Iowa Men's Basketball

Riley Till and many other athletes transferring to schools they've never seen

Fourth-year Hawkeye junior basketball player gets a year of something new at Cal Poly

Iowa forward Riley Till (20) looks for a lane to pass the ball during the Hawkeyes' 85-59 men's basketball over Cal Poly
Iowa forward Riley Till (20) looks for a lane to pass the ball during the Hawkeyes’ 85-59 men’s basketball over Cal Poly at Carver-Hawkeye Arena last Nov. 24. Now Till is transferring to Cal Poly for his final season. (David Harmantas/freelance for The Gazette)

The NCAA’s transfer portal has been a mysterious place where college athletes pursue happiness and high hopes.

The most important part of transferring, however, has been what comes after entering the portal. Transfers pay visits to possible landing spots, get a feel for other schools, and meet the coaches and players of the teams before making their crucial decision.

This spring, however, the portal leads only to computer screens and videoconferencing mechanisms. If you’re a basketball player and want to check out the campus and arena of North Dakota State or South Florida, or listen to the recruiting pitches from the coaches of Western Michigan or East Carolina? You need an internet connection.

But the transfers have kept coming, about 800 in D-I men’s basketball so far this offseason. That’s a normal total for this date. The wooing of them hasn’t slowed despite the barriers from self-quarantining.

Iowa’s Riley Till entered the portal after the abbreviated 2019-20 season, looking for a place to get more playing time and pursue a master’s degree.

Till was a walk-on from Dubuque Wahlert who was put on scholarship before last season. The 6-foot-7 forward was the proverbial role player, used in a pinch by Fran McCaffery the last two seasons. He played in 18 games last season, 16 the season before. He had some nice moments, and was praised and appreciated by his coach and teammates.

As a fourth-year junior, Till opted to bid Iowa adieu for a different experience that he hopes will include being more of a featured player for a D-I team. Coaches approached him once he made his intentions known. Last week, he announced he was going to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

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“Riley brings a wealth of needed experience to our team as a grad transfer,” Cal Poly Coach John Smith said. “He has a high basketball IQ, freakish athleticism and mobility from the post position, which should translate well in the Big West Conference.”

Till, taking a phone call this week while working out at his family home in Dubuque, is going to Cal Poly sight unseen.

“The location, obviously, is a reason,” Till said. “My sister and her husband live in the San Francisco area. She’s my best friend and always has been. Of course, California wouldn’t be the worst thing.”

His sister is Claire Kittle, the wife of former Iowa/current San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle. She played in 95 games for the Iowa women’s basketball team from 2012 to 2016.

Till, however, has a good nonfamily reason to hook up with Cal Poly that isn’t basketball-related.

“I don’t have professional plans for basketball,” he said. “I know where I am as a player. I wanted to set myself up academically for my career post-college. I’m going in the MBA program there. There’s a litany of different things I could do with that. I’m looking at commercial real estate or financial wealth management.”

Till said the recruitment process was this simple: Smith and his assistants contacted him, “we had a lot of good conversations, and it was kind of perfect for me.”

“I love the coaching staff. I haven’t met them in person yet, obviously. But on Zoom calls we really hit it off talking about everything.”

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Cal Poly was 7-22 last season. Its best record in the last six years was 14-20, when it won the Big West tourney and an NCAA tournament game in 2013-14. It played at Iowa last November and lost, 85-59. Smith is entering his second season as the Mustangs’ head coach.

“I feel like Cal Poly is a unique situation where I can really help the team right away and help build a tradition,” Till said.

Till will always recall the last days of his Iowa career as being, well, weird and eerie.

“It was strange, I would say. A lot of shock,” Till said.

“We were in Indianapolis two days prior (to the Hawkeyes’ scheduled Big Ten tournament opener), practicing at Butler. We went about game day like we always do.

“But the night before we saw the NBA was suspending the season and I got a pit in my stomach.”

Rutgers was to play Michigan that Thursday afternoon at the Big Ten tournament before no fans, to be followed by Iowa-Minnesota. The Hawkeyes, who had begun changing into their jerseys and warm-ups at their hotel and headed to the team bus, never went to Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The tourney was halted 20 minutes before the first game was to start.

“It was a hard, emotional time,” Till said. “I liked our mind-set going into it. We thought we could make a game plan to compete against anybody in the conference, thought we had a good chance to make the championship game and win the thing.”

Now it’s a matter of getting to California, starting school, and getting into basketball. When those things can happen are all parts of the great unknown. A certainty, though, is that Till’s sister is happy about her brother’s new college home.

“Obviously George and I are both extremely excited to watch Riley play another year and in California, where he’ll be two-and-a-half, three hours away,” Claire Kittle said from Nashville, where she and her husband live in the offseason. San Luis Obispo is halfway between Los Angeles and Santa Clara, where the 49ers play.

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“I know with the seniors (at Iowa), he didn’t get to go to the NCAA tournament,” Kittle said. “To him, there’s a sense of unfinished business. We’re certainly excited to get to watch him play, and he’ll be able to come up for most of George’s games.”

Fellow fourth-year Iowa forward Cordell Pemsl, also from Dubuque Wahlert and the fellow Till called “my best friend since first grade,” announced Sunday he is transferring to Virginia Tech.

So the transfer portal still is working for players, though their destinations are now often more part of their imaginations than their experiences.

Comments: mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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