More mid-major stars are leaving for bigger schools than ever. Meet the star who didn't.

Samantha Laurey / Argus Leader

It was enough money to change Zeke Mayo's life.

With the amount of cash on the table, according to the South Dakota State star, he could have comfortably moved his entire family with him if he accepted the NIL offer attached to a Power 5 program that tried to recruit him over the summer.

"I had an opportunity to move my family out of where we're staying right now," Mayo said. "I had an opportunity to make some money to feed my family. It's always been a dream of mine to take care of my parents and take care of my sisters."

But Mayo, a 6-foot-3 point guard and the Summit League's preseason Player of the Year, did not enter the transfer portal, instead staying at South Dakota State, the league's preseason favorite to win the conference championship.

That hasn't been the trend. Mayo is the only player from last season's All-Summit League first team who did not transfer during the offseason. Texas standout Max Abmas, the former Oral Roberts star who won Summit League Player of the Year last season, is the face of that exodus, but he's not alone. Overall, five of the conference's top seven scorers from last season have found new homes. Six of the league's nine teams lost at least one of their top-two scorers from a year ago.

Former North Dakota State star Grant Nelson is at Alabama. Former St. Thomas (Minnesota) star Andrew Rohde is with Tony Bennett and Virginia. Former Kansas City stars RaeQuawndis Mitchell and Shemarri Allen are at Penn State and UCF, respectively. While the conversation about the transfer portal has centered on its impact for Power 5 programs, it is conferences such as the Summit League that face significant volatility as a result of it. For all the top caliber talent major conference teams lose, they can gain it back through recruiting and additions from the portal. It's more difficult for a mid-major program to replace a veteran standout.

That reality means mid-major coaches have to accept the possibility that one of their top players might end his career elsewhere.

"It's always good to step back and say, in some ways, that's a huge compliment to the Summit League, the players and the coaches, that others recognize the really good basketball that's played and the incredibly talented players who develop a lot over time," St. Thomas head coach Johnny Tauer said. "When you look at what some of the Summit League players have been able to do after making the jump, it is really impressive.

"Now, I think a lot of players have also stayed because they recognize, 'How do I weigh being a featured player and having the ball in my hands a lot and being on a really great team?' [versus] going to the unknown. ... It's our job to create experiences where the grass may not necessarily be greener."

Mayo always wondered what it would be like to play for a blue-blood program.

Growing up in Lawrence, Kansas, he and his family rooted for the Kansas Jayhawks, just like everyone else in his hometown. In high school, he grew into an all-state basketball player but not a talent coveted by Power 5 programs such as Kansas. So he chose to attend South Dakota State in Brookings, where last season he played point guard and averaged 18.2 points per game while connecting on 37% of his 3-point attempts.

"My way of thinking was situational for me: whether that was staying here and playing continuous, consistent 30, 35-minute games or if I were to transfer to a bigger school," said Mayo, who is averaging 19.5 PPG and 7.8 RPG this season. "Would I come off the bench or would I play 20, 25 minutes [per game] and not have the freedom I do right now?"

Over the summer, however, Mayo didn't have to enter the transfer portal to hear from potential suitors from high-major programs. Those schools, via assistant coaches or boosters, bent NCAA rules on recruiting restrictions, he said. Players must enter the portal before they can be contacted directly by schools, but the schools, according to Mayo, reached out to his parents, his trainer and people connected to him who might have his ear. For a young man who did not experience that recruiting buzz in high school, the attention was appealing.

"It's obviously very tempting," Mayo said. "You want to play on TV every night in front of hundreds of thousands of fans."

He also considered the path of other Summit League players who made the same moves while he debated his options.

Last week, Abmas hit the winning shot in Texas' win over Louisville in Madison Square Garden at the Empire Classic, which was broadcast on ESPN. In 2020-21 while at Oral Roberts, he led the nation in scoring (24.5 PPG), and his heroics in the Golden Eagles' Sweet 16 run that season -- he scored 29 points in the first round against Ohio State and 26 points in the second round against Florida -- changed his national profile. It also increased the number of Power 5 schools that sought him. For Abmas, entering the transfer portal and committing to Texas was about proving to himself -- and others -- that he could make a similar impact at a Power 5 school and improve his chances at being drafted into the NBA.

"It was just sitting down with my family and looking at the position I was in," Abmas said. "What would be best for my career? My dream is to play in the NBA and I understood that playing at a higher level against higher competition would be best, as far as putting me in that position. There is just an expectation to win here."

Creighton's Baylor Scheierman, Mayo's former teammate, also transferred in 2022, the year he won Summit League Player of the Year. He initially entered the NBA draft that year before withdrawing and choosing Creighton. He believes he made the right choice by transferring.

"Obviously, it stinks for the lower schools but with the way college athletics is trending, in general, that's just the reality of it and I don't think there is really anything that you can do," Scheierman said. "I loved my time at South Dakota State and the relationships with the coaches and players I had there will last a long time. I'm grateful for it."

Creighton head coach Greg McDermott's team is led by players he recruited when they were in high school. The transfer portal has offered his team and others a chance to add an instant boost every offseason. It also, however, creates instability for every team, regardless of the level, he said.

"We're still trying to build it with young guys, best we can," McDermott said about his program. "We'll plug in with transfers when you have to plug in."

Facing the potential loss of his best player to the transfer portal, South Dakota State head coach Eric Henderson kept it real with Mayo this summer. Yes, Mayo had grown into an all-league talent with the tools to compete at a higher level. But he also matured because of the opportunities he had on the floor. At a Power 5 school, Mayo might be a supporting actor instead of the lead role he enjoys at South Dakota State, Henderson told him. Plus, reducing turnovers and developing as a leader were still challenges Mayo agreed he had to tackle.

"You always want what is best for each individual and you look at each situation and what is going to be best for Zeke and what are his goals and what is he looking for," Henderson said. "To me, you have to look at it long term. [I told him], 'You had a good year but there were certainly areas where you could continue to grow being the lead guard.'"

But it was ultimately Mayo's choice. And a summer stint as a counselor at NBA All-Star Damian Lillard's Zero Elite camp in Phoenix in August made him feel better about his decision.

"It was huge," Mayo said about his time with Lillard. "I had the opportunity to talk to him about being from a smaller school and putting myself out there and his approach to every day and how he built up his legacy and became successful to where he is right now. It was a great opportunity for me, personally, just to hear his experiences."

Zeke Mayo nails the 3-point shot vs. Southern Miss Golden Eagles

Zeke Mayo nails the 3-point shot vs. Southern Miss Golden Eagles

Mayo had multiple opportunities this summer to transfer. But he enjoys Brookings and the team around him -- one of the three Summit League teams that returned every top player from last season -- made a move less attractive.

Last Wednesday, Mayo finished with 16 points, eight rebounds, four assists and two steals in his team's 65-54 win at Southern Miss, snapping a three-game losing streak for the Jackrabbits. While his 3-point percentage is down compared to last year, he's made 60% of his shots inside the arc.

He's also the leader of a South Dakota State team that entered the 2023-24 season with NCAA tournament aspirations. And, despite the choices that were available to him, he's pleased with his decision to stay.

"I felt like I was under-recruited in high school, so my determination, my motivation was to display myself and let other teams and other schools around the country realize what they missed out on," Mayo said. "But I love my team, I love my coaches and I love this university."