Once again, I'm writing about a productive player leaving the Iowa men's basketball program way before his eligibility has expired.
Sophomore Cully Payne, who missed all but five games this year after having surgery to repair a sports hernia and torn oblique muscle, will transfer. Payne was a hard-nosed leader on the court who started all 37 games that he played at Iowa. He averaged 8.7 points and a team-high 3.8 assists as a freshman. After his surgery he wasn't able to scrimmage with the team. He already had lost his starting job to Bryce Cartwright for next year.
Payne is just one in a long line of talented scholarship players leaving the program — for whatever reason — in the last four years. Let's take them in reverse order.
After the 2010 spring semester, post Brennan Cougill was ruled academically ineligible. Cougill, the Mr. Basketball in Iowa following his 2009 prep season at Sioux City Heelan, started seven games and played in all but one. He averaged four points and three rebounds a game. He transferred to Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids and averaged 14.6 points and 9.0 rebounds in 2010-11. He remains available to any program, including Iowa.
Two weeks after Fran McCaffery replaced Todd Lickliter as coach, sophomore Aaron Fuller decided to transfer to USC. Fuller averaged 9.7 points and led the team with 6.2 rebounds a game. Fuller a Mesa, Ariz., native, had bulked up and become a stout rebounder for Iowa but appeared worn down by all the drama surrounding the program despite telling reporters he planned to return.
Recruits Cody Larson (Florida) and Ben Brust (Wisconsin) were releasedfrom their letters of intent around the same time Fuller asked for his scholarship release. Larson red-shirted this year while Brust played in 15 of Wisconsin's 34 games and averaged 0.7 points.
About one month before Lickliter was fired, sophomore guard Anthony Tucker left the program. Tucker twice was arrested on alcohol charges during his brief Iowa career, the second landing in a suspension. Tucker had completed his requirements and was eligible to return, yet Lickliter chose not to play him. Tucker transferred to Division II Winona State (Minn.), posted solid statistics but was arrested late in the season and was suspended from the playoffs. There's even a rumor that Tucker might complete his college career at Iowa State.
Walk-ons Nick Nieri (Division II Wisconsin-Parkside) and John Lickliter (NAIA Marian University) also chose not to return.
Those departures came after a tumultuous finish to the 2008-09 season. Four players with eligibility decided to bolt the program. The starting back-court of Jake Kelly and Jeff Peterson left for Indiana State and Arkansas, respectively.
Kelly, the team's leading scorer, had lost his mother in a plane crash before the season and wanted to return closer to family. He finished with 11.6 points a game, but he twice earned Big Ten Player of the Week honors in the last month and was a crowd favorite. Kelly's career post-Iowa was marked with ups and downs. He suffered a torn ACL and other various ailments, but helped the Sycamores earn an NCAA Tournament berth this year. He was granted immediately eligibility by the NCAA so his college career is over.
Peterson, who carried a 3.6 grade-point-average, disliked Lickliter's playing style. He led the team in assists that season despite missing the final seven games with a hamstring injury. He started 23 games this year for the Razorbacks, averaged 6.3 points a game and was second in assists. He will be a senior this fall.
Two other players — junior guard Jermain Davis (Minnesota State-Mankato) and junior forward David Palmer (Northern Kentucky) — also left the program for Division II schools. Palmer, who stood 6-foot-10, might have been a machine for McCaffery but never could grasp Lickliter's half-court style of play. Davis would have been a nice backup for Iowa in 2009-10. Instead, Iowa had no scholarship point guards behind Payne, leaving an overmatched John Lickliter out to guard NBA-caliber players like Manny Harris and Evan Turner on multiple possessions.
Iowa also lost a commitment during that transfer wave in Marshalltown native Chanse Creekmur, who just finished his freshman season at Arizona State. Creekmur played in 27 games and averaged 3.1 points.
After the 2007-08 season, Lickliter's first at Iowa, leading scorer Tony Freeman left after clashing with Lickliter over his role. Freeman, the last Iowa player named to an all-Big Ten team, averaged 13.8 points a game. He sat out a season and then played at Southern Illinois. Dan Bohall, a former walk-on who earned a scholarship that year, also left the program.
In the wake of Steve Alford's resignation in March 2007, Tyler Smith, Josh Crawford and walk-on Brett Wessels elected not to return. Smith went to Tennessee to care for his ailing father and received immediate eligibility. Crawford played at Indiana State, and Wessels played at Augustana College.
So what does this mean now? If you take Payne's departure within that context, it's no big deal. But if you place Payne's transfer in the context of all the others, it's the continuation of a program in flux.I view it as mutually beneficial for both Payne and the Iowa program. Payne likely wanted to start, and McCaffery wanted him to fill a backup role. If Payne wasn't going to accept that role, it could cause chemistry problems in practice and workouts. And if there's a lesson from this long list of transfers, finding a good, consistent chemistry is something Iowa needs to maintain.