The loud thud and echo of the rubber basketball on hardwood and sneaker squeaks fill an empty Convocation Center during practice. These sounds are drowned on gamedays by the yells of “The O Zone,” the boisterous brass and drums of the Marching 110 and beats by Metro Boomin that blast from the speakers during layup lines. Redshirt sophomore Jaaron Simmons says he doesn’t focus on the music that plays during warm-ups.
“I’m just chillin’,” Simmons says, wiping the dust from the bottom of his Air Jordan 11 Concord sneakers. “I’m in a zone.”
Two years ago, Simmons’ zone was over 18 hours from Athens, Ohio as a Cougar at the University of Houston. He’s starting at point guard this year for the Ohio Bobcats as a member of a lineup that has the rare distinction of boasting three transfers as starters.
Simmons, along with forwards Kenny Kaminski and Treg Setty, made the decision to leave the universities they selected out of high school and transfer to Ohio University. For each of them, the reasons are strikingly similar.
Simmons, a native of Dayton, averaged 24 points per game and led Archbishop Alter High School to a state final four appearance in his senior year. His performance earned him scholarship offers from Dayton, Wichita State and Ohio among others, but Simmons elected to play for the Houston Cougars of the American Athletic Conference – a decision he soon regretted.
“Coming out of high school as a young kid, you think you gotta go high major, the 6-foot-1 guard says. “I believe that was a big part of my decision. I was getting drained by taking visits. I was immature. I just wanted to play at the highest level. “
How can one blame Simmons? Houston’s 2013-2014 schedule matched it up with historically successful programs like Louisville, Cincinnati, Memphis and the eventual national champion Connecticut Huskies. However, it didn’t take long for Simmons to know he wasn’t at peace with his choice. He knew he wanted to transfer before the Cougars even started AAC play, during winter break of his freshman year.
“That’s when I knew it wasn’t about playing time,” Simmons recalls. “I just wanted to be comfortable.”
Simmons saw decent playing time – 10-plus minutes in 14 games – in his freshman season, but he also began to miss his mother, father and younger brother Camaaron.
“I wanted my family to be able to see me play in person,” Simmons says. “It’s different support when they can see me in person rather than call me on the phone.”
When James Dickey was fired from his position as the Cougars’ head coach, Simmons requested a release from his scholarship and opened up the recruiting process once more.
On May 5, 2014, Simmons announced his destination on Twitter.
Simmons isn’t the only transfer from a power conference on the Green & White’s roster. Kenny Kaminski was a top-100 recruit as a senior at Medina High School near Cleveland and earned himself a scholarship to play for coaching icon Tom Izzo as a Michigan State Spartan. As a redshirt freshman in East Lansing, Kaminski led the Big Ten Conference in 3-point shooting percentage (49.4%), but was dismissed from the program the following summer due to undisclosed circumstances.
“Despite multiple opportunities, Kenny Kaminski could not live up to the obligations necessary to be a part of our program,” read Izzo’s statement on the matter. “After he repeatedly failed to meet the necessary obligations, it became apparent that it was time to dismiss Kenny from the program.”
Since enrolling at Ohio University, Kaminski has enjoyed his new surroundings.
“I love Athens,” he says. “It’s literally heaven.” Kaminski lists The Pub’s burgers and milkshakes at Larry’s Dog House as some of his local favorites, but insists that too many of those things will get him in trouble. In addition to his cravings, the 6-foot-8 power forward adds that the staff and players at Ohio made his switch an easy one.
Ohio head coach Saul Phillips welcomed Kaminski to his program with open arms. “Over the course of time, there haven’t been a lot of games for him,” Phillips said. “But they’ve been pretty big ones.”
Kaminski went 19-straight months without playing a game before this season began. His and Simmons’ limited experience will be vital to squad that boasts just one senior this season. That senior is Treg Setty.
Setty made his decision to transfer to Ohio after a year at Southern Illinois, a decision he predicted the moment he arrived in Carbondale, Illinois. “I didn’t think I made the right decision out of high school,” Setty laments, grabbing his shooting sleeve that covers most of the tribal tattoo on his right arm. “When I first signed, I had this really weird feeling walking through the halls like ‘what did I just do? I just signed to a team seven hours from home. Did I make the right decision?’”
Setty said that feeling got him off to a bad start and his team did the same. The Salukis struggled to an 8-23 record in Setty’s lone season that saw him thrust into the starting lineup not because of his ability, but because of the lack of resources at SIU.
