It wasn’t so much the decisions KT Harrell and James Johnson finalized in recent days that surprised Virginia Coach Tony Bennett as it was the timing of them. With three nonconference games remaining before the start of ACC play, the Cavaliers are 10-1, ranked No. 23 in the Associated Press top 25 poll and have roughly two-thirds of the season left to play.
But times have changed, Bennett said in a teleconference Monday. Players and their families and all their other influences seem to have much less patience now than they used to. Bennett said he’s had at least one player decide to leave his program every year he’s been a head coach, and this season will be no different.
Harrell informed Bennett of his intention to leave Virginia on Friday, and Johnson did the same a day later. Playing time was a primary factor in both players’ decisions, Bennett said. In the short term, that leaves the Cavaliers with nine scholarship players and will necessitate that freshman guard Paul Jesperson play immediately, rather than redshirt this season as was the original plan.
In a grander sense, the departures of Harrell and Johnson narrow the number of remaining members of Bennett’s first recruiting class – a six-man group that came to Charlottesville in the fall of 2010 – to two*, and that caused the coach to reflect on how his approach to evaluating potential Virginia prospects has evolved since he first came on board.
* Guard Joe Harris and forward Akil Mitchell remain on Virginia’s roster. Guard Billy Baron and forward Will Regan also were members of that six-man recruiting class. Baron transferred out of the program during the middle of last season, and Regan followed suit shortly after its conclusion.
“I’m not going to say we’re going to be free from this issue as we progress in recruiting,” Bennett said. “But I think we’re getting a better handle on what will work here and what we’re trying to get and filling holes, where your initial class – especially when you have six scholarships – you’re trying to get as many guys as you can that you think fit.”
When Bennett was hired in the spring of 2009, he had six scholarships to fill for the following year’s recruiting class. Of those six, Bennett on Monday described Harrell – a 6-foot-4 guard from Montgomery, Ala. – and Johnson – a 6-foot-9 forward from Wildomar, Calif. – as “sort of unknowns” because neither player had competed for his respective high school team during his junior season (the season immediately preceding Bennett’s hire at Virginia).
Bennett and his staff saw Harrell and Johnson play during summer AAU basketball tournaments and, as Bennett said, “had to make some pretty quick evaluations.” Bennett and his assistants were looking for “system guys” and they thought they’d found two in Harrell and Johnson.
Johnson – who was very raw in terms of basketball skill but whose natural athleticism bolstered his potential – ended up redshirting his first year at Virginia. Harrell played in all 31 games as a freshman, including 15 starts. He averaged 22.2 minutes per game.
This year, Johnson was expected to provide interior depth behind two starting seniors (Mike Scott and Assane Sene) and gain experience that would be more valuable in future seasons. But after playing in six of Virginia’s first eight games (averaging 6.2 minutes per contest), Johnson did not see the court in the Cavaliers’ past three outings. He had fallen behind freshman forward Darion Atkins in a rotation Bennett prefers to keep tight.
Bennett said he and other assistants had discussed playing time with Johnson throughout the early part of the season and implored him to endure despite the absence of immediate gratification for all his hard work.
Of late, they’d been having similar discussions with Harrell, as well. After starting the first five games of the season, Harrell was relegated to the bench. His playing time had diminished in Virginia’s past six games, a consequence Harrell’s own struggles, fifth-year senior guard Sammy Zeglinski’s return to health and freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon’s impressive performance thus far.
During Virginia’s two-game West Coast road trip last week, Harrell did not play more than seven minutes in either contest. He was shooting 31.5 percent from the field on the season. Bennett has five guys rotate into three guard positions in his lineup, and Harrell – despite his recent offensive woes – was in that rotation.
“That’s why I was hoping KT would stay,” Bennett said. “Sometimes those things can turn around.”
The Cavaliers reconvened Sunday night for practice suddenly facing the prospect of being one injury or one bout of foul trouble away from being in a serious hole. Before the workout, Jesperson – a 6-foot-6 guard from Merrill, Wisc. – approached Bennett and informed his coach he was prepared to burn his redshirt, if need be.
Had only Johnson elected to transfer, Bennett said, he would have allowed Jesperson to continue redshirting this season. The coaches wanted Jesperson to sit out this season so that he could further develop his athleticism and strength. But with Harrell leaving, the Cavaliers needed a fifth to fill that five-man guard rotation.
And so Jesperson’s first collegiate game action will come much sooner than initially expected. He’ll likely play Tuesday night when Virginia hosts Maryland-Eastern Shore.
“It’s not ideal,” Bennett said. “But the one thing about Paul that he has – there will be certainly an adjustment – but he has good feel. His strength is his feel for the game. He passes well. He’s a threat to shoot it.”
As for the big picture, Bennett pointed out that with the inability to please every player’s desire for ample playing time and with the increasingly short periods in which players are willing to wait to have that desire met, many coaches are opting not to carry 13 scholarship players – the NCAA maximum – on their roster each season. Bennett said several coaches are choosing instead to utilize 10 or 11 scholarship players and hand out the rest to walk-ons.
But Bennett said he would not alter his approach to the way he manages his team. He does not believe he or his staff has treated any current or former player unfairly. Bennett does believe that if a player feels it’s in his best interest to leave, then it’s probably best for that player and for the team that he do so.
Bennett said he’s asked every group of seniors he’s ever coached how many times they thought about transferring during their time in college, and they usually end up laughing about the totals. When he played for his father, Dick Bennett, at Wisconsin-Green Bay, Bennett said, he thought about transferring “about 15 times” in his first two seasons.
“I think everybody goes through that,” Bennett said. “It’s just that guys are acting on it more now than they did in the past.”