It’s as much a rite of spring in college basketball as the coaching carousel or ‘One Shining Moment.’
At least one coach every year will needlessly place restrictions on a player who intends to transfer to another program.
The most high-profile victim so far this year is Cameron Johnson, a 6-foot-8 wing who averaged 11.9 points and shot 41.5 percent from behind the arc for Pittsburgh last season as a redshirt sophomore. Johnson earned his Pittsburgh degree in just three years and now is seeking to take advantage of NCAA rules allowing graduates to transfer without having to sit a year elsewhere.
Pittsburgh coach Kevin Stallings initially refused to grant Johnson permission to contact any other school in the ACC about a transfer. Going through the appeals process at Pittsburgh gained Johnson a halfhearted compromise: He can now only transfer to a fellow ACC school if he’s willing to burn one of his remaining years of eligibility by sitting out the 2017-18 season.
That restriction is a nuisance for Johnson because there’s mutual interest between him and reigning national champion North Carolina. The Tar Heels are one of a half dozen schools Johnson is strongly considering along with Kentucky, Arizona, Ohio State, UCLA and TCU.
“I wouldn’t want to sit out a year, but my interest level in UNC is high,” Johnson told the Raleigh News & Observer.
In a statement released over the weekend, Pittsburgh explained that its athletic department policy is to not to allow transfers within the conference. The statement noted that Johnson and his family were informed of the policy when they elected to seek a transfer.
Compared to previous transfer disputes, this one isn’t among the most egregious.
This isn’t Utah State coach Tim Duryea denying David Collette the right to speak to any other schools when he left the program. Or Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan refusing to grant Jarrod Uthoff permission to contact nearly 30 schools. Or Tulsa barring Jordan Clarkson from reaching out to six of the nine schools he sought permission to contact.
But just because Pittsburgh’s restrictions aren’t so flagrant or vindictive doesn’t make them right.
Johnson is a two-time member of the ACC’s All-Academic Men’s Basketball team. He stayed loyal to Pittsburgh despite the school undergoing a coaching change last year and blossomed into one of the Panthers’ best players this past season. Now he’s leaving because Pittsburgh’s roster has been decimated by defections and graduation and he wants to play at a school that has a chance to be competitive the next two years.
Pittsburgh shouldn’t be able to place restrictions on a graduate transfer like Johnson for any reason, let alone simply to prevent him from facing the Panthers in ACC play next season. Does anyone think that North Carolina will have much trouble with the rebuilding Panthers next winter whether Johnson suits up for the Tar Heels or not?
The dispute between Johnson and Pittsburgh is a reminder of a long-overdue rule change that needs to be made. It’s time to take away the right to place restrictions on transfers from coaches who often abuse that power.
Just like coaches can jump to any school they want, transfers should have that same right. The only exception should be cases when there’s unassailable evidence that a program violated tampering rules in its pursuit of a player who hadn’t asked for a release yet.
There are plenty of promising options for Johnson if Pittsburgh refuses to budge. He could provide a veteran presence at Kentucky if Hamidou Diallo enters the draft and frees up playing time on the wing. Or he could go to UCLA and bolster a young but talented roster decimated by early entries.
But Johnson should also have the right to transfer to North Carolina if that’s the program he feels is the best fit for him.
That he may not have that option simply isn’t fair.
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