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Why Rhea’s Transfer is Exciting for SeattleU & Troubling for Slumping Oregon State

Update - 4/21/10: Statement from the Oregon State athletic director about transfers

Perhaps I'm the only one who finds the unfolding story of Seattle University transitioning into Division I interesting just on principle.

However, I think we can say at the very least that a Pac-10 player has choosing to transfer to an independent transitioning Division I school without a conference makes it "more" interesting at the very least. 

When I first tried to explain the significance of Oregon State's Talisa Rhea transferring to Seattle University - a team that went 6-24 in its first year of Division I competition - a Big 12 friend of mine asked, "Is that like Jene Morris transferring to San Diego State?"

Not quite.

Morris transferred from California to San Diego State - a full fledged Division I institution - after a solid freshman year. Compared to a talented Cal team, she stood to increase her minutes and role on the team with a transfer. Of course that decision ended up paying off for her: she just capped her career with a senior year Sweet 16 run in 2010 and being selected #11 in the 2010 WNBA Draft, higher than former Cal teammate Alexis Gray-Lawson.

Although Oregon State's dreary 2-16 conference record was nothing to write home about, Rhea was the team's leading scorer and the 7th leading scorer in the Pac-10, played 34.3 minutes a game, was the team's go-to player in terms of usage rate, and was heading into her senior year. To do that against Pac-10 competition demonstrates at the very least that she's a legit Division I player. Rhea now joins a SeattleU team that was composed of almost entirely Division II players last season, although they often managed to compete with more than one Division I program.

The point is this: as a player that was unquestionably the leader of a Pac-10 team - even a bad one -- she is making a rather startling decision to sit out a year to play with a generally less talented roster. A rotation player transferring from a major conference in hopes of helping a smaller program grow may not be terribly uncommon in college sports; a team leader going from a major conference to a smaller program that just completed its first year of Division I competition seems immediately startling, though not necessarily illogical.

The only thing those two situations might have in common is that in both cases players opted for a coach trying to build a program at a small institution. Beyond that, it would be hard to imagine someone casting Rhea's transfer as anything resembling routine. Compared to the SeattleU men's team who generated a buzz with the junior college transfer of dynamic 6'10" forward Charles Garcia who emerged as a NBA prospect, Rhea's transfer might be even bigger -- it's quite a symbolic statement to leave a bigger and much more visible program for one still struggling to establish itself, professional level talent or not.

And as of yet, there's been no explanation given.

SeattleU was unable to confirm specifics about the reason for the transfer and Oregon State has not yet responded to a request for comment. So all we know right now is probably the obvious: at some point, Rhea requested a release from her scholarship and Oregon State granted it.

"We didn't talk with Talisa until she was officially released from OSU," said SeattleU coach Joan Bonvicini in an email to Swish Appeal.

Given the information we have, there is certainly nothing scandalous or earth shattering about the transfer. As Michelle Smith suggested that this transfer was not surprising because there seems to be a trend of transfers.

" Grass is greener for many players
Two days, two announcements that key players on two Pac-10 teams are leaving their respective programs.

If only the news that Oregon State’s leading scorer Talisa Rhea is transferring to Seattle University – or that point guards Kiki Moore and Danielle Lenoir are leaving Washington State — came as a surprise. Talisa Rhea - Oregon State athletics.

But it’s not, not a surprise at all because player movement in the Pac-10 seems to have become commonplace in recent years. It’s more commonplace every place, in fact.

Smith's angle is as level-headed as it is provocative: transfers are commonplace. On the surface, a star choosing to transfer from a team coming off a bad season is not exciting by itself. And it might be an exaggeration to call the transfer "shocking" - OSU is clearly a struggling program and Bonvicini had established a relationship with Rhea while recruiting her to the University of Arizona.

However, while it's true that the mere fact of a transfer might be banal and just a matter of a competitive coach trying to build a competitive program, the lack of scandal or drama surrounding this transfer does not negate the fact that within the pattern of transfers this one still seems a bit outside the norm. Most significantly, while it might stand as a sign of trouble for the Oregon State program, it is big news for a SeattleU program that is still trying to establish itself on a regional, much less Top 25, landscape.

