'It was the best decision for me': Men's college basketball players on why they transferred

Moussa Cisse, left, and Nijel Pack are two recent transfers who spoke with ESPN about their decision to change programs. Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

A decade ago, 400 men's college basketball players decided to find new schools and entered the transfer portal. Then, coaches called it an "epidemic." Today, with the numbers soaring past 1,700 today -- in part because the NCAA is allowing immediate eligibility -- some of the game's top programs see the transfer portal as a key building block. Some coaches have even said they'll put more energy into identifying transfers to assemble their roster than high school prospects.

That's a significant change in the culture of the sport. Name, image and likeness rights meanwhile have only complicated the choices thousands of college basketball players will make in the years ahead. But currently, there are more stories about the transfer portal than there are about the individuals who have made the choice to switch programs.

Transfer players are not a monolith. Each one has a different reason for leaving and making the leap to a new school.

ESPN caught up with multiple top transfers in men's college basketball -- some who transferred this summer, and others who transferred in the past -- to learn about their decisions and the process that helped them make their final choices.

Jump to: Nijel Pack | Osun Osunniyi | Rasir Bolton | Malachi Smith | Jack Nunge | Moussa Cisse

The best of Nijel Pack's 2021-22 season

Watch Nijel Pack's best plays from the 2021-22 season as he transfers to the Miami Hurricanes.

Nijel Pack (Kansas State Wildcats to Miami Hurricanes)

Secured all-Big 12 first team honors in 2021-22 after averaging 17.4 PPG and connecting on 44% of his 3-point attempts for the Wildcats. Entered the transfer portal when Bruce Weber resigned after 10 seasons at the helm. ESPN reported that Pack received an NIL package that includes $800,000 over two years and a car, via billionaire John Ruiz, following his transfer to Miami.

What made you pick Kansas State initially?

Obviously, I love coach Bruce Weber. When I took my visit down there, I felt like I could see myself there. I had a feeling in my gut and in my heart that I didn't have when I took a visit to any other place. So I kind of knew that was the spot for me. And they were like the first high-major school to really take a chance with me. That stuck with me. And that's why I kept my commitment with them the whole time.

When did you know it was time to think about transferring?

When Coach Weber was officially let go or resigned, or whatever happened, I stepped back and talked to my parents. We were going to be patient with the process, and see who the new coach was. But I felt like being in the transfer portal was the best option, so that's what I did.

Who helped you make that decision?

My close circle, which would be my parents, my brother and sister. I have a trainer I've been working with for three, four years. He's also in that close circle. But it's really tight like that. We sat down and talked. We weighed all the pros and cons of the schools I was considering, and it came down to, the University of Miami was the best decision for me.

What was your team's and coaching staff's response?

Some people were upset, some people were happy. It's life. People gotta make the best decisions for themselves, and this is one of the best decisions I've had to make to evolve my game, to take myself to the next level. It was hard. I didn't want to leave my brothers I made at Kansas State, but that's just how life is. Things and people move on. It's nothing but the best and love for the guys I had at Kansas State.

What was the recruitment process like the second time around?

Obviously, it was a little different, not that you know exactly what to expect. Coming out of high school, you can be fooled by things. Now, you kind of know what to expect, what to trust and what to believe, and that's what made it easier. I didn't use up all of my visits, but I made the three that I thought were the most important.

It was definitely a long and grinding process. I was grateful, and it was a blessing to have the schools and everybody that reached out and had interest in me.

How did NIL factor into it?

Everybody kind of thinks NIL is my No. 1 reason, but it's really not. Not at all. I had a lot of options that were way in front of that. NIL just happened to come with it. Coach Larrañaga and what he has for me, and what he has in store -- I'm thinking long term more than just right now. So NIL is not even one of my top [factors] in my decision.

It's just funny to me, how I've grown enough to the point where people's comments and concerns and their opinions on things don't really faze me anymore. Everybody that's close to me and around me is happy with the things I've been blessed with. And the people that are not, obviously they're not part of my close circle.

