Norse lose (another) 3 players to transfer portal

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Five players in last 2 weeks have bolted the program

The enigmatic college basketball transfer portal has already affected many teams in many different ways this winter…and it’s still early.  The Northern Kentucky University men’s basketball program lost two players to the portal last week, and have lost another three this week, bringing the total loss of players to five thus far.

Losing guards A’lahn Sumler (Fr. – Buford, GA) and Isaiah “Zay” Mason (Soph. – Bowling Green, KY) last week was a bitter pill to swallow because the Norse had already lost guards Xavier Rhodes and Trevon Faulkner to graduation after the Norse (22-13) took #1 seed Houston (31-3) to the wire in the First Round before bowing out to arguably the NCAA Tournament favorites in the waning minutes of the game.

In this latest round of Portal departures, head coach Darrin Horn’s squad is losing guard Hubie Pivorius (Soph. – Lithuania), walk-on point guard Jake Evans (Jr. – Louisville, KY) and walk-on center Noah Hupmann (Jr. – Union, KY).  All told, the Norse have now lost six guards this offseason, with only three scholarship-bearing guards returning to the roster for next season. 

In addition to the three returning guards of Marques Warrick (Jr. – Lexington, KY), Sam Vinson (Soph. – Ft. Thomas, KY) and Trey Robinson (Jr. – Hamilton, OH), the Norse also have four incoming freshman guards to fill the gaps left by the ongoing exodus…and those guards will clearly come into the picture somewhat blind and wholly untested at the college level.  One of these new additions will need to be able to give solid minutes at the point guard position due to the graduation of Rhodes, who did a commendable job of coming in from a D2 Southern Florida and running the point all season.

On the surface, losing Pivorius, Evans and Hupmann all at once may not look like a brewing calamity.  All three of these players saw limited (almost no) playing time this season after seeing quality minutes in year’s past.  The question the Norse fan base seems to be mulling over is, “How can so many actively rostered players go from valuable bench players to largely forgotten souls so quickly and drastically?”  There is no sure way for the average fan to approach this question without knowing the inner workings of ongoing player assessments, end-of-season reviews, grades/eligibility and possible attitude/lack of cohesion between each player and the coaching staff – it’s the behind-the-scenes variables that obscure the big picture. 

The newer flexibility of the transfer portal provides every program with a mix of both opportunity and angst.  Based on both public and private feedback from college hoops players and parents, the most reliable solution to retaining players seems to be playing for a coaching staff that is transparent with players, makes every effort to develop new and existing players, and treats each player equally without showing evident favoritism to specific players.  Until coaching staffs find quantifiable ways to equitably address all of these things with purpose, they will continue to have a roster of players looking over their shoulders and at schools active in the Transfer Portal looking to take on dissatisfied (but preferably tested) players. 

It is remarkably easy to become disenchanted in your program when your players seldom know where they stand.  It is fairly safe to say this round of outgoing transfers were not satisfied with where they stood in relation to playing time, roles, expectations and projections on future playing time:

Hubie Pivorius, the 6-2 sophomore guard from Lithuania by way of Christopher Columbus High School (Miami, FL), saw his playing time very incrementally increase this season – by just over one minute per game (9.7 to 11.0) – despite shooting nearly 46% from the field, 44.3% from behind the arc, and averaging 5.0 points per game last season.  His field goal percentage was good for 3rd on the team among players who logged 200+ minutes of playing time on the season.  His 3-point shooting accuracy led the team by a healthy margin and his 5.0 ppg (while only playing 9.7 minutes per game) were good for 8th on the team as one of the first guards off the bench.

Fast forward to this season, his playing time subtly crept forward in minutes but his productivity took a hit overall.  This season, Pivorius started one game as opposed to starting three games last season as a freshman.  He played over 300 minutes this season, but his field goal percentage dropped down to 33.4%, his 3-point shooting percentage fell to 33.3% and his scoring dipped to just 2.8 ppg. 

Just like last season, his minutes on the hardwood took a big hit starting in late December.  From December 21 through the NCAA First Round game against Houston, Pivorius averaged a meager 6 minutes per game through the final 18 contests of the season, including the conference and national tournaments.  During the post-season, his minutes become even scarcer, averaging just 4 minutes per game in that span.  Ironically, this drop in playing time also started last season on December 22, when he averaged only 6.2 minutes per game over the remaining 16 games.

While his statistics don’t quite pop off the paper due to his limited opportunities these past two seasons, it might be reasonable to expect the three-point specialist to be in demand just based on his pedigree.  Prior to joining NKU, he built up quite an international playing resume that consisted of experience on both the high school prep scene in the United States as well as at the international level as a member of Lithuania’s U19 (2021) and U16 (2018) National Teams.