While "surprising" may not be the right word and it might be difficult to establish that such a transfer is "unprecedented", we can at least call it what it is:

Significant news for women's basketball in the Northwest and the Pac-10.

When Rhea faced the Redhawks in a 64-48 Oregon State victory on December 18th, she was by far the best player on the court. The game not only establishes her talent, but might also best represent what Redhawks fans can expect her to bring to the floor in 2011 after she redshirts this coming year.

Rhea's game-high 20 points showed off her scoring ability and she was the one who ignited a 17-2 second half run. However it was her ability to get to the free throw line that game that might have been more impressive. Rhea shot 7-8 from the free throw line for an outstanding free throw rate of 51.14%. From watching Rhea a few times this past season, it's the way that she gets those free throws that's most impressive - she's a crafty player with the ball who knows how to get her shot, even if it's not always falling at high percentages.

The very idea that a player would willingly transfer to a team that she helped to defeat convincingly seems odd enough; the fact that she would redshirt her final year of eligibility to do so seems even more odd.

However, perhaps Bonvicini's lofty goals help to make sense of this move.

Bonvicini came to SeattleU not only trying to establish a winning attitude, but also striving to place her team  in the Top 25 by her third year. However, as lofty an aim as that might seem, the chances of OSU turning it around in a talented Pac-10 conference in one year is not necessarily less of a gamble than the prospects of SeattleU developing into a competitive team by the 2012 NCAA tournament. Most of all, despite all the losing, Bonvicini was clearly unhappy with it for most of the season -- she's a competitive coach that expects her team to win and showed frustration throughout the season in the face of mounting losses. Certainly, for a player that suffered through a 2-16 Pac-10 conference performance, the attitude alone could be refreshing.

Yet even with that reasoning, it seems like there must be something else to this story.

"She wanted a new start," said Bonvicini in her email to Swish Appeal. "I'm really not concerned with her reasons to leave OSU -- more concerned that she wants to be a part of our program and my vision at SeattleU."

Nevertheless, for Oregon State fans this transfer has to be seen as troubling, to say the least.

To lose a senior leading scorer and arguably most consistent and efficient scorer is a big blow. For a team that featured 7 underclassmen last season, the loss of leadership alone should be of concern. Fans can may find solace in the fact that sophomore Kristen Tilleman and junior transfer El Sara Greer were statistically more valuable to the team - Rhea had low shooting percentages while Tilleman was the best rebounder on the team and Greer the most efficient scorer. Freshman Haiden Palmer was more turnover prone and shot less threes than Rhea, but certainly showed the potential to become a reliable scoring threat, posting similar efficienct and usage numbers as Rhea. But that still doesn't negate a disturbing routine of transfers from this program.

However, while fans can speculate about what this means for OSU head coach Lavonda Wagner without know the reasoning behind Rhea's transfer, it's hard to say with any precision what the problem is. What we do know is that one way or another, OSU lost a very talented player - arguably it's best basketball player overall - to a program that in every way imaginable is inferior.

The implicit statement is that while OSU is headed into a season of uncertainty, SeattleU is on the upswing and Bonvicini's vision has already started to attract talent.

Of course, there's temptation to take this a step further and make claims about what this means for the Pac-10, a conference that many people felt was on the decline this season. What does it say about the conference that a team is struggling so bad that she'd transfer to a school that is near the bottom of RPI ratings nationwide? Does it hurt the image or quality of the Pac-10 for an all-conference player to bolt? As Smith suggested in her article, what would it mean for even more players to transfer out of Corvalis? However, those larger questions are probably out of place here and likely reactionary.

Even if this story never becomes relevant on the national landscape, the story of an intensely competitive coach trying to build a competitive program from scratch is compelling enough for me. Rhea's transfer adds another level of intrigue, surprising or not.

Update - 4/21/10: Statement from the Oregon State athletic director about transfers