Why did you finally pick Miami?

Coach Larrañaga. His success with smaller guards: Shane Larkin, a few other guys. When I came on my visit, he had the proof and the track record behind it to show he's able to help guys my size get to the next level. They had a great year, and are coming off the Elite Eight run. A lot of guys are returning from that squad, so we're going to have a really good team next year. I wanted to join a good, gritty squad. I wanted to join the school where I had the best fit, where I could be a point guard. That's what I really wanted out of the transfer portal.

Being the point guard, I felt like the head coach and the point guard have to have that closer bond than anybody else on the team, so I felt like I needed to find a coach I could relate to and build the quickest and the best bond with. Coach, I felt like he had that great bond and relationship with his point guards, and a lot of trust in his point guards. That's what I want out of a coach.

I'm also definitely enjoying the shorts and T-shirts season all year. Definitely.

Osun Osunniyi (St. Bonaventure Bonnies to Iowa State Cyclones)

Averaged 11.3 PPG, 7.5 RPG and 2.9 BPG for a St. Bonaventure squad that lost to Xavier, 84-77, in the 2022 NIT semifinals. Named Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year for 2021-22.

What made you pick St. Bonaventure initially?

Out of high school, I didn't have that many Division I offers. I was actually signed to La Salle University. But after the head coach got fired from my prep school, I was trying to figure out a place that was the same level [as La Salle] that would give me a great opportunity to showcase [my talents] and get better as a player. St. Bonaventure was in the Atlantic 10. I knew the point guard there. The point guard on my prep school team was going there, too. He kind of helped me with the recruiting process, so that made it easier, having a guy I'd already played with for a year, and having that chemistry.

When did you know it was time to think about transferring?

I think it was when my point guard [Kyle Lofton, who left for Florida] went into the portal. One of my teammates, he decided to go pro [Jalen Adaway], and the other three seniors with me, they decided they wanted to go into the portal, so I thought it was best for me to make the same decision and try to find a place where I could play at a little bit of a higher level and showcase my talent on a higher stage.

It was a tough decision. All of us, all of the seniors, had multiple conversations after the season and as we were going through the whole process, if we were going to stay or not. Ultimately, we decided it was best for us to leave.

Who helped you make that decision?

[My parents] were just saying to keep them in the loop about what I was doing. And then we went to one of my old coaches, Tray Woodall [now an assistant at Fordham]. He was my coach my sophomore and junior years. He was a players' coach first. So I turned to him and asked him what he thought I should do, and where he thought that I would be able to play, what systems I should be looking to play in.

What was your team's and coaching staff's response?

They wanted me to stay. [But] they never made it seem like it was a bad decision. They told me to be careful because it's always risky to go into the portal at my age with situations like that, especially having one year left of college. Ultimately in the end, they supported me. They made sure that I was going to the right spot, and finding a school where I would have the minutes to be able to get better and show myself to the GMs and scouts at the next level.

What was the recruitment process like the second time around?

It was really shocking. Because coming out of high school, I didn't have that many offers. And then I went into the transfer portal and having a lot of schools that called me and showed interest, it gave me a sign of appreciation and accomplishment. That my hard work is paying off coming from where I came from: having two Division I offers coming out of high school and then doing four years of college and having 12 or 13 Power 5 schools interested in me. It was a really good feeling for me.

How did NIL factor into it?

For me, it wasn't ultimately about name, image and likeness. The whole decision, this is like a million-dollar decision for me. I mean, I could take a certain amount of NIL deals with certain schools, but then not get the best player development to help me get to the NBA, where I can make millions, hopefully. It was mainly just about finding a place where I'm going to get better and show scouts things that they haven't seen before, so that a year from now, when I'm going to NBA workouts, scouts are saying, "Well he didn't do this in his four years at St. Bonaventure but we've seen him do it at Iowa State and it seems like he has potential." And maybe, hopefully, everything goes well and, God willing, I have no injuries and I have a successful year at Iowa State.