“My coach at the time, Chris Lowry, wasn’t in the best situation,” Setty recalls. “I kinda saw it as an opportunity to go there and get immediate playing time. It was too far from home. I didn’t get to see my friends, ever. I didn’t get to see my parents hardly ever.”
Setty, a Maysville, Kentucky native, says the decision of his destination was breeze. “I honestly should’ve come here right out of high school,” he says.
Setty was summoned to Athens by a former Southern Illinois assistant whom found his way to Ohio working under then-head coach Jim Christian. Now a redshirt senior, the 6-foot-9 forward has become a fan-favorite for his gritty style of play on the court and his fun-loving attitude off it.
“It’s funny, I don’t think of Treg being a transfer because he was here when I got here,” Phillips admits. “I’m a transfer too.”
The current NCAA regulations make it easy for a coach to switch schools. Phillips led North Dakota State to two NCAA Tournament appearances and a Sweet 16 bid as head coach, and Ohio quickly swooped him away following the 2013-2014 season. If Phillips were a player, he’d have to sit out a year. Players like Simmons, Setty and Kaminski had to spectate from the bench during home games and didn’t travel with the team despite participating in 100 percent of the teams’ non-game activities.
“During the days when they’d leave, we’d come in here and work out to get better,” Simmons says. “During game time, we’d tune into the game. I wasn’t the only one home. Kenny was here. Especially during times when we struggled, you just gotta show support; try to help your teammates get better.“
“On and off the court I’m two years older,” Kaminski says. “My game is elevated to levels I never thought I could get it to.”
Setty didn’t have a fellow transfer to grow with. On some weekends, he would make to two-hour trip southwest to Maysville.
“I’d spent so much at SIU the year before that I wasn’t able to spend a lot of time with my friends and family, so I was able to make up a lot of that time,” Setty says. “The team went on a bunch of 2-3 day trips. I would just get in my car and go home. I got stronger physically and mentally. When you transfer, the main thing you want to do is improve your game and your mental stability.”
The decision of selecting one’s second university is a sharp contrast from the celebrated process of recruitment in high school. On National Signing Day, one can tune in to ESPN2 to see a 17-year-old pick up a hat of his future school. Transferring is often done behind closed doors.
“It’s like a second marriage,” jokes Phillips. “The reception is held at the Holiday Inn Express.”
Phillips says he approaches potential transfers differently than he does high schoolers, but sometimes it’s not his persuasion that matters. “It’s a different sales pitch,” he says. “I don’t think they want to be romanced anymore because they know that’s not important.”
The coach says he didn’t even send a pamphlet to Simmons or Kaminski. Phillips says it seemed like they had their minds made up before he even spoke to them.
“As soon as I put out that I was leaving, Jaaron was the first person to contact me,” Kaminski says. The two were in the same AAU program as teens and talked every day of the two weeks that Kaminski was making his decision.
“Kenny actually committed when I was in the Yukon territory at a dog sled camp,” Phillips says. “That’s not how I get many of my recruits.”
Phillips says he treats introducing his transfers to his system the same way he does incoming freshmen, but the additional year that the transfers get to practice with the team can go a long way. That paired with the transfers’ experience at other schools can a help a man looking for leaders in his second year at Ohio.
“We don’t have an overabundance of veterans on this team,” Phillips notes. “I don’t worry too much about those guys. They’ve played at a pretty high level. They’re not the kind of guys that take a lot for granted.”
According to Kaminski, his transfer process led to a realization that his time as a college basketball player is limited. Simmons thinks that outside perspectives will have a positive impact on the team.
“We all went through different things at our different schools,” Simmons says. ”It brings a different outlook on things. We can bring the positives and try to avoid the things that weren’t so positive. You can see a negative coming from a mile away because you saw it somewhere else. You can try to avoid and step up and be a leader.”
Simmons has emerged as a leader on the Bobcats, averaging 16.1 points and 7.9 assists per game through the first seven contests. Kaminski is right behind Simmons at 13.7 points per game.
The transfers have stepped into their roles and become impact players immediately for Ohio. According to ESPN’s Jeff Goodman, 600-800 players transfer each year, but to see three in one starting lineup is a rarity that the ‘Cats hope to turn into a winning product.
One thing Kaminski and Phillips agree on is that the team shows a lot of camaraderie and enjoys playing with one another.
“I’ve never been on a team that’s so close,” Kaminski says. “I’ve never been on a team where I like every player. It’s a perfect puzzle.”
“There’s a real positive spirit that runs right down the middle of this program,” Phillips says. “You don’t need that to be successful, but it sure helps the process.”