Pitt’s basketball program has suffered a number of setbacks since the end of the 2016-17 season. The team had six players transfer with eligibility remaining, one commit not qualify and another ask for his release from his letter of intent. Some of those departures were expected. Others, not so much and the fallout from one continues to effect the program.
I had a long conversation with Pitt head coach Kevin Stallings earlier this summer and this is the second part in a series from that conversation. (Part one, focusing on transferring guard Mailk Ellison, can be found here.)
Stallings didn’t name names, but he said that the transfers of players like Crisshawn Clark, Corey Manigault and Rozelle Nix were more expected than they were unexpected.
But two others have stuck with Stallings. When he put together his expected starting lineup for the 2017-18 season, it included shooting guard Cameron Johnson and point guard Aaron Thompson. Instead, those players will be on the roster of other schools this season.
Thompson, who was supposed to be a part of the team’s 2017 recruiting class, asked for and received his release from his National Letter of Intent after having signed with Pitt in November. He instead committed to Butler University. Johnson graduated early and announced Tuesday his intent to transfer to North Carolina.
Stallings permitted Thompson to be released. He didn’t have to. According to the letter of NCAA rules, once a player signs, they must complete one year of residence at another school before they can become eligible. But while that’s what the rulebook says, Stallings is cognizant that in 2017, it’s not a popular one.
“Even the national letter-of-intent now is is basically meaningless because if a kid wants out of it, then the schools really no longer have the ability to say no,” Stallings said. “They can, but they’re going to take a beating from from the media.”
While Stallings acknowledged that he allowed Thompson to pursue other opportunities out of a desire to avoid public scrutiny, he and the university’s athletic department have dug their heels in when it comes to Johnson’s potential eligibility with the Tar Heels.
Pitt has been continually blasted by analysts far and wide for continuing to restrict the transfer of Johnson, who has two years of eligibility remaining after graduating a year early from Pitt.
“I started this process believing that having graduated from Pitt, I should have instantly been granted an unconditional release,” Johnson wrote to the News Observer in a statement on Tuesday. “I feel that should be available to any student-athlete who earns their degree.”
A Pitt athletics statement responded with something of a rebuttal, but left the door open to potentially reversing the school’s initial decision.
“The University of Pittsburgh followed the NCAA processes and our institutional policies as they are written. The NCAA is currently evaluating the graduate transfer rule and its application to this situation. We are awaiting their response.”
Stallings is obviously displeased with not only Johnson’s decision to leave Pitt, but also to transfer to an in-conference opponent. It isn’t something that’s common in college athletics, but it has happened, and it’s probably going to become more common in the future. That makes the school’s decision on Johnson precedent-setting and likely why they have been resistant to relent.
“There’s nothing binding anymore in in college basketball,” Stallings lamented.
But he also acknowledged that complaining about it isn’t likely to change it. If anything, the public momentum is on the side of even more freedom of movement for college athletes. It’s up to coaches to adjust.
“You have to keep recruiting the guys on your team,” Stallings said. “Because they all have people telling them, ‘Hey, you can go over here and get more shots or get more minutes.’ That’s what we have now. That horse has left the barn and that’s what we have. It’s the society were dealing with and and so we have to find ways to do a better job of maintaining our players and and keeping our players.”
Stallings’ hope is that once he has time to fill the Pitt program with players and recruits that signed up to play for him, that process will slow down, especially if he brings in the kind of young men he’s looking for.
“Obviously, when you first come into a program, that’s when there’s going to be the greatest volatility in terms of people leaving,” he said. “Hopefully, we will get guys in here that want to be a part of of the kind of culture that we’re trying to build, they’ll have an appreciation for how they’re treated and the opportunities they have here and we can we can build a program that people can really be proud of.”