Every year in the college basketball offseason, players transfer out of one school and into another. Recently, transfer news has been more prevalent in the basketball world than ever before. And with the recent uptick in transfers every summer, there are dozens of intricate rules that go along with the process. Some make sense, some don’t. This is one that doesn’t.
Cameron Johnson, a 6-8 forward who played the last three seasons for Pittsburgh (one of which was spent mostly on the sideline with an injury), is this year’s unfortunate bearer of the “Most Unfairly Treated Transfer” award. Johnson finished his redshirt sophomore year as the third leading scorer for the Panthers, averaging 11.9 PPG, 4.5 RPG, and 2.3 APG, and 41.5% from behind the arc. A good season, yes? The issue at hand is that he plans to leave the program as a graduate transfer with two years of eligibility remaining, but there are some restrictions in place.
First of all, a redshirt sophomore transfer with two years left that can play immediately? It’s confusing, but here’s how it happened: Johnson was granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA after missing most of his freshman season with a shoulder injury. He was then able to graduate in his three years at the university, with a high GPA to boot. He’s graduating with a 3.9 GPA, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. That’s impressive.
The reason this has caught so much attention is because of the restriction put on Johnson. Kevin Stallings, the Pitt head coach, originally restricted Johnson from transferring to another ACC school at all. Some may think this shouldn’t be an issue, especially considering graduate transfers so rarely consider in-conference schools as viable landing spots. Plus, the schools outside the conference that have shown interest in Johnson include Kentucky, UCLA, Arizona, Ohio State, TCU and Oregon. All great schools with great teams. However, Johnson’s desired landing spot is North Carolina. The fit makes perfect sense for both parties. Johnson can step into the role that Justin Jackson has now left wide open in Chapel Hill, and play a big role on a team that can compete to defend its national title. Most of Johnson’s other options will be tough to find playing time on. In which case, UNC is theoretically the best option. But because Stallings refuses to let him play immediately in the Atlantic Coast Conference, that option is looking less and less likely.
Johnson was completely barred from ACC teams until recently, when some headway was made. Stallings and Pitt gave a little wiggle room, but still on their own terms. Here’s how the restriction breaks down now. According to Pitt policy, Johnson is allowed to transfer to UNC, but because it’s an ACC school (or a team that Pitt will play the next season), the restriction forces him to sit out for one of his two remaining years of eligibility. Basically, what Pitt is doing is enacting a normal NCAA transfer rule used for undergraduate transfers and applying it to Johnson because he has more than one year of eligibility remaining and wants to play for a team in Pitt’s conference. Why would Johnson want to cut his remaining time playing NCAA basketball in half? That’s dumb, and here’s why.
He’s graduated from school. Johnson completed a degree program at the University of Pittsburgh in three years with a 3.9 GPA. That is wildly impressive, I don’t care who you are. Pittsburgh offered him a scholarship to come play basketball and get a college education for free. He did both of those things, but because he did the latter quicker than most, he’s being punished by the school. Since he graduated, he fulfilled his pledge to Pitt. He should be able to move on. When (if) I graduate from the University of Missouri, I don’t plan on staying here any longer than I have to. The university shouldn’t have a say in where I can and can’t get a job out of school. Maybe this metaphor isn’t the exact same, but it’s pretty darn close. If Johnson has completed his duties at Pittsburgh of being a student athlete, he should be able to use his last two years of playing college basketball freely and wherever he chooses.
Johnson also stuck with Pittsburgh after Jamie Dixon left for TCU and Stallings was brought in from Vanderbilt a year ago. It’s never fun when a coach you pledged to play for leaves, but it’s less fun when the guy who replaces him is noted hothead Kevin Stallings. Johnson and many other talented Pitt players (Jamel Artis and Michael Johnson, most notably) stuck it out, and Johnson had a good enough season to play his way into being a coveted graduate transfer.
Also, please Kevin Stallings, have some awareness of where your team is at in the greater basketball landscape. Pittsburgh wasn’t that good this past season, and they’ll most likely be worse this coming fall. They lose almost everybody on their team to graduation or transfer. The best returning player is Ryan Luther, who averaged 19 minutes and 5.7 PPG. Cam Johnson playing on UNC next season will not be the difference in Pittsburgh contending in the ACC. In fact, you’re helping UNC, a team in your conference, succeed when you most likely can’t. If “conference pride” means anything to you, Coach Stallings, this shouldn’t be that big of a deal (I don’t subscribe to this theory, but some people do, and maybe Stallings is one of them). You’re doing nothing but making an unnecessary scene and bringing negative press to your own school through all of this.
Actually, here’s a fun story about Kevin Stallings and transfers that I recently discovered: When he was the coach at Vanderbilt, he tried to block then-freshman Sheldon Jeter from transferring to, yes, Pittsburgh in 2013. Jeter, a Pennsylvania native, wanted to play closer to home, but Stallings had no intention to let him complete the process. Instead, Jeter had to spend a season at Polk State in Florida, which may or may not be a real school (it is, allegedly). He never ended up playing for the illustrious athletic program down in Winter Haven, Florida, and thankfully ended up at Pitt the next year. Everything was right with the world, until Stallings emerged the frontrunner for the open Pittsburgh job after the 2015-16 season. I can’t imagine how awkward that reunion must have been. Props to Jeter for hilariously and cryptically tweeting this when Stallings was rumored to be the man for the job:
— Sheldon Jeter (@JonBlaze_21) March 27, 2016
Clearly, this isn’t the first time Stallings has blocked a transfer with seemingly no good reason to do so. It certainly doesn’t reflect well on Stallings and Pitt for future recruits, and neither does the excessive number of transfers out of the program from this season alone.
Anyway, the bottom line is that Pitt is treating Johnson rather unfairly throughout process. I understand the need to restrict certain players and certain schools in the case of an undergrad transfer, I really do. If a kid pledges his college career to you and your school, and he doesn’t want to complete that promise, there’s absolutely a right to limit his options if it benefits your program. But if a student athlete like Johnson gets a full education while performing on the court as well, then once he completes said education, he should be free to make an unimpeded decision. I don’t know what uniform Johnson will have on next year. Maybe it’s TCU. Maybe it’s Oregon. Maybe it’s a suit on the end of UNC’s bench. Regardless of what it is, it should be whatever and wherever Johnson feels is the best fit, unconditionally. He earned it.
Photo via USA Today Sports