Why was Iowa State your final choice?

The player development. I really connected with the coaching staff. They connected with my family really well. They built a great relationship with my family over the recruiting process. And my teammate from St. Bonaventure [Jaren Holmes] is here, so he was throwing his little piece in. I played with him for three years. We have good chemistry, so that was another thing for me.

Rasir Bolton (Penn State Nittany Lions to Iowa State Cyclones to Gonzaga Bulldogs)

Averaged 11.2 PPG and 46% from 3 at Gonzaga -- his third school, which lost to Arkansas in the Sweet 16 -- after transferring from Iowa State last summer. Is expected to be a prominent contributor for the national title contender in 2022-23.

What made you pick your first two schools (Penn State, Iowa State)?

Going into Penn State, they were losing [former star Tony Carr], who kind of played a big role on the team, and then they won the NIT that year [2017-18], so they were losing a lot with him leaving. I figured I could come in and help fill that role and do what I can. I learned a lot at Penn State. I think it was a great experience for me.

And then going to Iowa State, it was the same thing. They'd lost most of their team. They said I could come in and make an impact. The Big 12 was a lot of fun. It's a great conference.

When did you know it was time to think about transferring again?

After the 2020-21 season, I had planned on staying. But Coach T.J. Otzelberger brought guys in and held meetings, and he actually told me to leave. He told me, "You know you probably won't play here next year. We think it'd be best for us and you if you decided to go somewhere else." I appreciate him for that, for being honest and not keeping me there and doing me wrong. Once he told me that, I put my name in the portal once again, explored my options and found an option at Gonzaga.

Who helped you make that decision?

My family. They were keeping me level-headed, helping me look at all options, the pros and cons. My parents, my brothers ... really know me as a person. They know what makes me tick, what makes me go, what makes me happy. So having them there to be able to go through decisions with and figuring things out was a big help.

What was your team's and coaching staff's response?

It hurt in the moment because when he said [I should leave], it kind of caught me off guard. But now I appreciate it. [Iowa State] had a great season last year. And I still talk to most of the guys that were there last year. They had a fresh start and I had a fresh start and it worked out.

What was the recruitment process like the third time in your career?

It was nice. My phone was buzzing a little bit. I guess going through it for a third time may have been a little old for me, but I was really just straight to the point about most of it: "Where would I fit in? Where do you see the team going next season?" Older guard questions. It was cool to feel wanted and teams having interest in you. Getting a call from a school like Gonzaga? It was definitely a lot of fun.

How happy are you with the choice you made?

I'm happy about it, for sure. I feel like I made the right choice. Obviously, I'm coming back for another year, so I love it there. I love the community of Spokane. The people there. The fans at the games all the time. Just the atmosphere and the basketball.

Why did you finally pick Gonzaga?

Gonzaga, when they called me -- I'm not going to say it was a no-brainer, but I was definitely excited when they called. I'm definitely excited to be a part of them. I felt like that situation was best, from their culture and the history of what they've already done and the group of guys that were on the team that I was coming to play with.

You know, culture first. What the program is built on. What they've done. The coaching staff. I like coach Mark Few. It's like a big family there. Basketball, on the court, I think that speaks for itself. And my older brother was really talking to me as it came down to it, and he said, "They were in the national championship game [in 2021]. Take that into account." All of that considered, I felt like it was the best decision for me.

Malachi Smith (Wright State Raiders to Chattanooga Mocs to Gonzaga Bulldogs)

2021-22 Southern Conference Player of the Year; averaged 19.9 PPG, 6.7 RPG and 1.7 SPG while shooting 41% from 3 last season. Also finished with 12 points, 8 rebounds and 3 steals in Chattanooga's 54-53 loss to Illinois in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

What made you pick Chattanooga after leaving Wright State?

