Washington State may find out restricting transfers doesn’t end well

When will universities learn that blocking the options of players transferring from their school never ends well?

Apparently, not soon enough.

In this edition of a school holding a player hostage from the university he would like to visit, Washington State has placed restrictions on where 6-foot-11 junior center Valentine Izundu can transfer. Before getting into those issues though, let’s introduce you to Izundu, a player you might not be familiar with if you live outside of Pullman, Washington.

Izundu is a defensive-minded center who blocked 2.2 shots per game last season, but is limited offensively as he only scored 3.8 points per game. He’s also a good student, and he’ll be graduating in the spring with a 3.0-plus grade-point-average, meaning he will be eligible to play immediately starting next season. He was on the Pac-12’s All-Academic team this season due to his performance both on and off the floor.

Basically, he’s a solid, athletic, intelligent player who will absolutely have a market for his services, but he’s also not a guy that’s going to be changing the entire fortunes of either Washington State or the team he transfers to next season. This isn’t a five-star prospect that drastically alters the ceiling for the Cougars or any other team. So already, the question exists as to why the school would make it a point to stop him above all other players from going to a school of his choosing. But the nature of the restriction is so entirely over-the-top that it would be comical if it wasn’t also infuriating.

When Izundu received his release, the school disallowed him from contacting 26 schools. That list includes the entire Pac-12 and the non-conference schedule that the Cougars play next season. Oh, and it also includes San Diego State.

Why San Diego State? You’re going to have to sit back and read this one to believe it.

In March, Izundu and teammate Que Johnson — also transferring from the university, which we’ll get to momentarily — decided to take their spring break in San Diego to relax and get away from school after Washington State’s 9-22 season ended. While on that trip, Izundu got tickets to San Diego State’s opening round NIT game against IPFW through a friend that lives in the city.

Izundu, Johnson, and the friend attended the game. He says that at no point did he have communications with the San Diego State staff, as they were unable to talk to him due to NCAA tampering bylaws. For its part, when reached by CBS Sports for comment, San Diego State was unable to discuss the matter in any way, shape, or form.

Still, Izundu liked what he saw in San Diego and decided that he would like to contact them in order to see if it would be a fit. After all, he got to hang out on the beach, and the Aztecs have an opening inside for a big man due to the graduations of Skylar Spencer, Angelo Chol and Winston Shepard. It would seem like a really good fit for the big man who has decided to move on from his current surroundings.

Instead, Washington State and coach Ernie Kent have blocked that desire, both in its initial release and in a subsequent appeal involving three academic officials unaffiliated with the athletic department, the compliance director, and a supervisor. Why?

When contacted regarding this story, the university officially offered no comment at this time. However, in an email obtained by CBS Sports, the committee that heard Izundu’s appeal believed that tampering took place.

“The committee has decided to uphold the Athletic Department and Coach Kent’s decision to deny permission to contact to San Diego State University” the email reads. “The committee felt that tampering has taken place (improper communication through a third party) and that was the key factor in the committee’s decision.”

Izundu has a different perspective.

“I’ve never talked to any coach (at San Diego State),” Izundu told CBS Sports. “Any one of them. But since (Kent) knows I want to go there, he blocked me because he’s mad I’m leaving. I tried to show him all the texts on my phone, all my emails, all my bank statements. All the stuff like that. I think he knows that I wasn’t tampered with, but he just doesn’t want me to go there because I’m leaving so he’s mad about that.”

Valentine Izundu and Ernie Kent aren't exactly on the best terms. (USATSI)
Valentine Izundu and Ernie Kent aren’t exactly on the best terms. (USATSI)

Kent is dealing with a roster that currently faces major upheaval. Including Izundu, four players have left the team this offseason, and a further three have declared for the NBA Draft. The coach may also feel a pang of leadership and necessity to his fellow coaches, as Kent is a director on the National Association of Basketball Coaches and has, in recent years, tried to game plan a way to stem the tide of transfers.

To make this matter even more problematic for Washington State, it seems to have applied its standard inconsistently, as well. As noted above, Izundu’s teammate Johnson is also transferring. Indeed, when Johnson received his release, San Diego State was blocked from communication, along with 27 other schools. Johnson appealed to the committee, and was granted partial relief as Washington State dropped eight of the schools from his list, including San Diego State.

Given that Johnson attended the game with Izundu and seems to have had just as much contact with San Diego State as his teammate, what makes his case different than Izundu’s?

“I was just confused as to why he didn’t block Que,” Izundu said. “Why did he take San Diego State off Que’s release? We were both there together, and he chose to block me. I didn’t do anything wrong, that’s why I’m mad. I didn’t talk to any of the coaches. I wouldn’t be taking it this far if I talked to anyone on the coaching staff.

“I’m just shocked. I don’t know. It’s just shocking, pretty much. I thought after the hearing I would get it lifted, but when they blocked it again I was just confused.”

So here we have it again. We’ve written before at CBS Sports on how restricting the options of unpaid student-athletes in any way is wrong. Typically, in the heat of what can be emotional moments following transfers, the schools are the last people to realize it. We’ve seen it dozens of times before where a school restricts a player from contacting a school before relenting. Austin Nichols at Memphis last year was an example, as the school initially refused to grant his release at all before giving him a full one. Spike Albrecht and Ricky Doyle this offseason is yet another, as Michigan tried to restrict them from transferring within the Big Ten before allowing them a full release.

The common denominators here are that every time something like this happens, it’s not only wrong, but it turns into a publicly bad look for the school involved. And every time that happens, the school eventually is forced to rescind its restrictions on the transfer.

Washington State is just the next university in a long line of them to realize this too late, and it’s doing it in a case where it seems the student-athlete believes the restriction is out of spite rather than out of principle. If Washington State has some sort of proof that Izundu was tampered with, it is imperative on them to come forward with it beyond the shadowy doings of a committee that Izundu believes had predisposition to vote against him. To me, the burden of proof is on them, given that San Diego State is a school that doesn’t apply by any typical schedule-based restriction. Otherwise, it’s a conflicting story that involves wrongfully restricting an unpaid amateur athlete who until proven otherwise has done all of the right things to this point in his career.

There’s also the fact that for a school that is the midst of a rebuild, it doesn’t do anyone any good to continue like this and restrict its student-athletes. Players and coaches talk, and it seems rather unlikely that the program will be getting rave reviews from its students if this kind of behavior continues. Plus, there’s just simply the fact that it’s wrong to treat college basketball players differently than other students who are allowed to transfer as they please, and to restrict unpaid amateur athletes in any regard. Especially ones like Valentine Izundu who have performed exceedingly well academically and just want a new opportunity.

Eventually, schools will learn that kids like Izundu deserve freedom to do what they want with transfers. Until then though, we’ll keep writing about how silly it is to restrict unpaid student athletes from doing what they want to do.


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