By now, you've heard that KT Harrell and James Johnson have both informed Head Coach Tony Bennett of their decisions to transfer from Virginia. The sudden nature of the news has been a bit of a shock to the UVA basketball community, especially taking into account the high regard for both players as recruits and as student-athletes. Players have the right and the responsibility to make decisions to maximize their college experience, and I cannot fault KT and James for doing so. Here is a closer look at why they left, what it means for the team, and the questions it raises going forward.
What we know:
1. Both decisions were based foremost on lack of playing time.
This season, both KT and James were expecting to play significant minutes. Harrell came off a freshman year where he started his first game, averaged 22.2 minutes per game, and was a major factor in a significant number of them. This season, he struggled early, lost his starting spot, was pushed by the emergence of Malcolm Brogdon, and never regained his confidence, playing an average of 10 minutes in the last 5 games.
Johnson came off a redshirt season expecting to see significant time but never worked into the rotation, getting passed by Darion Atkins.
I'm sure both had plenty to think about in their decision to transfer. But when it comes down to it, as Jeff White reported, "Reason No. 1 for both Harrell and Johnson: playing time."
2. Both decisions came too soon.
For different reasons, timing is what makes me question these decisions most.
While KT Harrell was experiencing a decline in minutes, he came out of the starting lineup just 6 games ago! After talking about how much faith he had in the team and in Bennett, that's an awfully quick trigger. Harrell has seen that when he plays at a high level, he will have a large stake in the offense, and I am surprised he didn't give himself much of a chance to work his way out of his funk.
James Johnson's decision to leave after a redshirt year is similarly surprising. Johnson's frustration over not seeing the floor is understandable. However, with Assane Sene and Mike Scott just months from graduation, it was a good bet that he would have a chance to be a mainstay in the starting lineup for years to come. When Johnson decided to redshirt, he acknowledged that his time would be further in the future, as is often the case for college big men, and happily accepted a year of free tuition and high-level basketball training. While I can't know all of Johnson's calculations, deciding not to continue to work hard and wait his turn is a surprise. James didn't play his senior year of high school, redshirted last year, and now must sit another year because of transfer rules; the 3.5 year gap without seeing much real competition is a lengthy one in his young career.
3. The departures will cause minimal harm this season.
To be blunt, Harrell and Johnson had done little this year for the team. This isn't to take away from their talent or all the hard work they surely put in, but it simply hasn't translated to the floor in this young season. Johnson has yet to play meaningful minutes. Harrell's struggles have made him a liability thus far. Yes, KT likely would have worked out his problems and been able to help the team this year, but clearly the attitude wasn't quite there.
Depth in the case of injury or foul trouble becomes the next problem. By taking the redshirt off of Jesperson, Bennett takes a step toward correcting it. A little added pressure on Jesperson as our fifth wing player and Atkins as fourth in the frontcourt seems to be the most glaring impact on the rest of this year. Obviously, the potential for injury is a concern, but we would have been similarly thin in that case with or without the transfers.
4. However, these transfers will hurt us down the road.
Player performance in recent years has shown the value in having veterans leading the team. Mustapha Farrakhan, Jerome Meyinsse, and Will Sherrill all got off to beginnings as role-players (or benchwarmers) before making huge impacts their 4th years. Assane Sene is on that same path, and even Mike Scott turned few heads when he made his debut for UVA about ten years ago. After investing scholarships in Harrell and Johnson, it's a shame that we won't see how far they would have progressed. Regardless of the fact that others will surely step up and fill their roles, they each had large potential to grow into major contributors, and we'll lose that chance. Additionally, the transfers have directly led to the loss of the potential fifth year of eligibility for Paul Jesperson, which has similar negative impacts.
Another area of concern is the chance that continued attrition becomes the target for negative recruiting by rival schools. I'm not too worried about this hurting too much. I'm sure that it will be employed against us, but that type of talk doesn't seem to resonate with recruits as much as the potential for playing time, which conveniently just became easier to obtain down the road.
5. James Johnson's dad was unhappy with the coaching staff's handling of his son.
After announcing the transfer decision, Johnson's father, Ted Johnson, released this statement. On the surface, it seems a classy goodbye to those who worked with his son, expressing support for the team. However, as Ted thanks his son's professors, the Director of Basketball Operations, and seemingly everyone but those working in the JPJ dining hall, the lack of a mention of Tony Bennett or the coaching staff is a glaring omission. For whatever reason, the Johnsons were not happy with how the situation played out, and he used this letter as a chance to take one more passive-aggressive shot at the coaches. Not classy after all.
1. Where are they going?
My first thought...who cares? But, the answer to this one should be coming in the next couple weeks. I'd expect to see both closer to home at places where they could see playing time as soon as they are eligible. For KT, UAB? Auburn? Alabama? Tougher to guess for Johnson, there are plenty of California schools that would surely be interested, but we'll see soon enough. Hopefully, both find situations that they are more comfortable in and excel there; after all, you only go to college once!
2. How will Jesperson look?
The mystery of Paul Jesperson will be revealed this week, as Tony Bennett will look to get him major minutes against UM-ES and Towson. Jesperson was the Wisconsin Player of the Year last year and is known for his outstanding shooting ability (just check out this video...Paul, I'm expecting a few of these per game). On the other hand, he planned on redshirting for a reason and is at a sizable disadvantage after missing out on the first part of his college career. It will be interesting to see how fast he adjusts to the speed of the game and fits into the team's offensive and defensive sets.
3. Should we be concerned about this trend?
It's too early to tell. Transfers are increasingly a part of college basketball, though Bennett's recruits seem to jump ship at a higher rate. For a coach who runs a very specific system and tends to shoot it straight with his players, this is expected. When Bennett signed a 6-man class, it was a good bet that not all of the "Six Shooters" would be walking the lawn for graduation, though losing four is obviously surprising. These transfer decisions are no reason to panic, and they won't be the last ones to leave the program. If this becomes a pattern among recruits, I would be a tad concerned, but not while the program is at its highest point in years.
4. How will the team react?
Essentially, there are two possibilities. First, the sudden loss of two teammates and good friends could be a bit jarring. A potential reaction would be to treat the news as a distraction and lose focus. I don't think this is the mindset of our players. Even worse than having players leave would be having teammates who want to leave. Their departures could serve to bring the team closer together and cause them to really buckle down the rest of the way. The team is excited about what they are capable of accomplishing, and I see them continuing to strive to reach those goals, regardless of outside circumstances.
5. Can you move past this and focus on the season please?
Yes. In case we forgot, UVA is having quite a year! They are 10-1 and ranked 24th in the Coaches Poll and 23rd in the AP Poll. The Hoos have games against two GIANT cupcakes this week. Maryland-Eastern Shore is 3-9 and ranked 334 out of 345 teams by KenPom. Winless Towson comes in at 343rd and turns it over more than any team in the nation, a blistering 31% of possessions. We don't have to fear any Seattle-like struggles against these guys; fans could just relax while our strong RPI goes down the drain. After these tune-ups, all eyes will be on the final out-of-conference showdown of the season, as the Hoos travel to Baton Rouge next week to take on a tough LSU squad coming off an impressive win over Marquette.