I just think it was that the opportunity to showcase my abilities, and having staff that would allow me to showcase what I could do at that level. Also, knowing the players they already had on the team, knowing I was going to sit out a year [in 2019-20 after transferring the first time], the players I was going to get to learn behind and get to watch -- that was all appealing.

When did you know that it was time to consider leaving Chattanooga?

I entered the draft this year, planning on staying in. But then after getting worked out for multiple teams and getting great feedback, it was like the next decision was to showcase my abilities on a bigger stage. I just wanted to go somewhere where I would have the chance to do that.

Who helped you make that decision?

My mom, my AAU coach. I don't have a lot of people in my circle, so it was people I trust who have been there from day one, who don't care if I'm good at basketball or flipping burgers. That's who I make sure I keep in my circle. Going through this process, getting the feedback from [professional] teams and all the information I got, it was just about going to a school with a bigger platform. Having a chance to be on a great team and playing with other great players is something that I wanted to do.

What was your team's and coaching staff's response?

I feel like it was a great response. Obviously, everyone has opinions and on where they think you should go. But I've always been the person to go where I feel it's best for me and I feel it's comfortable for me. Chattanooga, I'm always going to stay connected to my former teammates.

What was the recruitment process like for the third time in your career?

With the deadline being May 1 [to enter the transfer portal and retain immediate eligibility], I tried to keep [the process] more with my mom just because I was still working out with NBA teams. So I wanted to keep the focus on the NBA. And a lot of teams were reaching out. It was crazy. My phone was always ringing, and my mom's phone was always ringing. It can get overwhelming, but you know you have to sit down and just write everything down and make a decision with everything laid out on the table.

How did NIL factor into your decision?

I mean, obviously, being one of the top players, NIL is going to be brought up. But I was looking more for the fit. My goal is to make it to the next level, and everything on that end will be taken care of at that point. [NIL is] something people talk about now because the opportunities are available for players at [bigger] programs. It was brought up in conversations, but it wasn't a deciding point for me.

Why was Gonzaga your final choice?

A Hall of Fame coach. A team that wins a lot. A lot of great players. All the players that have been there that come back. Before I even knew I wanted to go there, I'd been in [NBA] workouts with some of their players. Just being around them and having that kind of bond, you see the family feel they have with the team. That was all attractive to me. I wanted to try to be something special and be a part of it, where this can be the first time we win the national championship.

Jack Nunge's go-ahead hook shot seals first NIT championship for Xavier

Jack Nunge drains a big-time hook shot to give Xavier the lead before Tyrece Radford's near make in the NIT championship's final seconds.

Jack Nunge (Iowa Hawkeyes to Xavier Musketeers)

Averaged 13.4 PPG, 7.4 RPG and 1.4 BPG in 2021-22 for the Musketeers, after three years at Iowa that were affected by injuries and tragedy. Nunge suffered a season-ending knee injury at the start of the 2019-20 season. Then, his father, Mark Nunge, died days before the start of the 2020-21 campaign. Nunge suffered another season-ending injury toward the end of the 2020-21 season before transferring to Xavier.

What made you initially choose Iowa?

I actually lived in Iowa City for a couple of years. My dad worked at a hospital there, so I was kind of a Hawkeyes fan, just because of that. There was a comfort level. My mom is also from Iowa. I have a bunch of family there. And the program, I thought they had a lot of players, who [were similar to me] and I thought I could be a great fit there.

When did you know that it was time to consider transferring?

I went through some adversity my senior year -- and my junior year, I guess. The ACL tear, and then the pandemic, my dad [dying] and my meniscus injury. There was just a lot of, I don't want to say bad stuff, but just stuff I had to deal with personally. So I thought, I might need a new look, new situation, so I could build a new image for myself.

Who did you turn to when you decided to make the decision and what feedback did you receive?

