide an opportunity for the student athletes,” Dane Fischer, the new coach at William & Mary, said. “The way it was done before, they had to go in, ask for a release, get it signed...all that made it challenging. But with any process there are unintended consequences. I haven’t had to deal with any of that in terms of teams contacting players that are not in the transfer portal, but I’m sure it’s happening at other places.”
UNC Wilmington is another CAA program that’s had a busy offseason on the transfer front. Forward Jeantal Cylla was among the Seahawks to leave the program, transferring to Arkansas while the UNCW has added transfers from Florida, Washington State and Eastern Kentucky.
UNCW third-year coach C.B. McGrath, who was an assistant at Kansas and North Carolina before taking over the Seahawks has seen how it works at schools of multiple levels, but wasn’t sure how much the transfer portal had changed the game overall.
“I think every situation is different,” McGrath said. “I don’t think I’m getting kids recruited away, necessarily, but maybe. I just don’t know. We had players enter the portal, but those were all situations we were aware of during the season or shortly after the season ended.”
Coaches across the conference agreed convincing players they could achieve their goals in the CAA was key to the league going forward and were quick to point out College of Charleston’s Jarrell Brantley and Hofstra’s Justin Wright-Foreman were picked in last month’s NBA Draft.
But some worry that without stronger enforcement coaches from major conference may continue to poach talent with promises of greener pastures.
“You’re seeing a little bit of a recruiting strategy change from high-major schools,” Ingelsby said. “They are maybe not taking as many high school players. I feel we are a little bit of a minor league developing talent for them at this point, and that’s really unfortunate.”