Virginia Tech Athletic Director Jim Weaver hoped that hiring new men’s basketball coach James Johnson would help the program avoid the roster turmoil usually associated with a coaching change. But four days after freshman Dorian Finney-Smith informed Hokies officials of his desire to transfer to another school, Virginia Tech found out Thursday it will now also lose its top incoming recruit.
Hargrave Military Academy forward Montrezl Harrell has asked Virginia Tech for a release from his national letter-of-intent, Coach James Johnson confirmed Friday morning. Harrell’s father let the Hokies know about his son’s decision, which leaves Virginia Tech with just eight scholarship players next season.
Johnson realizes there might be a perception about his hiring out there now that Virginia Tech has seen its highest-rated recruits from the past two years go elsewhere, but that hasn’t deterred him during his first week on the job. In fact, the unexpected turnover has only reinforced what the coach has been saying since he took over the program.
“He just wanted to look around at some more schools,” Johnson said of Harrell. “We’re just gonna move forward. We’re gonna play with the cards we’re dealt with.
“I said it in the press conference and I’m gonna continue to say it: ‘I want guys that want to be here.’ It’s a special place and I don’t want distractions on campus. I don’t want distractions in the locker room. I want guys that want to be here and that are happy and excited about being at Virginia Tech.”
Johnson added that his pitch to Harrell last week echoed those sentiments, but it seems Seth Greenberg’s firing convinced the 6-foot-8 forward to consider other options. Primarily recruited by Greenberg and former assistant John Richardson, Harrell originally committed to Virginia Tech in March 2011 after being in attendance for the Hokies’ upset of No. 1 Duke at Cassell Coliseum.
Harrell, a native of Tarboro, N.C., then spent his senior season playing for Hargrave Military Academy, where he blossomed during a breakout year. He drew raves on the spring all-star game circuit, earning MVP honors at both the Capital Classic and Jordan Brand regional all-star game last month.
Harrell’s new list of suitors reportedly includes Kentucky, North Carolina State, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Neither Harrell nor Hargrave Military Academy Coach A.W. Hamilton returned several messages seeking comment on the decision.
Though Harrell’s about-face is different than that of Finney-Smith, because he never played a minute for Virginia Tech, it is still a damaging blow for a program that was already coming off a disappointing 16-17 campaign in 2011-12. Harrell was expected to compete for immediate playing time at power forward along with rising sophomore C.J. Barksdale.
Johnson said he would compensate by leaning on Barksdale more, while sliding incoming recruit Marshall Wood and rising junior Jarell Eddie from small forward to power forward at times. The new coach is also in the market to fill two roster spots with a transfer or an international player late in the recruiting process, if he can.
Going forward, though, Johnson understands he now must avoid injuries at all cost in order to have a successful season with a lineup that, on paper, still returns several reliable weapons.
“We had eight [players] a couple years ago and it wasn’t too bad,” Johnson said. “We can’t have any injuries, but you can’t really have injuries on any team with 13 scholarships. I don’t know who around the country has a 13-man rotation or even a 10-man rotation nowadays. You look out at college basketball, guys aren’t playing 10 guys.
“We got a good group of guys. We can’t afford any injuries and we just have to be smart about how we work, when we work and how much time we spend in the gym. I’ll lean on my assistants to keep me posted on that.”