On several levels, the recent transfer of reigning CIS Freshman of the Year Isiah Osborne from the Windsor Lancers is troubling. For those who missed it, on August 7th, with NCAA D1 opponent Charleston Southern in town to meet the Lancers, Osborne exploded for 35 points, 7 rebounds and 5 steals. In what was a foreshadowing of events to come, in the crowd that evening at the St. Denis Center was 7’1″ Matt Willms, a local Windsor-area product who is entering his junior season with the UTEP Miners of Conference USA. Within two days of Osborne’s dominant performance and prior to getting any indication from the player, Windsor Athletic Director Mike Havey was sent official documentation indicating Osborne’s desire to transfer to UTEP. In a subsequent meeting between Osborne and Lancers Head Coach Chris Oliver, it was revealed that an unnamed UTEP coach contacted the player prior to the transfer tracer being initiated – and most importantly that Osborne did not initiate contact with UTEP. The Lancer program has supported Osborne’s wishes to transfer however the events, while technically legal – presently no legislation exists governing CIS to NCAA transfer scenarios – do bring into question the ethics of recruiting a student/athlete who was clearly eligible and committed to play for the Lancers in ’16-’17.
While the Lancer program remains disappointed to lose their great young player, Havey clearly understands the bigger picture implications on the OUA/CIS and has already carved a path toward eliminating the possibility of this type of behavior in the future, stating:
“the University of Windsor will pursue remedies to this case through consultation with the NCAA via CIS channels and through Conference USA through the OUA executive. As well, we will push to create legislation and protocols that include proper sanctions for violation of these protocols.”
The response from the CIS coaching fraternity to Osborne’s sudden departure was acutely swift and supportive with every existing or retired coach interviewed expressing disappointment and suggesting that Osborne had made a mistake. Some, including Carleton’s Dave Smart, were much more blunt:
“(Osborne) is going to a school that is not any better basketball wise then he was already at. He is also going somewhere where they will not come close to developing him the way his CIS school would have… It’s disappointing that the top 6-8 CIS teams year in year out do not get the respect that they deserve from the Canadian basketball community compared to mid to low level Division 1 teams… It’s disappointing because kids of his caliber are given very poor advice for their basketball and post basketball futures. I’m just happy that most of the parents and coaches of the players we have been fortunate enough to recruit understand what is best for their players and sons from a basketball and life perspective. In my opinion it’s an unfortunate decision for the player more than anything. I guarantee his basketball life would be better in 4 years if he had stayed at Windsor. I know there isn’t a player on our team that would be better off at a mid to low Division 1 school rather than Carleton”.
The lack of governance in this particular scenario notwithstanding, this situation does once again cast the actions of Miners Head Coach Tim Floyd and the UTEP program under major scrutiny. Given Floyd’s track record – recall Floyd stepped down from his position as Head Coach at USC in June, 2009, one month after a published report that he gave $1,000 in cash to the man who acted as a go-between when star player O.J. Mayo decided to become a Trojan, the documented treatment of recruit Demetrius Walker and the general lack of higher-end success Floyd has had with the Miners over the past 6 seasons including the transfers from UTEP of several players in the past few years, taking a player basically sight unseen using questionable tactics reeks of desperation.
Isiah Osborne is not the first CIS player with the talent to play NCAA Division 1 basketball and certainly not the last Canadian baller to be star-struck with a “D1 or bust” attitude. But did he and his handlers – which include his father Patrick, a former Windsor star player and interim coach prior to Chris Oliver taking over, think through the entire set of implications of what these supposed greener-pastures will offer their player? These “greener pastures” include playing for a Head Coach with a track record of controversies, a program plagued with recent player transfers in a lower-rated conference and very little time to clearly establish where Isiah fits in their rotation plans. Let alone the precedent it sets for the kid to bail on a commitment to a program that was completely committed to him – simply with one spontaneous offer – D1 programs typically spend years recruiting players. Osborne has one strong game in the middle of the summer and suddenly he receives – and jumps at – the first offer. The lack of rules unfortunately allow for this however the decision making/guidance in the Osborne camp remains puzzling.
Without question, going back several years, there are numerous CIS players who had Division 1 interest while in a CIS program. One coach shared that, upon being confronted by his star player that there was interest from down south, the coach’s response was to promise to help his player find the best NCAA situation for the player – once the season ended and he completed that season’s commitment to the program. In the end, the player decided to stay with his CIS program and later had an All-Canadian season followed by a lengthy career in Europe.
In the case of Osborne, the player is leaving a program in which he would be the focal point for the next 3-4 years under the tutelage of one of the better teachers of the game in Lancer Head Coach Oliver – without the one-on-one training restrictions imposed by the NCAA, for a program run by a coach with a history of scrutiny, in a non-descript conference (C-USA) with no guarantee of being anything other than a role player. As a Windsor Lancer, probability is high that Osborne builds a profile worthy of furthering his career as a professional player and also, as a big athletic guard who can score, becomes part of Canada’s National team program. Those probabilities take a huge dip with the move to El Paso, Texas. Many close to the CIS game who I talked to hope for the best but fear the worst for Osborne, especially given the profile he was handed under a terrific coach and teacher in Oliver.
On another level, Osborne’s sudden transfer again touches on the clear lack of awareness of the values of playing CIS basketball relative to NCAA. Based on anecdotal evidence from several decades of being close to the CIS game, it is highly probable that the typical graduating high schooler and his parents have little or no knowledge of the unique values that a CIS student/athlete can benefit from beginning with financial aid. From a basketball perspective, the ability for CIS coaches to work with their players throughout the entire calendar year provides a clear advantage for skill development. Top CIS coaches are regarded among the top mentors in the world by numerous globally-focused fans and observers.
FIBA rules, openly criticized by many when implemented several years ago, have been a resounding success, accelerating individual player development and quicker reading of the game offensively. Combining rules favorable to faster-paced, more exciting play with the unique talents of a deep and dedicated CIS coaching pool and the path to a professional career in Europe and other nations abroad suddenly becomes much more achievable. Indeed, there are numerous CIS-bred players who have made comfortable livings playing pro, the vast majority of who would not likely have had that opportunity in NCAA Division 1.
Where are we now ? UTEP has officially announced that Osborne is part of their program but not yet eligible for this coming season. Windsor has granted the player his release and the Miners continue to work to make Osborne eligible immediately – a seemingly difficult task when the player has already this season been made eligible and played in a game for another program.
Congratulations to Mike Havey, Chris Oliver and staff at Windsor for their actions supporting an athlete’s wishes by granting him his release to pursue his dreams – in spite of the obvious near-term determent to their program. As far as how UTEP has behaved, let’s just say it is unlikely that we’ve heard the last of this situation.