I was really just talking to my family. My mom, she played a huge role in that. I think even when I first talked to her about it, she was confused. She was like, "What?" But I knew I wanted to come closer to home [Editor's note: Nunge and his family are from Newburgh, Indiana], and see her more often. So she could pretty much come to every game, being only about three hours from home. She was the main person that I talked to about it.

What was your team's and coaching staff's response?

It was a little bit of a double-edged sword at first. They were a little upset because I was so close with all of them. But then they were also like, they understood everything I'd been through. They all supported me through that. They understood. Also, it's hard for me. I love all of them. I didn't want to leave them. It was a tough decision both ways.

What was the recruitment process like the second time around?

I feel like I was just smarter throughout the process. I had a better vision of what I wanted in a program and coaches I would play for. Xavier was obviously the perfect fit. There was no doubt this was the place I was supposed to come to.

How happy are you with the choice you made?

I just feel like I'm honestly blessed to be able to come here. I have a great situation. My wife, she came with me. And my brother [Bobby Nunge], he lives with me now and he's also a part of the team as a walk-on. And I don't think that would have happened if I had stayed at Iowa. So I think it's a great, great situation.

Why was Xavier your final choice?

The resources the school has. The historic basketball program that it has and the location. That was obviously the big aspect. When I was talking to the coaches and seeing their team and they were telling me where I would fit on the roster, there was really no doubt that it was the best place.

Moussa Cisse (Memphis Tigers to Oklahoma State Cowboys)

Cisse, who played high school basketball in both New York and Memphis and was ranked 24th in the class of 2020 by ESPN, was named Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, along with two other players, after averaging 7.2 PPG, 6.5 RPG and 1.9 BPG in his first season with Oklahoma State in 2021-22.

What made you initially choose Memphis?

When I was making my decision, it was COVID-19 time, so I didn't take a lot of visits. And I was already [playing high school basketball in Memphis] and I knew a couple of guys over there, and they made me comfortable. I thought it was the right fit for me. I was always on the campus, and seeing my friends and my old teammates, like Precious Achiuwa. I liked the vibe. And I didn't have any other visits, except Florida State. That's why I went there.

When did you know it was time to consider transferring?

I would say after the [2020-21] season, it was kind of like I wasn't comfortable staying there. I don't know. I wasn't comfortable. I had to make a different move. I went to the NBA draft and they told me what I needed to work on, and I had to find a way to work on that.

Who helped you make that decision?

My brothers. They told me to do what I was comfortable doing. They gave me good advice.

What was your team's and coaching staff's response?

It is what it is. I'm not making my move based on my teammates. I'm doing what's best for me, so they have to respect it. I didn't really care how they were going to feel, but at the same time, they were my teammates. We're friends and everything, but I had to do what was best for me.

What was the recruitment process like the second time around?

It was kind of similar as in high school, but I had to be mindful. I had to be careful. I had already been through that. I didn't want to go somewhere and regret it and then the same thing would happen where I would have to transfer again. I had to talk to the coaches and ask them what they really wanted me to do when I got there: what I was looking for, and what they were looking for.

How happy are you with the choice you made?

I'm not living in the past. I'm focused on the future. I feel like it's really going smooth. It was the right move for me. I didn't regret it once. I'm really proud of my choice. You have to make your own choice. Don't let anyone else influence you.

Why did you finally choose Oklahoma State?

[Oklahoma State head coach Mike Boynton], he's been seeing me since I was in New York, so it was easier for me to get comfortable with him. He was real with me.

It's not really about the school. It's about how the coaches were for me. I'm a team player. The coach knows. He has seen something in me since I was little. Before I went to Memphis, he was recruiting me. But as soon as I opened my recruitment [last year], he talked to me about what he could do for me and what he could do to get me to the next level. All the coaches were telling me good stuff, but it wasn't the same. When he was talking to me, I saw the real in him. That made me comfortable coming out here.