In international competition as a member of the Lithuanian U19 National Team at the 2021 FIBA U19 World Championships, Pivorius averaged 8.4 ppg, two assists and two rebounds while sinking 40% of his threes (15-of-38).  This steady exposure to high level international competition as a member of the Lithuanian National Team provided him the opportunity to compete at the 2018 U16 European Championships, and chances are teams scouring the Portal will see this unique resume and look to tap into that potential he may not have reached at NKU.

Junior walk-on Jake Evans held walk-on status, but at times played extended stints running point for the Norse.  Last season, the 6-1 guard from then-No. 1 ranked Louisville Male HS played 228 minutes across the balance of 30 games, while averaging 7.6 minutes per game, shooting 40.9% from the field, averaging 1.6 ppg and sporting 17 assists to 15 turnovers.  While he didn’t start any games in 2021-22, he did manage to play 10 or more minutes in 10 games and had five games in which he played 14+ minutes.  He was a steadying presence in the lineup who knew his role and didn’t try to be someone else on and off the court – this paid off in Coach Horn trusting the walk-on to lead the Norse offense for various stretches.

This season, Evans’ playing time was cut precisely in half (114 minutes) compared to the 2021-22 campaign.  He logged valuable minutes to start the season against Toledo (18 mins.) and Tennessee Tech (38 mins.), but beyond those two games he played a very limited role. He only played in 17 total games and averaged 6.7 minutes per game, while his field goal accuracy (23.5%) dropped substantially from the previous season.  The hefty drop in opportunity resulted in him scoring just 0.7 ppg.  His strong point this season continued to be handling the ball and running the offense at times, posting an impressive assist-to-turnover ratio of 12:1. 

Evans has been a very loyal, hard-working teammate that battled through knee injuries at NKU.  Some coach out there – whether it be D-I, D-II or NAIA – looking for a reliable, hard-working point guard will surely snag him and build his confidence back up.

Lastly, junior center Noah Hupmann decided after three full years at NKU to give himself a fresh chance to play a pivotal role somewhere else. As the old adage goes, “you can’t teach height,” and Hupmann has a lot of it.  His 7-1, 225 pound frame will stand out immediately to potential suitors looking for big-man help.  This season Hupmann played a grand total of 5 minutes and only stepped foot on the hardwood in three games.  During his sophomore season, Hupmann played 13 minutes all season, but scored a basket on the only shot he took all season.

While Hupmann did not necessarily accrue a boatload of shiny statistics at NKU, he does have some very valuable selling points that could help lure some nice offers. The Covington Catholic (KY) H.S. grad led the nation in blocks per game as a junior while playing for Day School in Evansville according to recruiting service, MaxPreps.  That same year, he was able to parlay his impressive size and skill into an IBCA Underclass Small School All-State selection in Indiana where he averaged 16.6 points, 10.6 rebounds and 7.7 blocks per game.  He then transferred to CovCath for his senior year.

Of particular note, Hupmann comes from sturdy athletic stock.  His mom played tennis at D-I Middle Tennessee State and his father played basketball for D-I University of Evansville. His father (Sascha Hupmann) was a bruising 7’1”, 250 pound center who twice earned All-Midwestern Collegiate Conference honors when Evansville made the NCAA Tournament in 1992 and 1993.  The Munich, Germany native was a longtime member of the German National Basketball Team and played professionally overseas for a decade.

Oddly enough, Hupmann received the most substantial playing time of his college career as a freshman when he logged 135 minutes across 18 games played.  His 6 of 9 from the field was good for a 67% field goal percentage and 13 points on the season.  He was forth on the team in Blocks his freshman season, despite the fact that he played a small fraction of the minutes his teammates did.  It was then that the Norse coaching staff saw the shot-blocking potential that put him on college radars.  Because you can’t teach height, there are many coaches who will see his vertical dimensions first, and then figure out how to develop him more fully later.  Why the coaches gave him quality minutes his first year, and then pushed him further and further down the bench his last two years is a mystery.

Word on the street around Highland Heights is that the Norse should not be expecting any more players to defect, and that the staff is now fully concentrating on filling voids with JUCO and D-I transfers.  It’s a challenging job to keep turning around a new roster every season now, but this has become the new norm in college sports…”If I don’t play, I don’t stay” is the new mantra.  All coaches can do now is work hard to give players reasons to stay, while finding the best puzzle pieces out of the Portal to come in and offer immediate solutions to pressing needs.  It is easy to take solace in the fact that the Norse are by no means alone in this predicament, but surely there will be colleges sooner than later that will find the magic algorithm to steady the boat in between seasons.  That is yet to be seen…stay tuned!

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Freelance Writer and Staff Writer for the HoriZone Roundtable, covering college basketball, the Horizon League and Northern Kentucky University athletics.

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